great river race

Rowing

Great River Race

🚣‍♀️🚣‍♂️ Known as London’s River Marathon hundreds of crews from all over the world are set for the Great River Race, a spectacular boat race taking place over a 21.6-mile route on the River Thames.  Spectating is free.  

A great day out for both competitors and spectators alike the Great River Race returns to the capital for the first time since 2019.  An iconic event it attracts every level of fixed seat rower from dedicated athletes set on winning, to those in fancy dress and racing for charity, all congregating for the race start at London’s Docklands.  

A colourful celebration of traditional boats of all shapes and sizes crews from all over the UK and Europe are set to take part in this highlight of traditional fixed seat rowing events including Thames Cutters in full regalia from the Worshipful Companies of Founders, Tallow Chandlers and Glaziers.

This is the 33rd Great River Race which is open to any traditional style boat powered by a minimum of 4 oars or paddles carrying a cox and a passenger.  Many competitors have returned year after year to take part in the event – since it launched in the late 80s – and can’t wait to get back on this tidal stretch of the Thames.  Thousands of pounds are raised for charity by those taking part in the race.

The race route is from London Docklands to Ham in Surrey.  Starting at Millwall Dock Slipway (opposite the Docklands Sailing Centre) at around 10am, on the starter firing the maroon to start, the boats leave on a ‘slowest first, fastest last’ handicap basis, giving all crews an equal chance.

The race heads west taking in bridges such as Tower Bridge, Westminster Bridge, Battersea Bridge, Putney Bridge before the first boats finish at the riverside below Ham House in Richmond at approximately 1pm with boats continuing to come over the finish line for the next couple of hours.

The race winner crosses the line to a cannon broadside and the prospect of receiving The Challenge Trophy of The Company of Watermen & Lightermen and becoming the UK Traditional Boat Champions in the process.

🕑🚣‍♀️🚣‍♀️ Race starts at approximately 10am at Millwall Dock Slipway with the finish at the riverside below Ham House in Richmond.  First boats over the finish line expected from 1pm onwards. 

🧐 Spectating is free on the route.  Recommended bridges for viewing include Tower Bridge from 10.20am, Westminster Bridge from 10.30am (affording a view all the way down to Vauxhall Bridge), Lambeth Bridge from 10.40am as the boats pass the Houses of Parliament, Wandsworth Bridge from 11.05pm (around halfway with faster boats starting to move through the field), Hammersmith Bridge from 11.25am (as the race approaches the business end), Barnes Bridge from 11.50am (where the boats reach the famous stretch of river that is the finish of the Boat Race) and Richmond Bridge from 12.45pm (where crews will have to draw on their final reserves of strength with the finish at Ham House just a mile or so away).

great river race
Photo: The Great River Race

ABOUT THE GREAT RIVER RACE

HOW IT STARTED

From its debut in 1988, The Great River Race has firmly established itself in the sporting calendar to such an extent that experienced crews describe it as a classic event – the one they all want to win.

And with its intriguing mix of colour, spectacle, intense competition and casual fun, it combines all the ingredients that made London’s ‘other’ marathon such a success; but with the addition of dozens of great photo opportunities as the race progresses from the striking Docklands skyline at the start, through central London until it reaches its semi-rural Surrey conclusion.

The Great River Race attracts both the true racer and the leisure rower and, in developing into ‘London’s River Marathon’, is doing for rowing what the ‘Road Marathon’ did for running.  Not surprising when the course is a gruelling 21.6 miles from London Docklands to Richmond.

It was inspired by the immense interest generated by a 1987 charity event in which the famous Doggett’s Coat & Badge winners from The Company of Watermen & Lightermen rowed its shallop, or passenger barge, from Hampton Court to The Tower of London.

The idea that emerged was to find the UK Traditional Boat Champions by issuing an all-comers challenge to beat the Doggett’s men – racing on a handicap basis.  Entries were restricted to traditional-style, coxed craft powered by a minimum of four oars or paddles.  And, in keeping with the Company’s historic responsibility to apprentice and licence Watermen to carry passengers on the tidal Thames, each boat had to carry a passenger. 

To give all crews an equal chance, entrants were handicapped according to the calculated potential performance of their boats.  This was done on a scientific basis, using naval architects’ calculations and a sophisticated computer programme.  And, to add spice to the contest, it was to be run on a ‘slowest away first, fastest last’ pursuit basis, with every boat individually timed over the course.  Despite a start line handicap period of well over an hour, some close racing was expected – and achieved.

The winners on handicap would hold, for one year, the handsome Challenge Trophy of The Company of Watermen & Lightermen – featuring a mounted original Watermen’s badge – issued to William Savage of Gravesend in 1803.

THE STORY SO FAR

In 1988, 61 entrants chose more than 20 boat types representing six countries, including an Hawaiian outrigger war canoe, Viking longboat, Norwegian scow, Canadian C-8 canoe, Chinese dragonboat, and numerous Cornish pilot and other gigs, skiffs, cutters, ASC, naval whalers and the like to take on the Watermen’s shallop, star of the film ‘A Man For All Seasons’.

All were propelled by a bunch of enthusiasts ranging from barely teenage Sea Scouts to hardened offshore rowing veterans more used to racing anywhere from the south coast to the south seas and entered by such diverse outfits as museums, rowing clubs, pubs, youth organisations, police, fire brigades, the armed services, boating societies and groups just out take part and beat the course.  And beat it they did, with just one starter failing to finish.

Since then the Race has gone from strength to strength.  While more than quadrupling in size, it has attracted such fascinating entries as a magnificent replica 54′ bronze age Greek galley; canvas and tar Irish naomhogs of the type reputed to have crossed the Atlantic in the eighth century; a new shallop and Thames wherry (both constructed along traditional lines especially for the Race) and the world’s oldest racing rowing boat, the ‘Royal Oak’ built in Co. Down, Northern Ireland, at the beginning of 1800s.  Not to mention our own Thames Watermen Cutters, the Great River Race Jolly Boat, and now the Skerry, all built for the Race by Mark Edwards at Richmond Bridge Boathouses.

Along the way, it has attracted a stellar cast of celebrity starters who have come along to fire the cannon to get the Race under way.  This has included Sting, Jerry Hall, Sir Steven Redgrave, the late June Brown (EastEnders’ Dot Cotton), Sir Trevor MacDonald, Jane Horrocks, Virginia Bottomley MP, William Franklin, Tony Banks MP, Dame Tanni Grey Thompson and many more.

Furthermore it really has become truly international event with crews coming from Australia, America, Bermuda, Canada, Croatia, Poland, Holland, Italy, Sweden, France, Germany, Ireland, Romania and the Channel Islands, as well as all over the UK.

In 2009, after much soul searching, careful calculations and protracted consultations, the route was reversed, meaning the Race’s direction was changed to run upriver from Millwall to Ham.  This proved so popular with competitors and spectators (over 20,000 at the Finish alone) that it has been adopted as the regular format.

With entries now well over 300 boats carrying approx. 2,400 competitors racing for 35 trophies, The Great River Race has become the biggest and most prestigious event of its kind in Europe.

History of the race courtesy of the Great River Race website.

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