The Great River Race needs your help

Ben Fowler writes in praise of the Great River Race – part of our lives and in need of a tenner


Racing in the Great River Race (c) Naomi Baker

Skiffs and boats of all kinds, but especially rowing boats have been a part of my life since I started messing about in them aged 13. First as a cox and then a rower I competed in regattas culminating in a humiliating defeat at Henley Royal in the Visitors’ Challenge Cup in 1977 aged 17.

My racing rowing gave way to Art School and the rigours of student life, incompatible with hard athletic training, for so many lovely reasons! But skiffs and the River were still my abiding pastime. I learnt to build boats and continued to row the rivers and canals camping and traveling by skiff in the long summer holidays.

My first Great River Race (GRR) was in my own Edwardian camping Skiff ‘Clare’ renovated from a blackened wreck given to me by Mark Edwards in return for a summer’s work scraping and varnishing at his boatyard.

I proudly entered my first GRR in Clare, beautiful in her newly varnished mahogany splendour. Like my experience at Henley ten years earlier my crew came nowhere in the hunt for prizes, but we had a grand new experience.

It is a three-dimensional immersive experience whether you take five gentle hours or two and a half lactose-screaming painful ones

I had never rowed through the centre of London, let alone in a small boat. Vulnerable to the huge swells set up by the river traffic. Unpredictable cross washes and waves bounced to and from, ricocheting off Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s stone embankments. Paddling down with 60-odd other assorted, mainly wooden boats past the Houses of Parliament opposite St Thomas’ Hospital, and under Westminster buildings as imposing in 1987 as they are today.

Back then, the race worked backwards downstream from the leafy grandeur of Richmond through the increasingly hectic and dense geography of our iconic capital city. The GRR is often called London’s rowing marathon, and it is a marathon. On the few occasions when I have put a serious crew together and really tried for an elusive pot it is every bit as tiring and awe-inspiring in its length and prolonged pain as any marathon.

But there the analogy ends, the river is open and huge offering the competing rowers views and smells and tumultuous emotion of the living water of the Thames. It is a three-dimensional immersive experience whether you take five gentle hours or two and a half lactose-screaming painful ones.

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The Great River Race needs your help! Their Crowdfunder appeal has been extended until 18 September – you can donate here.

Now with some 300 boats the experience is even more intense than it was in the days when everyone knew each other and we all helped pull ourselves aching from the mud at Greenwich and tried to re-hydrate at the bar of Poplar Blackwall & District Rowing Club.

The new route up from Greenwich to Richmond is more enjoyable, giving the excitement of the battle with the waves at the beginning of the race when you have energy for it, still to experience the pleasure of rowing past the massive looming bulk of HMS Belfast in your tiny boat. Then the increasingly rural feel as the race runs upstream through parkland and you can compare your own time against the university Boat Race crews, making an identical passage from Putney to Mortlake.

The rest of the course runs up towards beautiful Richmond and we are deposited on the bank at Ham with Young’s best in a big beer tent and the jazz band and the long evening together sharing our experiences.

What is unique about the GRR is that it is open to everyone

Even though the race is now five times the size it was 33 years ago, with thousands of individuals forming crews, it still feels like everyone knows everyone else. And this is because it matters not whether you have raced your heart out trying to win, or if you have pootled along dressed as superman or a bunny rabbit, you all have the same shared experience. I hope that feeling is still going to be there next year.

The global pandemic has so damaged our lives, and for many, it has been devastating beyond our worst nightmares. The loss of the race this year, as with so much else we have lost, is emblematic of our struggle with Covid-19.

What is unique about the GRR is that it is open to everyone. I started a little rowing club four years ago and now the 30 or so people I have taught to row enjoy and are committed to it. My son Dom, who won with his friends from Shoreham three times as a teenager, returns home from abroad to take part.

All of us seasoned lifelong rowers, as well as those very new to the game: all owe the socially inclusive Great River Race a debt of gratitude for the delight it brings.

I, for one, want to do everything I can to have it there to enjoy again. So, please stick a tenner in here to help it over the line.