A boat race without water

I’ve spent two weeks trying to translate the madness and frivolity of the Henley on Todd Regatta into words, and have failed miserably. It’s the kind of event that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Nonetheless, I’ve given it a shot. I’ve included lots of photos to help illustrate the lunacy that occurred in Alice Springs on August 19.

This is a long one, so please settle in with your beverage of choice.


In my home state of Tasmania, the Royal Hobart Regatta was a yearly excursion for our family. My Dad, a keen sailor, would drag us down to the Derwent River to watch boats of all sizes race across the water, with a few rowing sculls and jet skis thrown in for entertainment.

As you probably know, Hobart is a great place to hold a regatta because it’s surrounded by water. Alice Springs doesn’t have a lot of water. In fact, it doesn’t have any water at all. By the time August rolls around it’s five months since the last drop of rain hit town and the riverbed is bone dry, but that doesn’t stop the locals from holding a day of water races every year.

The Henley on Todd Regatta (HoT) is held on the third Saturday of August in the waterless Todd River. The Rotary Club of Alice Springs started it as a fundraiser in 1962, and it has grown in size and reputation ever since.

The HoT shares its name with the most famous regatta in the world - the Royal Henley Regatta in Britain – but that’s about all the events have in common. One imagines the Henley on Thames is a sea of men wearing Polo t-shirts and ladies sipping Pimms. You’ll find none of that nonsense in Alice Springs. Here the men are donned in Viking furs and budgie smugglers, and the women can finish a can of Great Northern in one go.

A Viking charges his sword to the Henley on Todd crowd in Alice Springs

A Viking charges his sword to the Henley on Todd crowd in Alice Springs

A competitor waits for the highly anticipated budgie smuggler race in the dry sand of the Todd River

A competitor waits for the highly anticipated budgie smuggler race in the dry sand of the Todd River

I expect the British Henley Regatta has a long list of strict rules and regulations that must be followed to ensure each team has a fair and equitable chance of victory. In the Territory we follow Pirate rules, which means that whoever crosses the line first wins (no matter how much cheating or sabotage has taken place). I believe our government have also adopted this approach.

Vikings jump in to help the Navy team in the tug of war competition while a pirate tries to distract them

Vikings jump in to help the Navy team in the tug of war competition while a pirate tries to distract them

MC Eli Melky gives this team a helping hand around the buoy during the boogie board race

MC Eli Melky gives this team a helping hand around the buoy during the boogie board race

The 2017 HoT started innocently enough with the ‘BYO Boat’ race. In this event, people are invited to bring their own bottomless vessels to race around the river. I think this was my favourite event because contestants could get creative and show the crowd their personalities; in most other events the vessel was provided.

The best BYO boat was a yellow submarine crewed by a group of blokes in matching nautical outfits. When asked by event MC Eli Melky how long it took to design and build, the spokesperson replied “about two days and two cartons”.

As the first boats took to the competition course, conditions were perfect for sailing: clear skies, perfect visibility, and warm south-easterly breeze. The eventual winners of the race were a team of speedy local lads from Yirara College, who blitzed the field and finished boat lengths ahead of their competitors.

This Beatles inspired entry was my pick of the BYO boats. I particularly like the propellor and the red trim around the man hole.

This Beatles inspired entry was my pick of the BYO boats. I particularly like the propellor and the red trim around the man hole.

The Flight Centre team was my second favourite entry, crewing the first Qantas flight to ever crash.

The Flight Centre team was my second favourite entry, crewing the first Qantas flight to ever crash.

The team from Yirara College read the conditions perfectly and blazed their way around the course

The team from Yirara College read the conditions perfectly and blazed their way around the course

If the BYO boat race was a chance for contestants to show their personalities, the budgie smuggler race was a chance for them to show the crowd everything else. The race required men and (brave) women to jolt across the hot sand dressed only in a pair of swimming togs. In a field of five men just two of them wore the traditional speedos, with the others opting for boxer briefs. The disappointment in the crowd was obvious. One woman later said to me, “That’s a shame, I wanted to see some bollocks flapping around.”

