Sixteen hours of the river Thames
Here at Footprints of London towers we naturally know that the best way to really see London is on foot. This, however, didn’t stop one of our intrepid guides Sean Patterson (he’s the one below third from the front admiring the scenery while the others do the hard graft!) from taking to the water for a night and a day earlier this year. Sean tells us more.
I’ve always been intrigued by the river but my love affair really began two years ago when I moved from leafy West Hampstead to the riverfront at Deptford. “Why on earth did you move from West Hampstead to Deptford” people ask me. “Come down and see the view from the riverside” I reply, and those that take up the offer are astounded to see so much water and so much sky within zone 2. (I could also mention the fabulous new Market Yard development and four star review restaurants such as Marcella and The Winemakers but we’ll stick with the majestic river Thames for now!).
In January of this year, in an effort to shed some pounds, I attended some indoor machine rowing classes at the Ahoy Centre in Deptford, a charity that teaches sailing and rowing to school kids, disadvantaged kids and people of all ages with disabilities. The rowing they do is not in Sculling boats, but in old fashioned Thames Cutters; a six rower and one cox affair that I’d describe as more Poldark than Olympic.
Almost immediately I was inveigled into a fourteen strong team of middle aged folk intending to take on the famous sixty K Sulkava Finland race which happens in church boats and takes over six hours. That experience in June was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, easily the equivalent of a marathon, and you’d have thought I’d have had enough after that so what on earth possessed me to agree to a unique Great River Race double in September? An inability neither to say no nor to resist a challenge I suppose.
The Great River Race is the biggest event on the river for non sculling boats, and features over three hundred vessels including around fifty Thames Cutters, many of which are sponsored by City Livery Companies. The race begins at Millwall Dock entrance on The Isle of Dogs and goes with the tide to finish at Ham. I was asked to row with the Trinity Tide team, an intimidating honour because they have previously won their category several times and were going to push very hard.
As part of their row for Cancer charities the Trinity Tide team had decided to do a night row from Gravesend to Deptford the previous night, (none of the other three hundred teams were doing this!) and that’s how I found myself clambering into a Thames Cutter in the moonlit and mercifully dry night at Gravesend the night before the GRR.
We set off around 11pm to go with the incoming tide. The great thing about rowing west from Gravesend is that you get a real sense of what the Thames used to be like because there is still so much industry down there, and a surprising amount is operating at night, not least the floodlit Tilbury Docks where goods are still unloaded from huge ships.
On long rows you tend to keep track of obvious markers, and the QE2 Bridge was the first for us and our cox Rupert guided us safely past the starlings.
Next came the Thames Barrier, a welcome sight as we knew we were around half way, and although the rain stayed away and the moon shone brightly, the wind became stronger and we were rowing right into it.
After three hours we rounded the huge white dome of the O2 and knew we were on the home stretch. We’d been warned about disturbing neighbours when we beached at The Ahoy in Deptford, so we really did feel like smugglers as we silently brought boat up in the chilly night air at 3am.
That was the easy part because we weren’t racing. The following morning we took on board our formidable cox Becky and made final checks to the boat for the big push, having polished the hull and removed some of the footboards to lighten us.
Great River Race boats are also required to take a passenger meaning there are eight on the cutter in total. Not surprisingly, small, light people suddenly find themselves in much demand to fulfill that role!
Nothing had prepared me for the start of the race, the jostling for position at the start line at Millwall Dock and the shouting and clashing of oars as we took off felt like a Phoenician sea battle.
Arch Rivals the PLA (Port of London Authority) edged ahead of us at the start and sadly we never overtook this incredibly strong team, but as we’d been handicapped to start near the back of the field we spent the next two and a half hours overtaking other boats which did feel good.
No mercy from the cox and lead rower as we grunted and pulled our way westwards and the excitement once we passed into the City stretch was palpable with the bridges and banks crowded with thousands of well-wishers shouting encouragement.
By half way my muscles were screaming and the blisters were forming but as part of a team you just have to keep pushing (or pulling). Pretty much the worst thing that can happen when rowing is to ‘catch a crab’ which is when you don’t manage to get your oar out of the water at the end of the stroke and get pushed backwards off your seat by the jackknifing paddle. This happened to me around Pimlico, but luckily I recovered quickly without any damage to our timing.
As rowers face backwards we couldn’t see the looming weather pattern that our cox could, but the thunderstorm we entered near Richmond featured lightening and thunder loud enough to elicit screams from some rowers in other boats.
Although there was not much time to take in the scenery it was amazing to to be gliding along the bucolic upper reaches of the Thames after having passed through the industrial east and the magnificent City and Westminster.
Unfamiliar with this part of the Thames there were no markers for me, but the increasing crowds and narrowing of the river told me we must be nearing Ham.
There was no letting up of the pace however – quite the opposite in fact because another cutter was close behind us and determined to overhaul us before the finish line. They didn’t and we crossed the line with the blast of a cannon at a respectable time of 2 hours 36 minutes and 58 seconds. Fourth in the cutter class, £6,000 for Cancer charities, and all within sixteen hours. All in all a satisfying result.
We’re delighted to say that Sean has returned to terra firma, if you are interested in going on any of his walks you can find his full schedule here.
If you are interested in finding out more about the amazing work of the The Ahoy Centre, check their website. And Sean’s ‘Deptford. The Charles Booth Poverty Maps’ walk goes right past it!