“Left! Left! We are heading straight for the pier!” yelled the crew, as our barge veered dangerously towards the right pier of Kew Bridge, resembling a scene from a Tokyo Drift movie with a Ford Mustang drifting.
“Watch out!” as our rowers on the stroke side using their oars to steer us away from the impending collision. A barge, flying the Ukrainian flag, was drifting towards us from behind, mirroring the scene like a Mazda RX-7 tailing the Mustang on a track.
In that heart-stopping moment, it seemed as though all was lost. The crew struggled to get the Waterman’s Cutter out from between Kew Bridge’s right pier and the Ukrainian boat. Time was slipping away, and we were at the unforgiving 17th mile of the race.
T Minus 6 Months – Spring Forward Challenge 2023:
In my inbox appeared a new email – WCIT’s weekly newsletter. The Spring Forward Challenge 2023 callout caught my eye. This challenge invited participants to run, walk, or cycle to celebrate the onset of April. As a recreational runner, my ignorance is as bad as my running pace, thinking it would be a breeze, especially since most WCIT members were too occupied to engage in this sporty endeavour.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken. WCIT boasted a membership of highly fit individuals across various VET groups. Despite their busy schedules, they managed their work / sport balance efficiently. I pushed myself relentlessly to keep up with the Spring Forward Challenge (SFC) mileage. Cheekily, I integrated the SFC with my Manchester Marathon training, originally set at about 50 miles per week. Thanks to the motivation and encouragement from my fellow SFC challengers, I somehow pushed my weekly miles to around 70. By the end of April, I was leading the mileage charts in the walk/run category and was granted the privilege of being a passenger on the CITO during the Big River Race.
T Minus 1 Month – the Barge Master:
For those unfamiliar with WCIT or prospective members, CITO is a Thames Waterman’s Cutter owned by WCIT. The company hosts rowing teams for both men and women, a distinctive feature for a modern Livery Company. WCIT’s Barge Master, John, reached out to me. Not only was he the chair of the CITO panel, but he was also one of the organisers for this year’s Big River Race, an event featuring over 2500 competitors vying for 36 trophies. John warned me of the event’s dependency on the unpredictable weather and the challenges it might bring. He assured me he’d be in touch closer to the event.
T Minus 8 Days – the Big River Race is a Go:
“Ji, the rowing team will be at Millwall dock next Saturday for the race, so be there by 9:30,” John called in.
“Great! What do I need to bring?”
“A hat, sun cream, and some water.”
“Sure thing. How long is the race?”
“About 3 hours, depending on the weather and racing conditions.”
I chuckled to myself, envisioning potential blisters on my backside after three hours. But it would undoubtedly be worth it!
T Minus 3 HRS 16 MINS – the Captain and the Cox:
Arriving at Millwall dock on race day around 9:30, I spotted Simon, the coxswain. This marked Simon’s debut as a member of the CITO Team. He was a seasoned rower, well-versed in the currents of the Thames River, though he remained modest about his rowing experiences. Alongside Simon were Team Captain Guy and Barge Master John. Guy spoke softly, sporting a friendly smile. Despite the registration work and barge setup, he exuded a calm demeanour. The other crews had yet to arrive, so we strolled down to the riverside where our Waterman’s Cutter, CITO, was docked.
While Guy and Simon affixed CITO’s race number 222 like a flag on the bow, a group of determined nuns passed by. Perhaps the Captain and the Cox didn’t notice, but I was duly impressed. Amen.
T Minus 1 HRS 36 MINS – Crew 222:
The remaining crews arrived by the barge around 11:10. Seats were already designated:
– Bow pair: David and Julien, exuding confidence and a steel-like mindset, despite their slim builds. David manned the bow.
– Middle pair: Paul and Giles, both possessing impressive muscular strength, with arms twice the size of mine. Giles, a fellow Freeman at the WCIT, was joining the team for the first time. His calm and unassuming nature made him a reliable teammate.
– Stern Pair: Capt Guy and big Guy. Capt Guy, positioned at the stroke seat, commanded the rowing speed and racing tactics. Big Guy, akin to the Hulk in Endgame, combined immense power with a brilliant mind and gentle manner.
