HoRR: Sink Or Swim

By Jo Last edited 158 months ago
HoRR: Sink Or Swim

... or both, for many of the unlucky crews who attempted to take part in last Saturday's Men's Head of the River Race, as high winds and tricky swells led to mass carnage on the water, with only 29 crews completing the 4.25 mile course.


A grand total of 45 crews managed to cross the starting line in difficult but rowable conditions around 4pm; however, the anticipated calmer weather never materialised, and increasingly strong winds and waves meant pretty much every crew which had managed to boat and marshal ran into trouble.

Blogger The Mushruminator described the scene thus in this rather excellent post on his HoRR experience:

By the time we reached our marshaling position and waiting for the race to begin, we were all in a pretty good mood.

Then the winds started. They were strong, they were cold and they were blowing in the opposite direction to the current. Some of the waves created were 3 feet high i.e. the kind of waves that narrow, long and light river rowing boats are not built to withstand. The first 50 or so boats in the first division had to row through those conditions and the results were disastrous.

[...] Among the casualties were the Spanish and French Olympic teams. The rest either capsized or started taking on water and had to be abandoned.

Listening to ambulance sirens and the roar of rescue boats and launches while we were taking on water wasn't the least bit fun. When they announced that the race was canceled, I nearly cheered.


Dr Andrew Ruddle, Hon Sec of HoRR said: "The crowd was bigger than usual because, apart from the wind it was quite a nice, sunny day. When the crews started to get into difficulty the spectators rallied round and helped get them out of the water." Well done to those helpful spectators - the sight of lycra-clad men drenched in Thames water must have been quite eye-opening - and well done to the ambulances stationed along the course who were "kept busy dealing with cases of hypothermia", according to the ever-dependable Tideway Slug. Around 100 sunken or swamped boats means around 900 rather damp rowers and coxes; we're betting a lot of malt loaf and hot chocolate was needed to get them back to anything approaching human.

Londonist extends heartfelt sympathies to the 420-ish crews who tried to take part, even the ones who avoided a soaking; it's no fun splitting a shell in half, attaching it to a trailer, getting it to a riverbank, wrestling it onto trestles, screwing it all back together (making sure it's rigged the right way), doing your bank-side pre-race warm-ups and psyching yourself up for a long, hard row, only to be told it's all been for nothing and you can go home (we speak from bitter experience here). We feel particularly sorry for the crews who travelled from abroad to take part, the poor sods, and for the crews whose eights did not survive the Thames' tender embrace.

We are again indebted to the Slug for teaching us the difference between 'sinking' and merely 'swamping':

When a boat swamps, it fills with water, but still supports the weight of the crew, giving them some ability to keep rowing (though what I saw on Saturday would indicate that some boat types allow for more manoeuvrability than others when full of water). If the boat fills up with enough water so that you can’t remain sitting in it unless you have gills (i.e. staying in the boat is no longer an option) that’s when you can call it a sinking.

For a visible indication of the difference: SUNK,as opposed to FULLY SWAMPED.


The Slug's villains of the day: the Army crew that rowed over a Durham crew ("perhaps someone should have told the Army cox he wasn't driving a Sherman tank"); the RNLI launch crew at Putney pier who were more interested in taking photos of each other than they were in, uh, rescuing people; and the "appalling" coxing from some crews, which showed "a complete lack of understanding of the effects of stream, tide and wind on their boat position". We can believe it; the Tideway is one of the trickiest stretches of water in the British Isles and even experienced coxes can find it tough going.

For what it's worth, the Cambridge University crew 'won' in the somewhat depleted field - a testament to superior oarsmanship, or just a lucky guess on rigging and ballast levels? The Slug thinks perhaps the latter, and we're not inclined to disagree:

Of the crews that finished, CUBC proved that the collective power of talkshite.co.uk to predict the future is somewhat lacking, by turning up to race and managing to get the fastest time.

The coaching team has obviously learnt from last year's boat race, and although there is some debate over whether they had pumps in the boat (Duncan Holland [Cambridge's chief coach] reportedly swears blind they didn’t [but what's this? - Londonist]), they were definitely in a large shell and were using wing riggers. Anyway, whatever the reason, they were much higher in the water that Leander, Molesey and Tideway scullers at the finish and it paid off to their advantage.

We can only hope the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, which takes place this Saturday, enjoys better weather; the forecast is favourable, for what it's worth, so we'll see you down at the riverbank for a picnic.

Many thanks to parrysan for the use of photos from his excellent Rivers Head set

Last Updated 04 April 2007