An Oarsome Race

On Saturday I competed in my first UK Traditional Boat Championship, the Great River Race, rowing 21.6 miles from London Docklands to Ham in Surrey, with seven fellow crew from the Bristol Pilot Gig Boat Club. Regarded as London’s river marathon, Time Out describe the Great River Race as “Less po-faced than the Oxbridge race and a lot more colourful” and it certainly was!

314 crews entered from all over the globe, including the United Sates, Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Palestine. It was quite a sight to see 314 rowing boats of all shapes and sizes being launched at once from the muddy banks of the Thames. It was total chaos on the water at race start, but everyone was in a good mood and the sun was shining.

Crews making their way to their boats for the race start at Milwall.

Some crews were in their club colours, whilst others opted for fantastic fancy dress outfits. I saw Hiawatha coxing one gig boat, a skiff full of convicts, a dragon boat of fairies and it looked like St. Cuthbert and Maid Marion had been resurrected in another Cornish gig sponsored by the beer, Tribute!

Looking fabulous, but I wouldn’t want to row in those outfits; quite a bit of chafe I imagine!

I had little appreciation beforehand of the variety of rowing boats that would be competing in the endurance race: Skiffs, Celtic Longboats, Cornish Pilot Gigs, Thames Waterman Cutters, Whalers, Lifeboats, Hawaiian Outriggers, Dragonboats, Seine boats and Skerrys, to name just a few! Nor had I appreciated that the Great River Race is an event that’s been going for 32 years and is hosted and organised by a guild; the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames to be exact. This explains the rather brief, but very specific race entry requirements and rules:

“The race is open to any traditional boat, or traditional-style replica, powered by a minimum of four oars or paddles; however sliding seats and riggers are not allowed. We insist that all boats fly a flag and carry both a cox (who steers using a rudder) and a pilot (passenger) in the spirit of the Watermen who plied their trade on this river for centuries.”

Given that there’s such a variety of rowing boats competing in the race, the race committee use a handicapping system to make allowances for the size and weight of boat and the number of oars used to power them. The slowest boats start first in a rolling start marked by the presence of a beautiful Thames Barge in the middle of the river. The small dingys, Dorys and Salter Skiffs went first, whilst the speedy Hawaiian Outriggers and Dragonboats started last. I was in a Cornish Pilot Gig Boat so we started 45 minutes after the first boats off the start line.

A Dutch crew in an 8 oared sloop
The slower boats heading off first for the start line.
Big gigs and skiffs
Happy to be slipping our lines at last. I began the race in the pilot seat.

Despite all the depressing realities of British politics, indeed global politics right now, it was nonetheless quite extraordinary and exciting to row past Westminster/ Parliament hearing the cheering crowds from the river banks and bridge. It’s a memory I know I will treasure forever and was fortunately captured by Zoe on her mobile phone as she was in the pilot seat at the time (we rotated the cox and pilot seats throughout the race).

I also recall the pleasure and thrill of rowing past a supportive gathering of people on their house boat letting off fireworks that rained glitter and sparkles on the crews below and the man who had turned out to play his violin whilst half-submerged in the river was also a magic sight. It was a day that honoured the best of amateur sport and demonstrated how a sport can unite people despite cultural differences and physical ability.

My crew in a Cornish Pilot Gig called Wapping Wharf as we approach the finish line in front of Ham House.
The shot that marked us crossing the finish line in under 3 hours. Exhausted, but very, very happy.

The race results were published today so I can now say we came 168th out of 304 boats to complete the distance, but we were the 141st fastest boat to finish with a time of 2 hours 57 minutes and 55 seconds. Out of our class, we finished in 31st place out of the 51 Cornish Pilot Gigs that were entered. It would have been a bonus to have finished towards the top, but I am also just feeling very satisfied that we entered and completed the race, which given we’d never rowed together and most of us had never rowed for more than an hour at any one time before, is quite a feat!

Approaching Richmond. 3 miles from the finish line.

The Great River Race has opened my eyes to an international traditional boat racing world that I never knew existed and I finished the day knowing I certainly want more of it! I now have my sights set on a cross-channel row or an ocean crossing….Never say “never”!

