Adam Bird


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Sunday, 18 September 2011

A Great River Race

Oarsome Foursome crew

Yesterday afternoon, west of here as I write this, six hardy souls boarded a Clayton Skiff, or a boat between you and I - and rowed it twenty-one miles from Poplar Rowing Club to Richmond in West London as part of this years Great River Race, passing under twenty eight bridges and passing sites; the Tower of London, Houses of Parliament and the London Eye to name a few, that tourists only ever really see from the safety of dry land. They did it despite rain not since biblical times, which threatened to sap the energy from them and ruin what is meant to be a fun afternoon on the river. I was one of those fortunate six - and here is my account of the race yesterday afternoon.

I had originally been pencilled in as being passenger, which all entrants are required to carry - but due to issues within the crew a vacant spot for cox became available. I received a surprising text message only 78 hours before the race from Will, who is skipper of the Oarsome Foursome crew informing me of my unexpected promotion. I didn’t really mind about taking on the role, although some pre-warning and explanation would not have gone amiss! My main worries were the vocal energy needed to keep the crew in rhythm as I’d already mentioned previously in the confines of this blog, steering is relatively easy and felt confident about that, but shouting madly at people isn’t really my forte.

My race preparations were not really in keeping with the amateur sporting code, instead I’d spent the afternoon prior to the race with the people from work on a “team building”, exercise which was another term for alcoholic revelry. We spent the majority of Friday afternoon at the London Cocktail Club learning about mixology and sampling various potent concoctions which left me slightly worse for wear on Saturday morning. I received a call from a worried skipper early Saturday morning ensuring that I was fit for purpose and that I hadn’t suffered absinthe poisoning or the dreaded alarm clock pass-out - which I have done on previous important occasions (my own stag do anyone?).

Fortunately for me Cox’s are not required to submit a mandatory breathe test, so had no worries on that part. Instead I was more concerned about suitable attire for the afternoons race. The weather looked okay to me, nice sunny skies, but I remember last year feeling a bit chilly towards the end of the race, so decided to play it safe after some advice from the skipper, wear jeans, take a waterproof jacket and wrap up warm. I decided to take some shorts as well and another change of jeans just in case the ones I was wearing got wet - the ability of foresight being a blessing as this particular story unfolds.

After I’d demolished a pre-race meal of a rather large McDonalds, again violating any sporting code but satisfying my post alcoholic appetite we made our way via a PLA water taxi to the beach at Poplar Rowing club, where preparations were made to Magog, our Clayton Skiff vessel for the day. Stuart and Keith were screwing, bolting, sawing, drilling, gaffer taping, clamping an array of cushions, flagpoles, refreshments kiosks for each rower and an assortment of other bits, which had we known what was coming; central heating, damp proofing and a roof would have been a better alternative.

Once however, final preparations had been made, I took a look at the weather, was feeling rather warm and a touch sweaty, so decided to change into my shorts; which at the time was a great idea! Even as the race got going, leaving Poplar at 14:07 on the dot, keeping in line with the military organisation as the cannons went off around our ears and crews began earnestly rowing as their lives depended upon it, I felt quite comfortable and steered our fine Magog through the early traffic with calm and confidence.

Now coxing for me is like driving. You have good drivers (me) and bad drivers (everyone else), it’s the same upon the river. As Stuart, Keith, Foordy and Will made haste and Anthony, youngest of all Foords counted loudly, keeping the pace which compensated for my lack of vocal encouragement I was left to avoid the bad and even worse of other cox’s. None more so than a hulking great viking boat which had a crew of about twenty, all rowing this heavy great boat with oars that were four meters long and going at a rather pedestrian pace. We are allocated arches for each bridge that we are meant to go under, miss them at your peril by all accounts, so it was important that I made each bridge correctly. As we were rowing considerably faster than the Viking boat, I took us around the left hand side (bow side for coxing enthusiasts), who were themselves overtaking someone else, but we all needed to swing right and through the archway furthest to the right of the bridge - else we’d miss our allocated arch. As we were alongside, I expected, like any right minded individual would, that the boat alongside us would move over, but it didn’t until I gently moved closer and was forced to bully them out of the way - mission accomplished which was gratefully received by the crew, maybe not so much theirs!

After this little scuffle, we carried onwards as the clouds grew darker and the water grew choppier. We had already hit some big waves passing the docklands and a tourist boat had sped by causing the water to ruffle wildly in it’s wake. Poor Anthony, youngest of the Foords who had stood in at the last minute as my replacement as passenger. He was the one who received the full weight of the waters wrath as he was perched delicately on the front of the boat. A pair of wet trousers never hurt anyone but as we approached the House of Parliament, the weather took a turn for the worse. One of the benefits of coxing is that you can see what is approaching, as opposed to everyone else who is facing the other way. It was quite surreal watching the rain ahead, like a brick wall that we were about to hit with force and face the circumstances, which in this case was a right royal soaking.

This was BIG rain. Huge, heavy and stinging. I managed to get my waterproof jacket on and camera bag covered up before I was too wet, but with the water acting like a volatile, spoilt child ensuring the boat was straight with just one hand was a near impossible task. The rain continued at its heaviest for nearly and hour, and it only really stopped fifteen minutes from the end. But coming up to each bridge, the applause from the spectators really gave the boys a lift and as we passed underneath we were given a nice five second respite from the rain that seemed to grow colder as we went on.

Towards the end, when the four oarsmen were at their most physically tired, the knowledge that they had nearly reached their goal inspired them to new heights. The counting returned from the front of the boat, Stuart bellowed “ROW” loudly in rhythm with the oars and our worn out Magog was forced up a couple of gears until the finishing line passed by with a cannon salute and the sound of musketry ringing once again in the ears.

The end of the Great River Race is normally a time of celebration. Champagne corks pop amidst the carnage of getting the boats out of the water. Beers are sunk and backs are slapped as everyone congratulates everyone else on a job well done. But this year was a slightly muted affair - at least for us. I cannot talk for everyone as we had already left. Attempting to get the party started Stuart ordered beers, but the two Foords and I stood there, with a pint in our hands I could barely bring it to my lips as my hands were shaking too much with cold.

By the time I got home, my clothes were just a damp mess, right the way through to my underpants which I could still have easily wrung out. But snuggled on the warmth and comfort of the sofa I read a Facebook status from Anthony, youngest of the Foords, which read “worst experience of my adult life” and I laughed, it could have, should have been me. But whilst his afternoon was particularly unpleasant, as ours all were, we are left with the day after the night before syndrome where things are put into perspective.

Not many people get an opportunity to row up the River Thames, some of these boys have done it at least four. But rowing up the most famous river in the whole world which is bathed in history, viewable the entire length of the route by artifacts and reminders, during weather conditions that need to be written and described to be believed is something that I will always remember. Worst experience of my adult life? Maybe, but one of the most memorable, almost certainly!


ChrisP said...

Greetings from Clayton Skiff Gladys! My goodness it was wet - and after the race we had to tow the boats back down to the south coast in damp undies. Not nice.
See you on the river again next year!
Chris (Langstone Cutters RC)
PS why not bring Magog down to Langstone for our regatta next year? See for details come the time....

Adam Bird said...

Hi Chris - thanks for the invite! I'll have a word with the skipper! I don't envy you having to tow the boat back, it must have been a nightmare getting her out of the water! We'll look out for next year!


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