Great River Race – Peter Crush on 22 miles in a ‘jolly boat’

Great River Race

The Company of Waterman & Lightermen, the organisers of  ‘The Great River Race’ (GRR) describe this 22-mile rowathon as ‘London’s River Marathon’. It might be four miles short of official distance, but now I know just how apt this moniker really is. This year, I volunteered to take part in it to see just what all the fuss is about. I’ve run marathons, and I’m also a rower – for Twickenham Rowing Club. ‘How difficult could this paddle really be?’, I thought to myself. Well, let’s not over-exaggerate; this is gruelling, like really, really gruelling.
 
My row began on a warm, sunny day where, by mid-morning, some four hours before the first boats started their long journey eastwards from Twickenham to Greenwich, the green grass of riverbank was already getting muddy under the feet of thousands of amateur competitors. Brought with them were hundreds of odd-looking, mostly wooden boats that hark from by bye-gone era. Some had oars, but many had what can only be described as sticks, without any spoon-shaped end for pushing water. For the GRR is the UK’s only event where skiffs, gigs, whalers, longboats, outriggers, cutters, dragon boats, punts, curraches, jollies, cots, yawls, shallops, and even gondolas all come en masse to rub oars and vie for the title of fastest crew.
 
The conventions of the GRR are simple – it is open to any traditional, or traditional-style boat powered by a minimum of four oars or paddles. The biggest difference for me was the main rule, which said no sliding seats (all the work is through your arms, by what looked like back-breaking heaving of the upper body), and the requirement each boat must have a passenger as well as a cox. My boat was number 158 – a four-rower ‘jolly boat’ (a scaled down version of a cutter), build by the Mark Edwards boathouse next to Richmond Bridge. The boat’s name was ‘The River Rejects’. It think it was something to do with the fact that my fellow rowers were a hotch-potch of ex-GRR rowers, the odd past rower and myself, all thrown together at the last minute. In fact we’d had just one training session – a 3 miler the week before. I didn’t really have a clue what I was getting myself into.
 
The off (for us) was just before 3 o’clock. Each class of boat is handicapped such that, if all post identical performances, all 290 in this year’s event should converge at the finish at about the same time. Tristen, one of my crew, a former GRR rower, was predicting three and a half hours. I thought I we could get that down to under three, a time that would make us competitive. He’d brought with him a GPS tracker, which we hoped would be our secret weapon. Although for the first time this year, each boat was fitted with its own tracker chip, so that supporters could see the position of boats online from anywhere in the world, Tristen’s handheld gave us real-time mph speed and miles-travelled data. We thought this would give us a vital edge in planning swap-overs (where the passenger and cox relieve the rowers) throughout the race.
 
I’m sure my crew won’t mind me saying this, but it soon became clear that I was to have the leading voice in this race. From the ‘go’ my club rower’s in-built competitive streak erupted. I suddenly decided that there was no way we were here for a nice paddle. The aim was to win our class. We had a tough ask. The age-range of the boat was large, and some people’s technique was questionable. Some were missing a lot of the catch. Mentally this was having a bad impact on me very early. A few feet missed over 22 miles was a lot to give up. It wasn’t long before I insisted on the first change-over after just passed Kew Gardens, earlier than anticipated. Our plan, in as much as we had one, was to go off fast, and lead our class so that we would always be in control of boats threatening us. I was barking out orders that the stroke rate should be higher, or that we were slowing down after the first couple of miles. My non-sliding seat rower companions were insisting that these boats naturally rate lower, but I was not willing to accept this, because we had, and could rate higher. I felt it was easier to keep the speed up by just keeping her ticking over. 

I felt the approach was working. Once we’d got through the crowd, and some inevitable clashing of oars, our GPS was saying we were off at 8.1, 8.2, 8.3 miles per hour. Sometimes we hit 9 mph, a speed that would see us under my three-hour mission target.
 