I end this blog post just in time to cycle into the city for an evening row on Bristol’s floating harbour and clean the murky Thames grime off our gig. There’s also the beautiful completion certificates from the guild that I need to distribute to my fellow crew this evening, but as the rain clouds gather outside my window, I’m thinking I need to find a way to keep them dry!

A proud recipient of this certificate!
Enjoying a well earnt pint 5 hours after leaving the Docklands with my fellow crew.
L to R: Jo, Zoe, Lucy, Sarah, Gerald, me, Lydia and Kay. We are a mixed crew of Women’s A and B squad, as well as non-competitive open rowers and Super Vets.

I write this on a post-race high knowing that the men’s squads in my club are all facing the 2nd biggest gig rowing championships in the annual fixtures this coming weekend in the Newquay County Championships (so they’ll all be out training hard tonight) and that my sailing crew on Punta del Este are pushing hard into the 2nd day of race 2/leg 1 having departed from Portimao in Portugal 30 hours ago. They have played their joker and are now having to negotiate light airs off the coast of Morocco, whilst weighing up their tactical options for the Azores.

RACE 2 – DAY 1

Jeronimo Santos Gonzalez

A part of my heart is on the Thames and another part of my heart afloat in the Atlantic with my team. Rowing or sailing, both encapsulate the rawness of being outdoors in all weathers and being intimately aware of how tide, winds, visibility and temperature affect technique, skill and effort. Both are sports that require constant spatial awareness and multisensory attention. No time for nagging work-related worries. In a boat I am in the flow, both literally and metaphorically. It feels good.

The sky is not my limit…I am.

T. F. Hodge quoted in ‘Four Mums in a Boat: Friends who rowed 3000 miles, broke a world record and learnt a lot about life along the way’.

It’s not over, until it’s over.

It’s been quite a week! In the space of 7 days I have seen off the fleet at race start from Southend Pier in Essex, quietly seen in another year of mine and my husband’s life on this earth, hosted a big international, 4-day conference with my academic colleagues at Bath University – Death, Dying and Disposal – only to finally return home to Bristol, conk-out on the sofa in exhaustion, then wake up on Monday to the incredible news that my team had managed to climb up the leader board over the course of a day and come into Portimao marina FIRST! Yes, that’s right, Punta del Este have done it; they’d won the 1st race of Leg 1 in an 11 month endurance race around the globe. I am indescribably proud of them as I know they must have pushed so hard to make the absolutely gripping come back that they did. As one of the crew reported: ” What a finish! The rapidly changing weather between the systems made the final approach more than interesting. The wind was increasing from the east and Punta managed to play the wind like no other boat propelling themselves to third place on the rhumb line (straight line to destination). Meanwhile, Qingdao went out to cover Unicef to find both boats “parked” in a wind hole. This was Punta’s chance to take first position!” …And so they did!

I hope that right now as I type this, they are getting much needed sleep, but also basking in their glory. It’s a magical start to what we all hope, will be the best thing we’ve done with our lives to date. But the firsts don’t stop there! Punta del Este also won the ocean sprint section with the fastest time, which gives the team an additional 3 points. Our Skipper, Jeronimo, reports that it was winning the ocean sprint that gave him and my crew mates on leg 1 the focus and motivation to push hard and use all the fuel in their tanks to bag 1st place into Portimao Marina, Portugal.

A team member captured this gripping moment on the Race Viewer

Unfortunately all the live footage of the fleets arrival at the end of race 1 is restricted to Facebook use only, so I can’t upload the fantastic Clipper Race Live footage here. This Clipper write up will have to suffice; PUNTA DEL ESTE WINS RACE TO PORTIMÃO

Below are the overall race standings at the end of Race 1 / Leg 1. None of the teams have played their Joker yet, but I do wonder if Punta del Este might do so in Race 2 with their confidence high from winning race 1 and the fact that the end of race 2/Leg 1 is the yacht’s sponsor…watch this space!


