Troy Hightower

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The Great River Race

On a short unplanned stopover in London, we discover ourselves at the crest of the Chelsea Bridge squinting up the River Thames into the distance. While looking around Google maps, I had noticed a thick dotted blue line in the middle of the River, and discovered that this clear, sunny September Saturday was the date for the annual Great River Race.....a spectacular 21.6 mile rowing race sometimes billed as London’s other marathon.

The race runs from the London Docklands all the way to Richmond, and this year attracts over 320 boats and crews from around the globe. Begun in 1988, the race was inspired by a charity event the year before where the winners of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Prize in the 4 mile-long, oldest rowing race in the world, the Company of Watermen & Lightermen,  rowed its shallop passenger barge from Hampton Court to The Tower of London. That following first year of the Great Race 61 entrants chose more than 20 boat types representing six countries to run the first official race.

Boats and competitors of all types enter. These range from tubs to sleek racers, and include gigs, skiffs, cutters, naval whalers, Irish curraghs, shallops, wherries, and paddle sculls. There have in the past even been Chinese dragon boats, Hawaiian outrigger war canoes, Viking longboats, Venetian barge gondolas and a Norwegian scow.

As competitors, there are many serious racing clubs and companies, along with those out for a yuck, or to play dress-up as happens in many marathons and races, such as the Bay to Breakers in San Francisco.

The race’s official website had estimate the lead rowers would arrive in this stretch around 12:30. After a frustrating quarter hour, the first four-oar boat hoves into view. A few minutes later, the second arrives...then the third. Soon they are passing in twos and threes, then in clusters of half dozen. After a half hour, it’s a virtual continual parade.

From Chelsea bridge a crowd watches rowers in tutus, ballgowns, nuns costumes and black ninja skin-tights, as well as club uniforms from all over the world and plain mufti. Many wave up at the bridge and cheer as they pass under. We can’t identify the detailed types of boats, but there are two and four person inline double oarsmen, four, six, eight and twelve person side by-side single rowers, and many all-female crews. As  the race hits a continual flow of boats, we estimate we’ve seen well over a hundred, so probably around half the race. It’ll be interesting later today or tomorrow to look up the results, and see what sorts of boats and crews won.

What a lucky and serendipitous find.






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