Eighty Defence Force personnel will take to the Whanganui River over three weekends to vie for places in a rowing team competing at the Henley Royal Regatta in England next year.

Their race will be a special centenary one, to mark 100 years since the Royal Peace Regatta in 1919, in which there were four Whanganui rowers in the New Zealand boat competing for the King's Cup.

The eight rowers, cox and two spares for the centenary race will be chosen during three try-out weekends based at the Union Boat Club in Whanganui. The officer in charge is Royal New Zealand Air Force Wing Commander Rhys Taylor, who is a rower and knows the river well.

He placed an ad on the Defence Force intranet, asking who would like to go, and got 80 responses. The prospective rowers are from all branches of defence, including civilians, and from all over New Zealand.

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The first 22 were put through their paces on the weekend. Their coach, Rachel Gamble-Flint, a former United Kingdom rower, was pleasantly surprised by their skill level.

"It's going to be hard decision for her to make," Taylor said.

A hundred years ago the teams competing in the peace regatta were all people who had served in World War I and were waiting to go home.

They were from New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the UK and the United States. The Australian team won, and have kept the King's Cup in their country.

Next year the same nations will be joined by crews from Italy, Germany and France. This time all the teams have to be mixed gender. The New Zealand team aimed to have four men and four women, Taylor said.

It will also have the original boat the Kiwis used in 1919. That "Army Eight" returned to New Zealand on a ship with the troops, and has been stored in and around Whanganui ever since. It's being restored and will be viewable, but not rowable.

The New Zealand crew chosen will spend three weeks in the UK - training and preparing, and getting to know people from other teams.

The regatta will be in the town of Henley-on-Thames, near London, before 100,000 people. For rowers, it's the pinnacle of a career, and similar to a world championship.

Taylor is excited about the race. He says it's an ideal project for Defence Force personnel because it relies on team spirit, commitment and overcoming adversity.