Yesterday morning Louise Ware, Jeronimo’s wife, touchingly wrote on the Facebook homepage of Crew, Family and Friends of Team Punta del Este: “I’m Jeronimo’s wife. It’s my dad’s 74th birthday today. In many ways, it is a miracle he is still here. When I woke him up I gave him a cup of tea in bed and his birthday card, with the news that Punta Del Este had won the first leg of the Round The World Race. “Yeeeeeeeeeeesssssss! Go on my son!” he cried, “best birthday present ever.”

I am a person who notices signs and coincidences everywhere in my life, so I rather like the fact that I share my birthday within a few days with Jeronimo’s father-in-law. Indeed, we noted during yacht delivery to St. Katherine’s Dock that there are a significant number of fellow Virgos among Punta del Este crew; I take that as an auspicious sign, irrespective of rational answers!

Continuing the theme of signs and coincidences, I was excited and surprised that a childhood friend I grew up with in the small High Peak village of Edale (the official start or finish of the Pennine Way to those of you who enjoy long-distance hiking through driving rain and bog) happened to be on holiday with her partner in Lagos and messaged me to say: “I’m obsessed with your race today. We’re in Lagos in Portugal on holidays and all day I’ve been watching the boats with no wind! Punta del Este making an amazing comeback from 7th to 3rd…. this racing thing is exciting! Hope your keeping well and not too jealous of those afloat… xxx”

So I promptly messaged her back to let her know she’d be welcome to take a trip over to Portimao marina to step aboard and give my congratulations to the team. I was chuffed to bits that she promptly did that and took some pictures and I think it’s really quite amazing that a childhood friend just so happened to witness Punta del Este’s victory at the end of Race 1. Smiles all round.

It was confirmed by my friend that yes, that is indeed a red carpet on the pontoon! Here Punta del Este is moored on the same pontoon as Visit Sanya. Punta del Este finished the race at 00:45:22 UTC, whilst Visit Sanya finished the race in 5th position at 03:17:22 UTC on Monday 9th September.

All in all, it’s been an incredible week in the wider sailing world too, because the day before Punta del Este sailed into Portimao to win race 1, a woman I am greatly inspired by (hence why I have her blog linked to my blog’s home-page) completed her solo, non-stop, unassisted circumnavigation aged 77! Joanne Socrates is an inspiration to us all and gives me hope to keep my dream alive that one day I will circumnavigate the world’s oceans. She was alone at sea for 330 days and used her incredible voyage to raise money for the RNLI. I am in awe of her courage, resilience and skill. Congratulations to Joanne Socrates and my team, Punta del Este!

The race of our lives has officially begun

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I saw the start of a yacht race and no ordinary race either, but the Clipper 2019/20 RTW yacht race with my crew mates aboard Punta del Este vying with 10 other identical Clipper 70 yachts at 10am on the start line just off Southend pier in Essex. I feel like I have just waved off my children, wondering if and when I’ll see them again! I didn’t sleep a wink last night for thinking about how they were doing, what they’d likely be doing on board and how everyone must be feeling after a momentous weekend in the public eye and much hand shaking and flag waving. The last 4 days have been a blur of speeches, blessings, hugs, flag waving, greetings, drinks receptions and heightened emotions. I have not done much sleeping nor eating of hearty meals if truth be told.

I am now adding the Clipper race viewer to an already growing list of things that help me procrastinate with academic work on a daily basis. I have been rather glued to it waiting to see who will strike out from the fleet and lead on over the horizon towards the finish line of Race 1 off Portimao in Portugal in about a week’s time. I love the significance of the publication date for the first Crew Diary entry and Skipper’s daily report from the boat – both being my birthday – so I hope that’s an auspicious start to the race for Punta del Este!

But before these were both posted from the boat on the 3rd September, St. Katherine’s Dock and Southend Pier had seen a lot of frenzied activity, media crews and displays of strong emotions, which for me, began with our yacht’s naming ceremony on Friday 30th August.

Race Start officially kicked off with our racing yacht being named at 6pm on Friday 30th August in St Katherine’s Dock by the Commodore of Punta del Este yacht club (far right) and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (middle) with one of our team member’s, Fernando, from Uruguay.

