GRR: London’s Other Marathon

The Great River Race approaches Hammersmith from Putney, passing the former Harrods Repository on the right.

Here is Tim Koch’s report on this year’s Great River Race, GRR:

The Great River Race took place on London’s River Thames on Saturday, 7 September, on a 21-mile course from London Docklands to Richmond in Surrey. While it is certainly ‘great’ with more than 300 boats from the UK and around the world, it is not (officially) a ‘race’. In my report on the 2011 GRR, I summarised the event thus:

The rules of the event say that the boats must be rowed, sculled or paddled and most boat classes must carry a coxswain plus a passenger (who may take turns at the oar or paddle). The ‘passenger rule’ comes from the Watermen’s historic responsibility to carry passengers on the Thames (small children are often favoured for this role). Also, no sliding seats or riggers are allowed and each boat must fly a flag. A huge variety of boats take part and this is coupled with the inclusive atmosphere of the event which attracts men and women, the young and the old, the competitive and the leisurely.

A race or not, the GRR is an event that is best left to pictures, not words.

Visitors from the Netherlands in a lifeboat or, in Dutch, reddingboot. I do not know how many boats came from what foreigners tend to call Holland, but I seem to have photographed a number of them.

An entry from the Royal Netherlands Naval College, an officer training establishment, the equivalent to Newport in the United States or Dartmouth in Britain.

I think I am correct in saying that this is a currach, an ancient design of boat from the west of Ireland (St. Columba is said to have used one). There is no one standard design but they are a very light, wood framed boat with a canvas (or at one time, skin) covering. Several years ago I had the opportunity of seeing several such boats close up and initially was not very impressed. They seemed very crudely made and the oars had no spoons – they were simply long poles! However, I changed my mind when several elderly, small and wiry gentlemen put down their glasses of stout, took off their jackets, rolled up their shirt sleeves and made the currachs seemingly fly across the water. It was later explained to me that the oars, about ten-foot in length, have no spoons as they would be caught in rough seas. The trick is to dig perhaps half the length of the oar into the water to give it a large surface area to work against. The oar locks are block and thole pin.

A boat flying the flag of Scotland, Saint Andrew’s Cross or the Saltire, passes under Hammersmith Bridge.

Women from Helford River Gig Club in Cornwall pass under Hammersmith Bridge. The club writes about them here. HTBS has previously written about the remarkable revival and worldwide spread of Cornish Gig Racing.

Proving the worldwide popularity of Cornish Pilot Gigs, this one is from the Netherlands club WSV de Spiegel based in Nederhorst den Berg in the province of North Holland.

Another Cornish Pilot Gig, this time from Langstone Adventure Rowing who are based in Hampshire in the South East of England. They say that they are a centre for traditional fixed seat rowing and that they ‘…coach teams and individual rowers to reach their goals, be it to row across the English Channel…. to take part in events such as the Great River Race… or to raise money for charity’. They also run team building sessions and ‘gig rowing for fun, fitness and friendship’.

They keep on coming.

Who are the Poplar Dockers from Gravesend?

I know even less about this boat and crew than I do the Poplar Dockers!

More people I cannot tell you about apart from the fact that they look like they are having fun.

The Thames is never quite wide enough. A lifeboat crew from the Netherlands club AVR Avira, based in Duiven in the east of the country, clashes with a Great River Race self-build ‘jolly boat’.

I would love to know more about this boat – or even why the crew is dressed as monks. It looks like a very traditional design.

Is this the same type of boat as the one above?

The end of a long day.


  1. The boat flying the Saltire is one of four St Ayles Skiffs in the race – another is shown in the last picture. Lots more about the race at!

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