Kew to Hammersmith was the part of the river I felt I knew best, and had the most to contribute to. Having rowed numerous heads and training sessions here, I was keen our cox follow a path that placed us in the middle of the stream. It worked, and at one point we hit 10 mph.
 
For the first third of the race I cannot honestly remember much of the physical exertion. I know I was rowing hard, were all were, (the sweat was pouring off), yet because most time, our speed was nearer 7.5 mph, I was preoccupied with ways of getting more boat speed. I think by this stage, the rest of the boat also began to believe we could set a good time, and morale was good. We all tried hard. I was most vocal, booming at boats to ‘move aside’ as we ploughed through, while any chance I had to shout something motivational was grasped. Apologies to the all-female, vet crew who had to hear me bellow ‘let’s go past the old ladies’ and the young crew which had to suffer ‘we’re not being beaten by school boys’. Here though, we were overtaking boats for fun, and things felt good.
 
Hammersmith Bridge came quickly. I knew we had set ourselves possibly an unsustainable pace (last year no cutter went under three hours), but I was confident that the most important section was the middle third. Break this, and we were on the home straight. We had to consolidate, and even put some time in the back, as I knew the river gets wider and choppier, something that would slow us down.
 
It was from here on, where the river was unfamiliar that I started to feel the effects of exhaustion. Adrenalin was turning to tiredness. I elected to carry on after the second swap because I felt we then had our four strongest unit. First thoughts were turning too my hands, which were blistering badly, and made gripping the oar painful. As my mind wandered, it turned to my back. It was in real pain. Most of the load of the boat was being worked through. I combined this thought with ‘what is my coach going to think of me ruining my back at the start of the season?’). It was my aching arms that were really screaming. They felt bulging, but dead. Rower are always told don’t pull with your arms, legs are stronger, but today I had no choice.
 
Coming through Westminster, the London Eye and seeing tourists supporting us was the lift we all needed. We sucked out chests in and tried to look big, and these miles seemed to pass with renewed vigour. It was at this point we spotted boat number 177, a celtic longboat from Wales. It became our saviour. We’d already battled passed them earlier, but during the swap-over, they came passed again. They were some 100m ahead, and we made it our job to come passed them again. They were stubbornly holding us off, as they knew they had become our competition. At some points we overlapped and exchanged pokes. We never went passed them again, but they were never more than a boat length ahead, and we all kept honest to ensure they never pulled away.
 
The river had got choppy by now, but we rode the waves. Change number three was made, our last. I stayed rowing again, and I finished being the only rower not to stop. I arrogantly decided a  tired me would still be faster. Remarkably, we kept to over 7mph, despite the chop. We were at 18 miles by about 2hours 20 mins, and a sudden rush a realisation we could finish well swept through us. I was on empty at this point. I think we all were. John though, who was coxing was keeping our spirits up. I think he gave us a real lift. We predicted a 2 hour 50 mins finish if we kept going.
 
No bigger sense of joy came when the cannons sounded and we’d made it to the end. Finish time 2 hours 44 mins. I later found out we’d provisionally come in at 63rd out of 290 boats, a fantastic achievement. Our GPS said 21.9 miles, maybe we’d shaved off some distance by good steering. I didn’t care, I was dead and slightly light-headed after the loss of water. I gulped a litre of water then and there. My hands were a mess, my face was salty and sun-burned. But we’d done it, and done it well.
 
An normal rowing outing of five miles will somehow never seem quite as bad. This really was a marathon, but this was as fun as any of the running ones I’ve done. Thanks to the boats of Smurfs, the Vikings, the bra-wearing ladies, the school-girls-dressed, and the Hawaii-shirt wearers for keeping our small boat going. Thanks to my team-mates for enduring my barracking, and thanks to Poplar Rowing Club who greeted us with beer that never tasted so good. Next year? Yes, I might just be convinced…

Peter Crush
Twickenham Rowing Club

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