Saturday, 3 September 2016

12 reasons why the Great River Race really is great

In a fine example of that "six degrees of separation" thing, I got an email last Thursday evening from, let's call her A, who is a member of my skiff club. It was passed to her by a member of another rowing club she belongs to, now known as B. B had received it from C, who had taken a pretty scattergun approach after receiving a plea from D who had belatedly been told that the crew which someone else (not worthy of a letter) was going to provide for Saturday's Great River Race in London was not going to happen, and he needed five shipmates pronto. Owing to the C's broadcast, D had actually filled his empty seats by the time I replied, but by then D's wife (E) needed another rower for her crew as someone was ill.

And so it was that around 36 hours after I first got that email (and the lack of preparation was a guilty pleasure), I met what I was expecting to be a bunch of complete strangers under the clock in Waterloo Station on Saturday morning, only to discover that one of them was F, who I've known for nearly 20 years. Although, let's be honest, using rowing to prove the six degrees theory is no more scientific than using kittens to prove that wool tangles.

I don't know what PWR stands for but
I liked the Ratty on its flag.
None of which is anything to do with what makes the Great River Race so great, but it kicked my day off to an enjoyable start.

Great River Race BASICS
The GRR is a race for boats powered by at least four oars or paddles, which must be coxed and have a separate passenger (although crew members can change rules during the race). Neither riggers nor sliding seats are allowed (although OUTriggers are permitted on Hawaiian canoes which also get a special dispensation regarding coxes – the classifications are sufficiently complex and extensive that they would be more than adequate as a Specialist Subject on Mastermind), but fortunately there's nothing in the rules banning Lycra, Lucozade or GPS devices, three things that I can't contemplate an expedition row without.

A LOT of boats.
It's raced over 21.6 miles, up river on the Thames on the flood tide, from Millwall dock in London Docklands to Ham, passing under 26 (I think, I certainly wasn't counting) bridges en route, as well as a full Baedecker of iconic landmarks – Tower Bridge, the Shard, St Paul's Cathedral, Cleopatra's Needle, the Millennium Wheel, the Houses of Parliament, Union Jack tat sellers on Westminster Bridge, the Boat Race course, the Pink Lodge. Of course, you may not have time to take these sights in, as your eyes are pretty much permanently glued to stroke's blade, apart from the bits when you're frantically looking round at your own blade to avoid hitting another craft whilst executing the boaty equivalent of a manoeuvre that I gather polo players call "riding off".

These Dutch rowers may have regretted their choice
of headgear when practically the whole race
turned out to be into a screaming headwind.
Well over 300 boats take part these days, representing what seems like almost as many boat classes, with loads of Dutch and Irish crews coming over as well as a positive armada of Cornish pilot gigs.

I'd only taken part once before – in 1999 – and had quite forgotten quite what a wonderful experience it is. Here are only the 12 most salient reasons why:
  1. You have just never seen so many different types of rowing boat. 
  2. Flying a flag is COMPULSORY.
  3. In the "Historic ships" class, additional points can be scored for "authenticity and turnout of boat and crew".
  4. It is MONSTER choppy off the start. Really good fun. So long a you're in a boat with substantial freeboard (our cutter was ideal but I heard later that the dragon boats were seriously worried about sinking).
  5. My winner for the dressing up category was the "British Oarways" crew who managed to row whilst apparently dressed in pilot's or cabin crew outfits, with a "tailfin" flag on the stern.
  6. A close second was the crew of cows, with painted faces, 
  7. There's a type of Irish boat which is rowed with "blades" that don't have spoons. They rate ferociously high and go impressively fast.
  8. GDBC (if you've watched True Blue you'll know what this stands for, otherwise I'm not saying as my dad reads this) had to have a bigger flag that everyone else in their 1829 replica boat Cam.
  9. Lots of crews decorate their boats or people with flower garlands. Including male people.
  10. There are more spectators than you get at the major eights heads.
  11. "Sixteen hundred and sixty six:
    the fire burned out for lack of sticks"
  12. This year, we rowed past that wooden model of medieval London which was then floated down the river and burned that evening to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. It was HUGE.
  13. Boats are set off in reverse speed order with a handicapping system so the overall winner is the first one to reach the finish, making it more exciting than your average head race. This also means that if you're in a fast boat class (like the Thames Watermen's Cutter I was in, having become an honorary member of the Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers for the day), you should be able to guarantee overtaking fun all the way up the course.
Cows: presumably the one in a life jacket is a heifer as "milk floats"

A design that needs no bailing: this extraordinary craft is apparently made from old cooking oil cans.
A Roman. Obvs.

1 comment:

  1. Very glad that you had fun on Saturday.( so did Espoo Rowers in the 11 k Round Kulosaari Island race - only 10 mins behind the winners this year). Hoping to see you at GRR next year with some Finns...

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