The crew who are on Leg 1 and the circumnavigators (of which our team has only 8 out of a crew of 69) were joined by other Punta del Este leggers, such as myself and Sue (pictured below). We cheered on our crew with much chanting of “Vamos! Punta del Este” and waving of anything matching our team/boat colour, as well as the pennant for Punta del Este yacht club (our team’s boat sponsor). Our cheering and chanting could be heard from St. Katherine’s Dock all the way down the Thames estuary to Southend Pier.

Family and friends turned out to see Punta del Este slip her lines and motor down the Thames in the 11-strong fleet, accompanied by media in helicopters and accompanying vessels of all sizes on the Thames. The atmosphere was electric and I was quite emotional at the thought that the next time I am on the Thames hearing “Vamos! Punta del Este” I will have just sailed in the Pacific and across the Atlantic and be coming home myself after 3.5 months on board; that’s in just under a year from now – a few weeks before my next birthday.

A lovely surprise for my family and friends who had turned up to share in this momentous day was seeing the iconic Tower Bridge opening up to allow the fleet of Clipper 70s to pass down the Thames.

Team Punta del Este was leading the fleet down the Thames since Punta del Este is the destination all the yachts are sailing to marking the official end of Leg 1. Their estimated arrival window is the 14-16th October 2019.

I was joined for the Parade of Sail by some family and friends and they all did me and the team proud by sporting (unofficial) Punta del Este team t-shirts (despite all declaring that yellow “wasn’t their colour”!) and the two youngest supporters in our gang had even been practicing the Spanish lyrics to our team song the night before! I was so proud of them.

A close friend and her daughter looking fabulous in yellow.
My kind-hearted mother-in-law and my number 1 junior crew supporter.
I think yellow rather suits my dad.
My number one supporter! My husband, Dave.
Capturing our Race Skipper’s ambition (aside from winning of course)!
I hadn’t got the heart to tel her they were upside down!
Skipper with fellow Spanish crew and the Commodore of Punta del Este yacht club, just before slipping the lines from St. Katherine’s Dock
Marking the start of our parade onto the stage as a team to wave off friends and family.
Punta del Este crew, well,some of us anyway.
Captures our hopes!
All I kept thinking as I observed my team from the spectator boat was “I wonder how they must be feeling and what they’re thinking?”

All the spectator boats left the fleet at the Thames barrier where they continued to motor down river and we turned back towards Tower Bridge. The following day I was up very early to make my way to Essex from Fenchurch Street train station to catch the fleet begin their 40,000 nautical mile circumnavigation from Southend Pier. Three canons were fired to mark the official race start at 10am (GMT) on Monday 1st September. I watched the fleet jostle with each other to claim an advantageous start line position and then wrestle with their spinnaker hoists before sailing off into the horizon. I had very mixed emotions about not being aboard with my crew mates at this stage of the race, but as I walked back up the pier I thought, race aside, I just hope all the yachts and crew return safe and well in mind and body. We are all amateur crews, so it’s remarkable really that we’re even living this opportunity to race around the world under sail. I am privileged to be a part of it.

Given my inexperience of sailing, let alone racing, I do find these yachts a little too close for comfort.
They crossed the start line in the lead too!
Getting those spinnakers up in close quarters!
It looks like Punta del Este have Korea hot on their heels…or should that be stern? 😉
Heading out of the Thames Estuary towards the English Channel, with spinnakers flying.
The last photo I took of the fleet before turning my back and walking towards Southend’s shore. I will not see Punta del Este again until I fly to Seattle in late-April 2020. At this point I’m not sure how I feel about that.

So, the race of our lives has officially begun and for the next 7.5 months I will be vicariously living it with my crew via the Race Viewer and reading the daily Crew Diary posted from the yacht and the daily Skipper’s Report. As they say in sailing circles; “fair winds and following seas”.

You can watch the Clipper live stream of the race start below. Punta del Este appear about 16 minutes 24 seconds in.

…And as I publish this post I am pleased to say Punta del Este have climbed up the leader board into 4th place!