– The Cox: Simon, piloting the CITO while working closely with Capt Guy, motivating the crew, and issuing commands when necessary.
– The Passenger: Myself, feeling like a war correspondent inside a Humvee with SBS operatives under enemy fire. Nervous yet excited, I had no idea what lay ahead. However, I knew there was a deeper history behind the rule requiring racing Waterman’s Cutters to carry a passenger:
Great River Race
As the tide continued to rise toward midday, we climbed aboard CITO and rowed it into the waiting zone.
T Minus 40 MINS – Easyoo:
Guy suggested warm-up exercises to find the rhythm as a team. Simon also took the opportunity to practice his rowing instructions: “On the next stroke, easyoo.” The weather was relatively favourable, with a mild headwind and clear skies. The temperature soared above 25 Celsius, the heat radiating off the surface of the River Thames.
Simon steered CITO to the starting line, positioning us towards the back of the queue with only a few boats behind us. This meant we had ample opportunity to overtake slower boats throughout the race, a prospect that promised great satisfaction.
Mile 3 – Tower Bridge:
The course spans 21.6 miles, stretching from Dockland to Richmond, encompassing 28 bridges. The initial milestone was Tower Bridge, at precisely 3.75 miles. Within the first 2 miles, we successfully overtook a few boats. Simon, the coxswain, exchanged waves with another Waterman’s Cutter named Jim Holt. This team consisted of apprentices from the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. These young apprentices rowed with precision and high spirits, maintaining a synchronised rhythm. Their coxswain and boat captain graciously assisted in undocking CITO during the preparations, showcasing their extensive experience and gentlemanly conduct.
Approaching Tower Bridge, we needed to navigate through the right arch. Marshals on speedboats shouted warnings at some competitors who were veering slightly towards their port side. Simon expertly steered CITO through the arch, deftly avoiding slower boats ahead, creating a safe passage. While I’m accustomed to driving or running across Tower Bridge, passing beneath it provided a distinctly different experience.
Mile 7 – Vauxhall Bridge:
Team CITO maintained their momentum after Tower Bridge, buoyed by the cheers of onlookers on bridges and riverbanks. We steadily overtook more and more boats. Simon and Guy strategically positioned CITO slightly closer to the middle of the Thames, allowing the currents to work in our favour. Giles, a first-time participant in an official rowing race, admirably kept pace with the rest of the team. Though he occasionally caught a few crabs, he persevered, demonstrating impressive concentration. Big Guy, positioned ahead of Giles, provided motivation and focus for him. Nevertheless, rowing 7 miles against the formidable currents of the River Thames, at racing speed, exacted a toll on any rower unaccustomed to such intensity. Giles began to show signs of fatigue, occasionally lowering his head in evident discomfort. Simon noticed Giles’ distress and began shouting, “In…Out”, guiding Giles in sync with Guy’s oar strokes. Despite the burning and sore muscles, Giles pressed on.
CITO continued to overtake boats of the same class, with one exception: a boat that consistently maintained a slight lead ahead of us. Their crew sported blue vests and the boat bearing a Ukrainian flag. Simon noted that their coxswain must be highly experienced, possessing an intimate knowledge of the water. They adeptly navigated the best routes, weaving through other boats. While CITO stayed close to the Ukrainians, we couldn’t quite overtake them. Not because we were slower, but due to their strategic positioning.
Mile 17 – Kew Bridge:
Before boarding CITO, I jokingly told Simon that I hadn’t brought a spare set of clothes and implored him not to tip the boat during the race. Simon responded with a silent smile. Later, he explained that bowmen typically got wet, especially when passing motorised boats like Thames Clippers created wakes. CITO inevitably took on river water, but a pump was situated beneath Paul’s seat, allowing us to channel water to the stern. From there, either the coxswain or passenger could use a sponge to remove it. Otherwise, the weight of the water could rival that of a substantial individual.
After passing Hammersmith Bridge around the 13th mile, Giles’ energy began to wane. His oar strokes fell out of sync, indicating his struggle, though his body continued to exert effort. Guy decided that Giles needed a break and substituted him with Simon. The question arose: who would be the coxswain? They turned to me. While I had no prior experience, I was willing to give it a go for the team. So, Guy and Simon coached me on manipulating the strings to control CITO’s direction, allowing me to take the helm for a mile.
