25 July 2016
Tim Koch’s post-race report:
For most of its long history, Doggett’s allowed a competitor only a single chance of winning the coveted Coat and Badge. In accordance with the wishes of the race’s founder, Thomas Doggett, only six Watermen ‘in their first year of freedom’ could race (‘freedom’ referring to the end of their long apprenticeship). Even harsher was the custom that existed prior to 1870, when the six who were to compete were chosen by drawing lots. While this almost certainly randomly excluded some or all of the best candidates, it was perhaps the only practical way to do it in 1799 for example, when there were 2,000 apprentices. The long, slow reduction in the number of Watermen have resulted in changes to both these rules.
Since 1870, trial races have been rowed from Putney to Hammersmith if there are more than six entrants. Sadly, in modern times this has been rarely necessary. In 1931, trials were run for eight hopefuls and the next such contest was in 1957 for seven scullers. I am not aware of any ‘elimination bouts’ run since then. In 1988, the declining number of new Watermen made it necessary to allow unsuccessful prior competitors to row in their second and third years of freedom, not just their first, in order to keep the number of entries credible. I think that most people concerned would agree that the change has only been good for the event and that some very worthy Doggett’s Men have come through on their second or third attempt – with this year’s winner a good example.
The 2016 winner, Ben Folkard, came fourth in his first attempt in 2014 and second at his next try in 2015. In Max Hall’s report he is quoted as saying:
In my first year, I came fourth because I didn’t know how to row the race…. I was back in training from the next day onwards. Last year I trained really hard but Louis (Pettipher, last year’s winner) was so fit. Today was the product of three years’ hard work.
This ‘hard work’ must have included not just the more obvious training to improve cardio-vascular fitness, muscular strength and sculling technique but some serious consideration to strategy and steering. Doggett’s is raced on a ‘living river’ complete with bends, currents, variable wind directions and immovable obstacles. I stand to be corrected by those who know better, but I would have thought that there are only two ideal lines to take when steering the London Bridge to Chelsea course with the tide; one for calm conditions, one for rough. When the wind stirred up the high water, Folkard took the latter while the other two front runners did not. I am sure that the one thing that those training for Doggett’s do not lack is expert advice on how to steer the fastest line – but few seem to take it.
I talked to Ben after the race:
TK: Was going close to the south bank between Blackfriars and Waterloo a pre-planned strategy?
BF: Yes, it was such rough water that I thought that it would be silly to go on the outside…. I just aimed for the calmest water possible so I could row the best. I knew that Alfie was a little bit heavy for his boat and I tried to take advantage of that….
TK: When did you think that the race was yours?
BF: At Westminster, I had quite a large lead…… and I thought that ‘I’m doing quite well here’ but it was so rough, I could have easily fallen in a few times….. I was trying to make sure that I did not do anything stupid… for much of the course, I was rowing at half slide… just trying not to fall in.
TK: This was your final chance, did this add to the pressure?
BF: The first two times were a bit of a daydream, there was no pressure. I trained all year for it (in 2015) but Louis was so quick and he had such good people around him… This year, not only was it hard training, knowing it was my last chance… made it so much worse… but once I got that comfortable lead, it was such a relief…
Interestingly, Folkard, who is from a family of Watermen, was motivated more by a desire to win the Coat and Badge for himself and for his grandfather (his Master as an apprentice) than by any love of sculling:
If you ask any of my friends, they know that I was planning to set the boat on fire as soon as I got off the water….
I was not alone in thinking that Alfie Anderson would win the 2016 Doggett’s Wager, I know that at least one other well-informed former winner thought so too. On the day, however, he came second. My prediction was based on watching him win the ‘one off’ Coat and Badge Race held in 2014 to mark the 500 years since the first Act of Parliament regulating fares charged by those working on the Thames. The course was half the length of Doggett’s and was open to any member of the Watermen’s Company, including apprentices. The race contained two scullers who were theoretically faster than Anderson but, as things turned out, one fell in and the other led almost to the line when Alfie sensed that his opponents fitness was failing and he made a splendid final spurt to grab victory in the last few strokes (with Ben Folkard coming in third). As the winner of the ‘500’ was still an apprentice, he then had two years to prepare for his first Doggett’s and I assumed that he would be even fitter, stronger and better in 2016 and thus a very likely winner. However, on the day, Alfie seemed to have very little fight in him from the very start. His size and his good technique assured that he would at least be second but he was not the same man that I saw winning the ‘500’ two years previously.
When Alfie came ashore at the finish, I tentatively (and probably undiplomatically) told him that I thought that he would win and that he did not seem as fit as he was two years ago. He readily agreed and rather reluctantly admitted that he had not been very well in the last few days. I certainly thought that he did not look too healthy, even allowing for the fact that he had just raced 7,400 metres. Then, in a great display of humility and sportsmanship, he added:
Even if I was well, I think that (Ben) would have just pipped me. He’s trained harder than me this season, he’s put the work in and when you (do this), it pays off…. So now I’ll put the work in for next year……
If he does train and stays healthy, I find it difficult to imagine that Alfie Anderson will not be putting on the scarlet coat in 2017.
I was impressed with Jake Berry, despite him coming third and a long way behind the other two. He is not a big man but I sense a real determination in him. He needs more time on the water and I understand that he mostly trained off the tidal Thames and he probably needs to change this. He will not get much bigger or stronger and he will not beat a fit Alfie Anderson next year, but if he really works on his fitness and endurance and gets good advice on steering the best course for the conditions on the day, he could be a winner in 2018.
Perry Flynn improved greatly from last year and he put in a much more confident performance than he did in 2015. Further, this year he too took the best line by hugging the south bank at Coin Street and he should get much credit for that. Both in 2015 and 2016, he was second from last and, while he will not win in 2017, his aim should be to improve on his finish position in his last race. He is a great competitor, very much in the spirit of Doggett’s.
I did not see much of George McCarthy as he fell back very early on but I think that he was no worse than Perry Flynn was last year. With enough training and with undoubted support and advice from three family members, who are former winners, he should aim ‘not to be last’ in 2017. Ultimately though, McCarthy finished the course and, in this very tough event and particularly in this year’s very difficult conditions, he should consider that a victory in itself.
The Coat in close-up
As a staunch Whig, Thomas Doggett was passionately devoted to the Hanoverians and laid down that the race was to be held each ‘1st day of August forever’ to commemorate the accession of George I on 1 August 1714, and he had the running White Horse, the symbol of the House of Hanover, embossed on the badge. This one is inscribed ‘Liberty’ and ‘The Gift of Thomas Doggett The Famous Comedian Winner 2015 Louis James Pettipher’.