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’.