It was still an entertaining race, with Barack Obama crossing the finish line first.

Clive Peters, Barrack Obama, and a couple of Tony Abbotts line up before the budgie smuggler race

Clive Peters, Barrack Obama, and a couple of Tony Abbotts line up before the budgie smuggler race

There was no where to hide as the lads ran across the the sand

There was no where to hide as the lads ran across the the sand

That awkward moment when you run into someone and you're both in your togs. There was a lot of flesh on flesh.

That awkward moment when you run into someone and you're both in your togs. There was a lot of flesh on flesh.

I think the main reason I liked the Henley On Todd so much is that it’s basically a whole day of watching people fall over in different ways: running with a group of people in a boat; sprinting along the river in a pretend kayak; tangled up with other competitors in the lolly scramble; dragging your child along the sand on a boogy board; or trying to walk with your feet strapped to two wooden planks with three other people.

A strong gust of wind takes the sails of this maxi as the Navy navigates around this buoy

A strong gust of wind takes the sails of this maxi as the Navy navigates around this buoy

With large clunky frames, the kayaks were deceptively difficult to carry along the sand

With large clunky frames, the kayaks were deceptively difficult to carry along the sand

The lolly scramble was one of the most ferocious events of the day, I wouldn't get between these kids and a chupa chup.

The lolly scramble was one of the most ferocious events of the day, I wouldn't get between these kids and a chupa chup.

Things came unstuck when this team turned the buoy in the boogie board race. THE DAD'S T-SHIRT KILLS ME.

Things came unstuck when this team turned the buoy in the boogie board race. THE DAD'S T-SHIRT KILLS ME.

A pirate helps this team coordinate their steps during the skiing event

A pirate helps this team coordinate their steps during the skiing event

But by far the best event for spills was the Tour de Todd, alternatively known as the human hamster wheel.

Although some people were disappointingly cautious, there were plenty of contestants who had enough Dutch courage to go faster than they were capable of going. This led to numerous ways people fell over, I shall recount them know for my own entertainment.

  1. The competitor is thrown off balance and clings to the wheel as it falls over. The least satisfying fall to watch.
  2. The competitor falls over in the wheel and does an involuntary head stand. These were the most horrifying to watch, I’m surprised no one got a serious neck injury.
  3. The competitor loses their footing and falls out of the wheel, after which both the contestant and their wheel roll independently and uncontrollably along the sand while volunteers try to hone in the driverless wheel. Brilliant.
  4. The competitor falls over in the wheel and does a full rotation pinned to it, like an actual hamster. The king of all Tour de Todd falls.
Competitors in the Tour de Todd roll along in front of the VIP tent

Competitors in the Tour de Todd roll along in front of the VIP tent

The lads from the Navy team took a different approach to the Tour de Todd

The lads from the Navy team took a different approach to the Tour de Todd

An example of fall number three. How did this competitor get all the way behind the yellow wheel after being ejected from the blue one?

An example of fall number three. How did this competitor get all the way behind the yellow wheel after being ejected from the blue one?

Right next to the human hamsters was the ‘anchor the boat’ race, which was a tug of war event. Each team pulled a rope attached to a boat on a perch; the winning team was the one that pulled the boat off their side of the perch. The Vikings were crowned the eventual winners.

My colleague, who was besotted with becoming a Viking, got to present the team with their medals. She struck up a conversation…

“How does one become a Viking,” she asked.

“YOU SLEEP WITH A VIKING,” one boomed.

The 'anchor the boat' race, sponsored by the best paper in Australia!

The 'anchor the boat' race, sponsored by the best paper in Australia!

A team from the Alice Springs Hospital gives it their all (with the help of some Vikings at the back)

A team from the Alice Springs Hospital gives it their all (with the help of some Vikings at the back)

The powdery riverbed of the Todd made it hard to get a good grip, with many feet disappearing under the sand.

The powdery riverbed of the Todd made it hard to get a good grip, with many feet disappearing under the sand.