Just after passing Barnes Bridge around mile 15, Guy called for a break. This allowed the team to reorganise, with Simon and Giles swapping positions between the stern and seat 4 in the middle. The entire crew cheered “well-done” to Giles. As a first-time rower, his exceptional performance over 15 miles with a team of highly skilled and competitive rowers was truly commendable.
Then CITO resumed its race, steered by a noob with zip experience. A brave decision making. The team rowed resolutely, aiming to make up for lost time. Guy also provided guidance on steering CITO closer to the middle of the river to take advantage of the current. We managed well for a while, even overtaking the Ukrainian boat. However, I veered too far towards the centre of the river and was promptly directed by the marshals to return to the north side. I tried to correct course, guiding CITO’s starboard side towards the north, then turned sharply to port side. This manoeuvre should allow us to pass through the middle arch of Kew Bridge, but closer to the right pier as directed by the marshals.
The speed of CITO, coupled with my over-correction, led to the boat drifting. The bow of CITO veered slightly to its port side, the entire boat still heading north. In a matter of seconds, CITO’s starboard side lightly grazed the right pier of Kew Bridge. Guy instructed the team to use their oars to push us away from the pier. Then, from behind, we heard shouts – the Ukrainian boat was colliding with us in the same manner we had drifted, sandwiching CITO between them.
I can’t recall exactly how we managed to extricate ourselves, but soon after, the team returned to their rowing positions and pulled hard to regain CITO’s speed.
Mile 20 – Richmond Bridge:
As we navigated a winding country road, we often applied the brakes without concern for speed loss, especially before approaching a bend. This differs from the approach with CITO, where our rowers are the engine. If the boat slows down, the rowers must exert much greater effort to regain speed and rhythm.
In the final stretch of 5 miles, the river narrowed, with boats clustered closely together. Despite this, marshals continued to direct competitors into an even smaller section on the north side of the river. Overtaking slower boats in such confined spaces presented a new challenge.
I made some abrupt steering adjustments, causing CITO to lose its straight and smooth trajectory. Consequently, the team had to expend additional energy on rowing. Everyone was exhausted and sweaty after 15 miles. Even Guy, though no longer wearing a smile, maintained an air of determination and sharpness. He calmly advised me that the best approach for a boat was to steer gently, avoiding sudden jerks of the rudder. Big Guy also reminded the team that only a few miles remained – let’s pull together and get it done.
We began overtaking numerous boats, including the Nuns’ boat. They had shed their habits due to the heat. Big Guy was duly impressed. Amen.
The Finish – Beer and Blisters:
As we neared the finish line, the team’s anticipation grew, as their backs were facing to the direction of travel. I too couldn’t spot the finish line, given the absence of clear markings akin to marathon events. I estimated it to be about 400 meters away. After another minute or two, an official on the north riverbank signalled that we had completed the race. The team, exhausted yet triumphant, sank to their knees while CITO continued its gentle drift in its inertial motion.
I glanced at my watch – just under 2 hours and 47 minutes. That’s 13 minutes faster than anticipated.
After docking CITO, both Guys experienced leg cramps. Nevertheless, they ensured that other crews disembarked first. Captain Guy stayed back to attend to the aftermath and tidy up the boat for the Greenwich Yacht Club to tow it back to Greenwich.
Simon generously treated everyone to a pint, and then Barge Master John sought us out to congratulate the team, christening us Crew 222. Congratulations were also in order for Giles, who, as a first-time river racer, completed an astounding 15 miles of non-stop rowing. I, of course, expressed my regret for the incident at Kew Bridge and felt guilty for the lost minutes the team endured because of it. However, the crew members were incredibly gracious and even joked that I must have acquired a new perspective on bridge navigation: to avoid getting on the bridge altogether, especially when aboard a boat.
The crew then proudly displayed their fresh, battle-worn blisters to one another, raising their pints in camaraderie and sharing hearty laughs. Their bond grew even stronger. While they treated me as one of their own, I couldn’t help but hope to forge an even deeper connection with these incredible individuals. This sentiment perfectly encapsulated the ethos of the WCIT fellowship.
Ji Li, Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists