Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Tuesday 22 July 2008

It's Doggett as does it..

I never could resist a feeble pun, but it seems appropriate since today's event, the Doggett's Coat and Badge Race, requires more than a bit of dogged determination.

A sculling race taking around 30 minutes through central London, from London Bridge to Chelsea, it has been raced by newly-qualified watermen since 1715, since it was founded in Commemoration of His Majesty King Georges happy Accession to the Brittish (sic) Throne.

Watermen were central to the movement of people and goods in London: the equivalent of today's bus, taxi and lorry-drivers. Now they handle the pleasure and commuter boats, the tugs that move visiting cruise liners and warships into place and drag freight and refuse containers up and down the river: now they'll be used to ferry building materials in and out of the 2012 Olympics building site. Not so long ago, a name I recognised as that of an all-conquering sculler of my schooldays (and winner of the Doggett's) turned up in another context altogether: as the expert adviser to a TV programme on finding and handling a craft to re-create the original performance of Handel's Water Music.

The relevant City livery company still regulates the training of watermen and lightermen. The Coat and Badge winners have their place in the annual Lord Mayor's Show, accompanying the carriages as their predecessors would have powered the barges that took the great and the good from ceremony to celebration (among them last year was someone else I recognised, a regular waterman on the commuter boats I use).

In those days, the race would have been even more of a test of both power and endurance than today (though not that different from the regular demands of work on the river at that time). Not only was it rowed against the tide in heavy passenger wherries: the water around London Bridge ran dangerously fast to get through its narrow arches (until a broader-spanned bridge was built in the late eighteenth century). Nowadays, the power of the tide serves as a help rather than a challenge, and the distance is not unprecedented - it's about the same as the course used for the Head of the River Race in west London; but where the HORR is a processional race against the clock, this is a side-by-side tactical race, and there is just as much watermanship needed to take advantage of the tide moving with you as against. Don't forget, the tide rises and falls by something like 20-30 feet twice a day, which is a powerful amount of water sloshing in and out of London.

It's not a spectacle like a grand Venetian regatta: you could pass by the river and not really notice it. I rowed at school and university, and I'll admit most rowing races are really rather dull to watch unless (or even when) you know someone involved: everything happens too far away to see much detail, and the competitors pass in and out of sight within a very short time. This race, with its small pool of eligible competitors, has an even smaller pool of interested parties than most club rowing events: look through the list of past winners and you'll see some repeating family names, for professional watermanship (if there's such a word) has tended to become a family business, even rather clannish.

Still, it takes place at lunchtime, which allowed me to forgo the debatable delights of the office canteen for a sandwich on Waterloo Bridge. Sure enough, there were barely a handful of people looking as though they were waiting for the race. When eventually it appeared in the distance, there were four competitors, one well in the lead, who steered so sharply to the inside of the bend, towards the National Theatre, that I thought he was off his course and would crash into the boats moored along there - but he was deliberately cutting the corner. Normally, this would be a risky tactic, since it abandons the power of the stream running slightly to the outside of the centre; but the second and third competitors didn't seem to make enough headway to compensate. By the time they were at Waterloo Bridge, the leader was well past the next bridge along.

The fourth-placed had clearly gone too wide on the outside of the stream in the first part of the race, and he was struggling well behind by the time they passed me: the two launches of officials had passed him to keep up with the others. He was left to be followed by the safety dinghy and, no doubt most galling all, the two spectators' launches, one with a gaggle? a shoal? a rowlock? of watermen (previous winners?) in their redcoats observing from the upper deck: and he still had a good three miles to go under their gaze.

There were one or two desultory horn-blast salutes from the cruise boats, halted while the race passed; for all the pain and effort of the oarsmen, they had barely disturbed the normal business of the river for ten minutes.

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