The Viking, Pirate, and Navy teams are all permanent fixtures in the HoT, as they are the only three ships that participate in the penultimate event: the Battle Boat Spectacular. The competition is decided by which team garners the most crowd support, so the teams roam the HoT grounds all day in full costume and character, storming the competition arena to sabotage races, start a water fight, or kidnap someone from an opposing team. I don’t think a minute went by without a hearing a hearty “Go the Pirates!” or raucous “Go the Vikings” bellowing from somewhere in the riverbed.

The Navy team were a bit more tame, perhaps that’s because the ACTUAL Navy was in attendance. That’s right, real Navy officers travelled down from Darwin to participate in some of the events and lend support to their theatrical counterparts. We don't have a Navy base in Alice Springs, for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

One of the events the real Navy officers participated in was Alice Springs’ answer to the America’s Cup, The Australia Cup. The boat race was hotly contested between defence boats from Pine Gap (the Americans), Norforce (Australian Army), and of course the Australian Navy.

The USS Freedom put in a valiant effort, but they were no match for the team from Norforce, who sailed the conditions perfectly and crossed the line first. John Bertrand would have been proud.

The Americans proudly fly their flag in the lead up to the Australia's Cup

The Americans proudly fly their flag in the lead up to the Australia's Cup

Norforce overtook the USS Freedom on the home stretch to snatch victory in this year's Australia's Cup.

Norforce overtook the USS Freedom on the home stretch to snatch victory in this year's Australia's Cup.

There were plenty of other events - too many to go into more detail - but as a summary here's a montage of photos for a visual (everyone loves a montage).

The kids were kept entertained the with egg and spoon race, and the rubber ducky sprint

The kids were kept entertained the with egg and spoon race, and the rubber ducky sprint

This team, aptly named Smashing Alice, celebrate their victory in the "Head of the River"

This team, aptly named Smashing Alice, celebrate their victory in the "Head of the River"

The sweaty and sandy "bilge clean" event made for some great photos

The sweaty and sandy "bilge clean" event made for some great photos

The crowd at Cape Todd enjoy the action on the arena

The crowd at Cape Todd enjoy the action on the arena

This team were a bit optimistic when they decided to swap roles halfway through the boogie board race

This team were a bit optimistic when they decided to swap roles halfway through the boogie board race

The Navy cheer on their competitor in the surf rescue event

The Navy cheer on their competitor in the surf rescue event

When the Battle Boat Spectacular finally came around I wasn’t allowed in the arena - not because of the water but because there are live canons on the boats. I’ll repeat that again, there are LIVE CANONS on the boats shooting flour bombs. I was happy to stay out of the way.

You’ll have to look at the photos for this one because words can’t describe how bonkers it was. The madness lasted about ten minutes, by that point everyone was covered in a fetching mix of flour, sand, and water, including the crowd. The Battle Boat Spectacular certainly lived up to its name.

After the official voting process the Vikings were crowned the 2017 champions by a margin of two decibels. They celebrated in true Viking style by downing a few horns of ale and mead before going home to wash their loincloths.

What the actual fuck?

What the actual fuck?

This is the wettest the Todd River has been for months

This is the wettest the Todd River has been for months

The poor crowd didn't know what hit them

The poor crowd didn't know what hit them

Long live the Vikings! 2017 Battle Boat champions

Long live the Vikings! 2017 Battle Boat champions

If you’re thinking about visiting the outback at some stage I highly recommend you time your trip to see the Henley on Todd Regatta. The frivolous fun and outright debauchery will make you feel like a kid again. I still have a smile on my face thinking about the day.

While I enjoyed shooting the HoT I’m becoming acutely aware that by photographing these events I’m not actually taking part in any of them, and I feel like I spend a lot of time watching life instead of participating in it. If anyone would like to join me next year I’m keen to put down the camera and be part of the action. I already have two cartons ready and waiting for our boat design session.


Emma Murray is a documentary photographer based in Alice Springs. The Alice Years is a personal project documenting life in and around the red centre.