20 March 2017
Daniel Walker, chairman of the Tideway Events Committee*, writes:
London’s Thames Tideway is a wide, fast-flowing stretch of water, it is an active, working river with substantial commercial traffic, it is categorised as a Class 3 Waterway, meaning that craft may create wash up to a metre high. In winter conditions can be harsh and unforgiving.
Most, though not all, head races are rowed in winter on the ebb tide, when the natural downstream flow of the river is added to the astronomic tide pulling water out of the Thames. The upriver limit of the tidal Thames (the Tideway) is at Teddington lock, here the flow of water into the Tideway is constantly monitored – on average the Thames is running over the weir at around 65 cubic metres per second and in winter it may (albeit rarely) exceed 500 cubic metres per second. In other words there may be 500 tonnes of water pouring downstream towards the North Sea every second. In addition to the potentially very fast flowing water the weather in winter is often far from pleasant.
Over the last few years, a number of Tideway events have experienced situations which have raised concerns about the preparation and readiness of crews for racing on the Tideway.
At Hammersmith Head in 2013, on a day with largely benign conditions a junior eight experienced steering failure shortly before Dove Pier on the Middlesex side of the river. This point is very close to the finish and the crew, ignoring official’s instructions to retire, attempted to complete the course with no steering and were swept onto Dove Pier. The boat, a relatively new Empacher eight, capsized and became lodged under the pier itself. The crew were all recovered from the water by the event safety craft and brought ashore safely, but the boat broke up under the force of the stream and was written off.
There are two key lessons from this incident: firstly it is essential that all boats are thoroughly overhauled before they are used, in particular steering gear must be checked and checked again – a boat that has sat on the rack since last summer is unlikely to be in perfect working order; secondly any crew experiencing steering difficulties must follow instructions, get safely into the bank and withdraw from the race; attempting to continue with defective steering is extremely rash.
Before the start of each race crews are marshalled in divisions of about 50 crews on each side of the river, a large head may have up to eight divisions, each of which must be arranged in starting order moved up above the start and then turned onto the course.
Whilst marshalling crews and coxes need to maintain their position with the bows pointing upstream, in number order and simultaneously holding themselves off the shore. On the Tideway this can be especially challenging as the outgoing tide can quickly catch the bows of a boat and turn it around.
Conditions at the Women’s Head of the River in 2016 were especially difficult with a strong stream and a brisk north-easterly wind. Crews marshalling on Surrey were being pushed onto the shore, and the tide could turn an eight in a few moments. Several crews were caught out by the fast running tide, including one which was completely turned around twice. The chaos caused by an eight facing the wrong way in the middle of a marshalling division has to be seen to be believed. More than one crew lost their fin as they were pushed onto the uneven shore, ending their race before they had a chance to even start.
Crews and particularly coxes must be prepared for these situations and aware that marshalling is an active process in order to maintain station on a tidal river – it is a constant process of tapping on and of keeping the bows tucked well in to the shore. Moreover crews and coxes must have practised and be familiar with boat handling techniques to maintain alignment – e.g. by passing the bow person’s blade to 2 who can then row on with the blade parallel to the hull and rotate the boat.
Crews that normally row on slow moving rivers, canals or lakes/reservoirs can be easily caught out by the speed of the water on the Tideway.
The bigger Tideway events can have in excess of 400 boats to marshal, turn and start. Crews starting towards the back of the race may need to wait for over an hour in potentially unpleasant conditions.
Again at the Women’s Head in 2016, the weather was very unpleasant, a cold northerly wind was supplemented by a hail storm while the later divisions were still marshalling. At least one crew got so cold that they were unable to proceed to the start. The oarswoman at stroke, suffering from hypothermia, was recovered into a rescue launch and taken ashore. Crews waiting to start were then halted to allow rest of the crew, supplemented by their coach, to row the boat across the course back to their host club.
Although there is a high degree of commonality between events and the organisation of those events, there are still subtle and not so subtle differences between individual events. The Schools Head is unique amongst those events which finish in Putney, as it’s finish is at Westminster School instead of the more usual Putney Pier. Additionally some events may change from year to year, for example the Pairs Head this year ran in the reverse direction from normal – on the flood tide, instead of the ebb – meaning everything about the race was different, from where crews were to marshal to where they would start and finish.
Every event will publish a comprehensive set of instructions to competitors, available from the event website, that will give details of when, where and how to marshal, where the course and timing points are and, most crucially for the Tideway, where crews may turn and where they may cross the river. It is essential that every cox, crew and coach is familiar with these instructions.
The Port of London Authority maintain a dedicated site for recreational users of the Thames here you can find a wealth of relevant information, including: the current state of the Ebb Tide Flag Warning system; a link to a downloadable PDF copy of The Rowing Code (A Code of Practice for Rowing on the Tidal Thames) and videos giving advice for rowers.
To repeat the question, are you ready for the Tideway?
*The Tideway Events Committee, a sub-committee of the Thames Regional Rowing Council, exists to help ensure consistency and safe practice across those rowing events which take place on the tidal Thames, both head races and regattas.
Daniel Walker has been involved in rowing since he was a schoolboy in Norwich in the 1980s; he is a member of the Thames Regional Rowing Council, chairman of the Tideway Events Committee and a British Rowing National Umpire.
Pictures and captions by Tim Koch. The 2017 Head of the River Race is on Saturday, 25 March.