Lewes Rowing Club

Sailing, Powerboats, Canoeing and Rowing

The First LRC Spring Cruise

by Ben Fowler   14 June 2018

There were 12 of us – Andy, Fiona, Sarah, Julie, Neil, Jayne, Carol, Lee, Louise, Jenny, Myself and Sarah. After many hours of planning in the Snowdrop we set off on Friday 1 June on the Lewes Rowing Club’s inaugural spring cruise. Our two-day trip in Betty and Gecko on the River Thames had it all - a mini monsoon, Amazonian-like vegetation, magnificent countryside, beer, a boat festival, and above all wonderful companionship.

In tribute to Jerome K Jerome’s classic comedy novel, “Three men in a boat” here follows a personal report of the outing. 

We all arrived with our lovely boats at Osney marina a handy central Oxford marina with a good slipway into the Thames just below the lock , we were to put the boats in here and leave the trailer. We were greeted by a couple of old  river watchers who told us that the town had been under water the evening before and that we should probably call it off !

But as there were no environment agency warnings and though the stream was running fast we decided to press on. Neil Turner and I worked the boats gently up against the stream to pick up the other nine members of our cruise from a landing stage.

The Thames was indeed running fast at Oxford but no worse than our Sussex Ouse on a full spring tide. So to the evident disappointment of the shardenfroider brothers, looking on, we set off….sedately under control and backwards;  this way we could control the boats down the fast bit of the weir stream and down through the beautiful Folley bridge in Oxford town center. Here as the river widens, the stream decreased and we sculled among the town’s racing rowers on and down through Iffley lock. Stopping only for a well earned lunch in the pub by Stanford lock.

Full of Chef and Brewer fair-ly-average fair…. we then ran on down towards Abingdon. Through Abingdon lock the crews were now well bedded in and I took great pleasure looking back from Gecko at Betty to find that both boats were being rowed very nicely complete with Neil sitting at the stern of Betty sporting a decorous parasol.

We quickly arrived at Culham lock and Neil, delighted by being able to operate the hydraulics himself, scampered off to work the lock for us. With about five miles left to our mooring for the night, we pulled away from the lock. Then the heavens opened with powerful and very wet rain.  There was no wind, and it was a truly a monsoon. The rain kept on hammering down with biblical power and we emerged from the last lock of the day at Clifton Hampden all thoroughly drenched and rain water lapping  through the floor boards of the boats.

At the camp site the lovely owners, Geoff and Mary, did everything they could to make us comfortable, clothes were dried in the tumble dryer and a caravan was cleared for the campers so they did not have to pitch tents on the sodden grass.  Neil Turner and Jane Merfield, however, showed metal and pitched their tents regardless.

Dried out and weary, we adjourned to the Barley mow, a lovely ancient pub, where Jerome K Jerome reputedly wrote some of his classic comedy novel, “Three men in a boat”.  We ate and to everyone’s amusement Julie spotted that the menu was identical to the one at lunch time….Cheff and Brewer again… still it was warm dry and the beer was fine.

I woke early from fitful sleep in a damp sleeping bag in to find the river running past my ears in full spate. I checked the Environment Agency site and the warnings were up for increasing stream. However, I saw that the heights on my mooring had fallen by about 5cm overnight so I reckoned the levels were beginning to fall and that we should go on.  So warnings duly noted we pulled away and once again went backwards through the beautiful ancient and very  narrow old bridge at Clifton Hampden.  Safely through we turned the boats downstream and ran fast with the stream and basked in the beautiful morning sun cast over The Wittenham Clumps

We met up with my wife Sarah at Wallingford railway bridge and Neil walked off into the countryside in the hope that there may be a working railway station as he had to get back for a birthday party in the evening.

After a bit of cake and orange juice we rowed off on the long run down to Goring, with Sarah now taking charge of Gecko from Neil, and me in Betty. As the afternoon progressed in beautiful weather we stopped for a short swim at a closed and bankrupt riverside pub just above Cleve Lock. Hard to see how such a perfectly placed hostelry could fail in this rich area of the country, but it made us a very nice landing stage and lido while Sarah Dann and Jenny Bell went for a swim both commenting on the pull of the stream.

Last knockings now so we ran down through Goring, shaded and dwarfed by the towering tree lined gorge at Streatly. We found the inlet to the Beal Park  which nestles in some water meadows and lakes between Pangbourne and Streatly.

We were immediately struck by the sudden loudness and busyness of the little wooden boat show, in contrast to the languid and isolated silence of the afternoons rowing.  But with the noise and people there was also a beer tent and pizza stand making this a welcoming end to our adventure. We drank beer and the best of us danced to the band…..I didn’t !

We woke up to another beautiful day and I met old friends some from 40 years ago on the Thames Traditional Boat Societies stand, and I have to say I didn’t want it to end, but end it did, and we went home fulfilled.  I am hugely chuffed to have spent the weekend with my new crewmates.


PS  As I write this I hear that Peter Coward died this weekend of cancer. The contrasting, brutality and unfairness of this is overwhelming.  It strikes me that Peter would have loved it had he been able to come down the Thames with us in his canoe; this gentle man will be sorely missed by everyone.

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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