Messing About on the River


I have now got used to the idea that I am supporting Oxford in tomorrow’s boat race. My admiration and affection for my godson, William Warr (pictured), is stronger than my lifelong commitment to Cambridge. But only, of course, for this year.

Yesterday I was given a real treat. William’s mother and I, together with his aunt and another godchild of mine, were invited to follow the Oxford eight in the club’s official launch as they practised on the Thames.

Charles and Rose.JPG

That is a picture of the author with his goddaughter, Rose Fookes, watching his godson, William Warr, in the Oxford eight.

It really was fascinating. Obviously, I felt very important. Apart from the pilot and a couple of OUBC officials, there were only five of us on the launch. There was the William party (us) and a delightful American woman, who turned out to be a rowing coach in Maine, whose nephew was in the number two seat. As we chugged up and down the river, close behind the stars, other rowers (there were quite a few schools using the last day of term for rowing practice) would stop to look at us. Well, maybe they were more interested in the Oxford oarsmen than in us, but I bet they thought we must be celebrities or VIPs.

I don’t think I am revealing any secrets when I report that the crew did not engage in anything too energetic. As William explained to me afterwards, both crews adopt something called the “taper” approach to practising in the days leading up to the race. They don’t exhaust themselves. There would be occasional spurts, but then lengthy pauses as they practised starting.

The launch itself was magnificent. I imagine it was quite old, it had a sort of thirties feel to it, but it was in pristine condition. It was capable of quite remarkable speed when required, without producing any wake. Sadly, these glorious boats (there are several of them) have been sentenced to death. Despite the fact that they have been used for decades without any problem, the Port of London Authority has decreed that they are unsafe because they have petrol rather than diesel engines: they might burst into flames. The order has gone out that all the launches must be converted to diesel by December 2017 (at a cost of £30,000 each) or they will no longer be allowed on the river. I would love to be able to blame the EU for that, but my guess is that it is an example of British, not European, officialdom wanting to make life impossible for as many people as possible.

So, this may be the last year when you will see the gigantic flotilla of launches following the race (the company which owns most of them has admitted that it cannot afford to comply with the Port of London Authority’s decree). Having now been in one of the launches I am really rather sad about their demise. I can only hope that they will still be used at Henley and other regattas outside the jurisdiction of the PLA, but I bet other petty bureaucrats responsible for regulating rivers outside London will be desperate to follow London’s lead. All very sad.

Still, I had a glorious morning messing about on the river. It is extraordinary how different London looks from the river. The landmarks are not the same as they are from roads. It takes quite a lot of concentration to work out where one is, even though one is somewhere one sees, from land, almost daily. I have often thought it would be a good idea to make more use of the Thames as a thoroughfare through London. But I don’t suppose it will ever happen (and the Port of London Authority will do all it can to ensure it doesn’t.



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