Ice Breaker’s London Holiday

The Great River Race 2012

Seven intrepid travellers (Kay, Bill, Barbara, Nik, Frances, Andres and Ice Breaker) travelled to London to take part in the 25th Great River Race. We were blessed with sunny warm weather and a river full of rowing boats of every kind.

The drive to London took 9 hours, we set off at 06:00 on Friday morning from Portobello and arrived at the Milwall slip, on the Isle of Dogs, East London, at around 15:00.

After unloading the boat on the slip we drove for 2 hours through London’s Friday rush hour traffic to the campsite and the race finish-line, Ham, SW London. We got through the town unscathed but our friends from Achilitibuie had their trailer rammed from behind by a local 4×4.

North Berwick, which had both boats in London, paid the £70 per boat towage fee, which means they were able to drive straight to the campsite and get their boats towed down the river to the start line on Saturday morning. They stepped into their boat off the pontoon while we had to wade through the soft London mud!

After setting the tents up on Friday it was not long before we found a bar and band to go with our allocation of hog roast. It was not long after that we crawled into our sleeping bags.

On Saturday breakfast was served between 04:30 and 06:30! The bus left the campsite at 06:30 to take us through London to the start line, where our boat waited excitedly. The sun rose as we crossed Westminster Bridge revealing a flat Thames river reflecting Westminster and Big Ben framed against a blue sky. It looked very promising indeed.

After registration we launched at around 09:15, but as our start time was not until 11:10, we decided to row down river and across to Greenwich to see the Cutty Sark. We then had time to drift upriver, on the flooding tide, to the 5min waiting area. This was quite a busy place with many boats drifting around as crews got themselves sorted. Our start went off with little incident and we quickly overtook a number of small craft, bathtubs and the like!

Due to a mix up at registration, we were listed as an Acorn skiff, which sounds rather sweet, but it meant we started 8 min ahead of Achiltibuie and the 2 North Berwick Skiffs. You can imagine the stick we got for this bit of unintentional “cheating” (it did mean we had more time to complete the course before the tide turned!). We discussed this with the organisers but it was not possible to change our start time, so we were given an 8 min “penalty” added to our finishing time, which seemed fair.

Despite the 8min advantage Achiltibuie overtook us just after Tower Bridge and finished the race 30 min ahead of us! In fact they came second overall in the mixed category, beating many long boats and most of the Gigs, so they really did the St Ayles skiff community proud. They did however go to bed much earlier than us :)

Tower Bridge looked fantastic with loads of people cheering us on. We had our Viking hat on, it felt good returning to this stretch of water after so many centuries!!

The river was deceptively flat at the beginning of the race, but as soon as we passed under Tower Bridge and turned into the wind we found a considerable chop coupled with the wake of passing craft; we took some water over the bow making Bill a bit damp. Having a passenger in the bow and lots of (too much) gear, such as anchors, dry bags etc, made the boat sit bow heavy.

In future it would be desirable to place any gear, including anchors etc along the length of the bloat, and pick a light passenger (i.e. a child!). If really choppy the passenger should also move down the boat and sit next to the stroke.

We split the boat into 2 groups, 3 at the cox end and 3 at the bow end; this enabled us all to get a row. Every 30 min we changed position, but making sure we always kept 2 oars going at all times. Cox, Stroke and No. 3 swapped around while bow and No. 2 kept rowing, then the passenger on bow swapped with the person rowing on bow or No. 2 while Stroke and No. 3 continued to row.

There was a leisure barge taking supporters and we enjoyed the support and cheering from that boat as we approached the last few bridges. There are 28 bridges to go under, which made it spectator friendly. We enjoyed being overtaken, sometimes under the bridges, by the long boats (6 oars), the whale boats (8 oars) and the Dragon Boats (16 paddles).

The race is a stern chase, so the slowest boats get to go first and every minute thereafter a load of faster boats would start. We managed quite a lot of overtaking, but there were many more which overtook us!

In the end we came 183rd out of 320 boats; we did it in 3:20min, so with the additional 8 minutes “handicap” our official time was 3:28min. We came 3rd in the St Ayle skiffs (out of 4!), but we were on cruise mode rather than race mode. So it should be quite easy for future Rowporty crews to break our “record”.

Getting the boats out of the water is quite chaotic. The temptation is to head for the beer tent, which we did, but it would be worth taking the launching trolleys to make recovery easier and by-pass the trailer rammy at the end. The larger boats were recovered with the use of a crane, which adds complexity to the recovery of smaller boats like ours.

The return journey took 9 hrs to Edinburgh. We did exactly 900 miles in total, at a cost of around £200 for fuel. The total cost of the entry fee, camping, food, the bus and fuel was £750, or £125 per person based on 6 people sharing the costs; this does not include the cost of one person return train travel to London. This is not a cheap trip and future crews probably should also be self-funding as the club could not afford to pay this sort of money for 6 to go away and row.

If we were to take both boats next time, we should consider having both boats on one trailer, which would reduce the need for 2 towing vehicles. The green trailer behaved impeccably and could be adapted to take the 2 boats.

In conclusion, it was a very special row, it was amazing how quickly three and a half hours of rowing can pass when there is so much to take in! You could also say “it’s a bloody long way to go for a row” :)

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