2017 Thames Barge Driving Race

Barges approaching Tower Bridge.

19 July 2017

Daniel Walker is a Freeman of the Company of Watermen & Lightermen of the River Thames. Both his father and grandfather were Thames lightermen. Daniel writes:

On Saturday, 15 July, I watched one of the more unusual rowing events on the working rover Thames – the annual Thames Barge Driving Race. This event involves teams of four to six people rowing steel cargo barges a seven-mile course from Greenwich to Westminster. The event is run by the Thames Barge Driving Trust and as their website states with commendable understatement: ‘Considerable skill is needed to pilot unpowered barges, rowed under oars or sweeps and ride the tidal river currents alone, up river’.  Their website goes on to say: ‘These events commemorate the skills of lightermen who moved freight this way along the Thames up until the 1930s’.

This year’s winning barge “Apprentice Lighterman” of The Company of Watermen & Lightermen.

The barges weigh about 30 tons and are pushed by the tide and driven along by two rowing sweeps with a third for steering only. Each sweep has only one rower at a time, but they may change over during the race. As if rowing a barge weren’t difficult enough the crews must also collect pennants from moored barges as they go. Every crew must collect at least one pennant but may collect up to three, for which additional trophies are awarded.

Crew of “Balmoral” working hard.
Even steering isn’t easy.

The course, which runs on the fast flowing flood tide, takes the crews through some of the most historic and busiest parts of the working Thames, from Greenwich through the Pool of London, traditionally the commercial heart of the River Thames, then under Tower Bridge, the first of ten bridges they must negotiate, to the finish at Westminster Bridge.

The final barge passing under Tower Bridge, with HMS “Belfast” on the left.

There is more information including a helpful map on the Thames Barge Driving Trust website, here.

The winning barge Apprentice Lighterman was newly built this year, specifically to support the Company of Watermen and Lightermen’s entry in the race.

“Apprentice Lighterman” passing HMS “Belfast”.
The flotilla of barges and support vessels head upriver.

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