Friday, 27 July 2012

Skiffing with the Olympic Torch Relay

Rowing has provided me with many fantastic experiences, and one of the best was taking part in the final stage of the London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay. 

Despite the (very) early hour, the riverbanks were lined with people. The brand new Royal barge Gloriana, launched for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, only a few weeks earlier, and crewed on this occasion by former British Olympic rowing medallists, had had a special flame cauldron installed in her bows, ready to take the flame when Sir Matthew Pinsent arrived with the torch. 

But this wasn't a voyage that Gloriana would be making alone...

The swan and the ugly ducklings
The official plan was that the flame would travel from Hampton Court to the Olympic Park in Greenwich, on board Gloriana. For the first part of this river progress, as far as Richmond, this majestic craft, covered in gold twiddly bits, including a couple of heraldic lions, and with eight flagpoles mounted on her indescribably ornate cabin, was to be accompanied by Thames Skiffs; from Richmond, her escort would change to junior rowers in quads (I think); and finally some cutters, possibly associated with various.

When you see a skiff on its own, many people remark on the beautiful wooden craftsmanship. But next to Gloriana, we were definitely the "ugly ducklings". But that was the point. So, whilst Gloriana was moored right outside Hampton Court Palace, we mustered above Hampton Court Bridge as part of a flotilla made up of about 30 skiffs from the racing skiff clubs, and also including private boats, some of which were definitely traditional, wooden, and rowed, although not actually Thames Skiffs (one was a Shetland yole, for example). 

After the whole flotilla set off, a few plastic kayaks tried to join in, and were swiftly removed from the fairway by the Police boat!

My club, Thames Valley Skiff Club, owns seven double skiffs, and numerous members had expressed enthusiasm for being there at 5.15am to take part. Rather than leave anyone out, we crammed four to a boat, or in the case of my boat, five, but the girl squeezed in the bows was only 11, so we were only a little bit low in the water.

The skiff in the foreground contains our club's
Olympian in his previously-unworn shorts.
One member of our club rowed at three Olympic Games (1984-1992), and turned up for the event wearing some casual shorts that were official GB team issue from Barcelona. "How appropriate!", we remarked, and he explained that today was the first time he'd taken them out of their packet – exactly 20 years after he'd competed. Perfect.

Colour scheme
Every boat had been issued with a white and gold flag – the theme colours of the torch relay, and we'd been instructed to wear tent-sized white shirts that had been issued. Keen to stand out in pictures, I'd managed to buy a bulk order of yellow caps (our club colours are yellow and black), which proved very useful for distinguishing us from the other boats full of white-shirted skiffers. 

Royal progress
The torch was behind schedule arriving on Gloriana, which was quite an achievement given it was the start of the day, but before arriving at the river bank it had been taken, iconically, round Hampton Court maze. Presumably someone got lost?

Spot our yellow caps in the foreground.
But we were eventually off, the river churned with so many boats vying for position, whilst also taking photos, and waving to the vast crowds lining the banks, not just at Hampton court, but on down the river. 

We were all under strict instructions NOT to pass Gloriana, who was to remain at the head of the Royal progress; inevitably, our former Olympian skiffer felt that this was a "challenge" and almost made it before being "marshalled" back.

We were more than happy sitting near the back of the pack, soaking up the atmosphere and pointing out the sights. All of the cruisers and narrow boats that are permanently moored along this stretch are usually deserted – but today every single one seemed to be hosting some kind of breakfast party, most were decked out with bunting and balloons, and we particularly like a baby that someone was holding up, which was dressed as a Olympic Torch with a "flame" hat. And don't forget, this was before the games had actually started, and Britain developed Olympic fever. It was definitely a taste of things to come.

Gloriana at Teddington Lock.
Five kilometres or so later, we got to Teddington lock, which has two chambers: Gloriana had a private one, and us skiffs crammed into the next one. Even there, the crowds were three deep, and it wasn't even 8am yet. 

Some flapjacks were shared out in our crew - and with neighbouring skiffs. The whole flotillas was buzzing with excitement, and some drizzle did nothing to dampen our spirits.

How many skiffs can you get into a lock?
there were still TV helicopters buzzing overhead ass we left the lock, and swept on past Ell Pie Island, Ham and eventually through Richmond Bridge, where the heavens opened and just as we sadly, but obediently, left Gloriana to continue down river on her historic journey.

Unexpectedly, I spotted a friend, who works in nearby Sheen, on the bank at this point, taking photos and running along with the skiffs. "Shouldn't you be at work?", I called: it emerged that his patriotic boss had decided to open two hours later than usual that day so his staff could enjoy the spectacle: a great example of the Olympic spirit of bonhomie that was soon to take over London, and much of the rest of the country. 

Of course, this isn't an example of expedition rowing that is likely to be repeated in any of our lifetimes, but I hope you've enjoyed reading about how much a few ordinary rowers enjoyed taking part in just a tiny piece of what definitely became the biggest show in the World in 2012.

Some of Thames Valley Skiff Club's Olympic
Torch Relay participants in the rain at Richmond.

The video below shows just a little of the atmosphere of the event: points to note include the a brief view of some of the skiff flotilla at about 20sec in; massive crowds;  and Gloriana's side-thrusters in action. We might have been totally powered by oars, but she was built with quite a few pieces of modern technology aboard!

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