Lewes Rowing Club

Sailing, Powerboats, Canoeing and Rowing

Tales from the Thames - how Gecko and Betty raced the 2017 “London river marathon” 

Great River Race 2017

by Jason Bennetto

It’s not often at the age of 52 that you get a try something completely new. Something that will take you out of your comfort zone, test your judgement, skill, stamina, and give you blisters on your hands and buttocks.

The Great River Race (GRR) offers all these attractions and more. Starting at London Docklands the race is 21.6 miles through the heart of the capital ending in the leafy suburbs of Ham in Surrey.

The GRR began in 1988 with 61 boats and it is now the biggest and most prestigious event of its kind in Europe and attracts competitors from around the world. Billed as “London’s River Marathon” this year on 9 September there were more than 2,400 rowers taking part in 332 vessels.

The competitors vary from the lean, mean rowing machine types, club enthusiasts, Scouts, foreign students, to teams dressed in Star Wars outfits or kitted out as skeletons. There are boats racing for charity, others for glory, but most for the challenge. The vessels vary hugely - from enormous former Whaler boats, Cornish gigs,  Celtic longboats, Hawaiian Outriggers, and skiffs.

Ben Fowler, owner and builder of the two boats, Betty, a 30’Cutter, and Gecko, a Thames Triple skiff - which took part in the race on behalf of Lewes Rowing Club - has asked me to give my impressions of what it is like being a GRR newbie.

The start of the race on the riverside had the feeling of a caravan exhibition or steam engine fair. Boats were lined up on the quay while competitors wandered around consuming vast quantities of water, tea, energy bars, bacon butties, and cake, while chatting, admiring the craftsmanship of the boats, and inventiveness of the competitors.

There was a whiff of well organised chaos as the different classes of boat (depending on the size, style and number of crew) were asked to launch on the muddy slipway.

Our boat - Gecko - with a crew of six was listed as 177 out of 332 boats. This means it was estimated to be the 177th slowest boat. Betty with a crew of seven was handicapped at 224. The handicap system is a bit like a cross between the penalty rules surrounding rugby union scrums and the Duckworth/Lewis method for predicting cricket target scores (What’s that? Precisely).

The race works with the slowest boat starting first and the fastest boat starting last. For example the Cornish Gigs go off nearly last as they are pretty much the fastest rowing boats in the race. In theory all the boats should finish together… of course they don’t because of the disparity in crews.

There’s then an agonising wait on the water before the hooter goes and the jostling starts. One hapless crew began by ramming the starting barge.

What’s surprising is the adrenalin rush and thrill of being on the Thames surrounded by dozens of little boats. The size of the waves, especially through the pool of London, are also slightly shocking. One of our crew at the bow was drenched. There’s quite a lot of cut and thrust as boats overtake and you attempt to zip round rivals. Getting the angles and distances can be tricky and several times blades clashed, voices were raised, and emergency action was needed.

The overriding feeling, however, is one of mutual respect and good humour. As we made our way through London - under a series of iconic bridges - we were greeted by shouts of encouragement from supporters and visitors.

Photo GRR John Percival

On Gecko after the initial 40 minutes we adopted a 20 minute on and 20 minute off rota, which gave the new boys, such as myself, enough time to recover and just about hold one’s technique together.

As well as the yells of support we were accompanied by a thunder storm with flashes of lightening in the distance and sudden downpours.

We eventually left the City behind and moved onto the route of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race and then Richmond. Screaming supporters were replaced by boat owners sipping white wine and GnTs while moored on the bank.

The final sprint to the finish line looked like it might kill off three of our toughest rowers - Ben (veteran of 20 GRRs), Dom and Chris - at one stage I feared they might exploded like over inflated balloons at a kid’s party.

We crossed the line to the sound of a cannon and having moored among the trees headed straight to the beer tent. The sense of achievement and exhilaration among the competitors was obvious as the noise level rose.

We were pleased to later discover that Gecko finished in 2 hours 48 minutes and 13 seconds (yes the seconds are important) - 88 fastest and 104 overall with the handicap. Our sister boat, Betty, completed the course in 3 hours 6 minutes 34 seconds while our neighbours in Newhaven in the Cornish pilot gig Amelie clocked up 3 hours 10 minutes and 43 seconds.

The fastest boat took just 2 hours 8 minutes, while the slowest was 4 hours 48 minutes. The overall winner with a handicap came in at 2hr 32mins.

So would I do it again? Having been a 52-year-old (river race) virgin I’m now hooked. The only frustration is that I’ll have to wait another 12 months before I can get a chance to experience the exhilaration and comradeship of rowing the Thames in the Great River Race. JB

Photos courtesy of JB, GRR/Ray Little (RL) and GRR/John Percival (JP)

(c) Copyright Lewes Rowing Club 2017

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