Sculling from Oxford to London

Martin Wainwright and “Clemmie” somewhere in between Oxford and London.

21 September 2018

By Martin Wainwright

On 5 September, HTBS wrote about Martin Wainwright, who decided to scull his Clemmie from Oxford to London – a voyage of a little more than 100 miles – to raise money for the Treehouse Project, a project for Holy Cross Hospital in Haslemere. Martin set out from Port Meadow in Oxford on 7 September and landed at Chiswick Slipway on 15 September. When he stepped ashore, he had raised £7,000 for the Treehouse Project. (Bravo, Martin!). The following tale is penned by Martin, especially for HTBS readers. Enjoy!

I announced to friends and family that I was going to scull from Oxford to London with no idea whether I could really do it. With innocent faith, I imagined that in the last resort the current would float me down and that I couldn’t get lost on a river. I was wrong on both counts.

I also assumed that I’d portage round the 33 locks and end up at the Palace of Westminster where eminent contacts from my journalism days would lay on a grand reception. Neither was ever on the cards.

The wind beat the current at several points, sending me back where I’d come from when I easy-ed oars for a rest. The river is a maze of backwaters, lock approach walls are too high for safe landing from an outrigged boat and no craft are allowed within 77 yards of the Houses of Parliament.

But I’ve done it nonetheless! Seven epic days of veteran rowing – I’m 68 – saw me glide past such wonders as Cliveden and Hampton Court, descend 8ft 9ins into the depths of Sandford lock and hurtle down the Tideway on a very strong ebb – my generally careful planning had not taken account of the phases of the Moon.

What are the lessons? First, I re-learned sculling after more than half a century in expert hands; Ed Myatt at Hinksey Sculling School, who started me off on a boating pond where you can only take three strokes before having to spin. Then Howard Aiken at the City of Oxford Rowing Club, who was sterner but in an entirely helpful way which hard-wired respect for the Thames.

Then came winter and I retreated to the local leisure centre’s gym and rowed the 98 miles from Godstow to Teddington on an erg. I dislike gyms, but my target kept boredom at bay and I reached my goal so smartly that my brother-in-law, a coach at Bradford Rowing Club, told me to check that the machine wasn’t treating me as an VIII.

Local family helping me come ashore at Sonning on the evening of Day 3.

Meanwhile a crucial combination to help me to fitness was eating less, getting my weight down from 14 to 12 stone, and taking up yoga to the astonishment of all who know me. I cannot recommend it too highly for getting old muscles to stretch and relax. As a result, I never had any problems with my back.

My final essentials were roughly weekly practice trips from the end of April which got me the 31 miles to Goring in four months; very thorough preparations by the Commander of Land Support, my imperturbable wife Penny, and of course the other woman in my life, Clementine, my touring sculling boat. Without these two, the whole thing would have been impossible.

Penny, the Commander of Land Support on a friend’s much bigger boat in a Thames lock.

Clemmie is a Glide Solo made by Paul Godsafe of Glide Boats in Abingdon on the Thames and her advantages are these: she is robust enough to haul over dry land or scrape ashore on a shingle bank; stable enough to come right alongside a large cabin cruiser with one oar completely shipped, to be handed a hot sausage bap and some sponsorship money; fast enough for my purposes compared, say, to a heavy wooden skiff; and comfy enough to lie back completely supine when whacked.

I will finally break my commendable restraint in not mentioning “Three Men in a Boat” and the laureate of the Thames, Jerome K Jerome, by quoting his reference to WH Smith, who lived in splendour at Greenlands near Temple Island, now the Henley Business School. Or as Jerome has it: “The rather uninteresting looking river residence of my newsagent – a quiet unassuming old gentleman, who may often be met with about these regions, during the summer months, sculling himself along in easy vigorous style, or chatting genially to some old lock-keeper, as he passes through.” – That was me!

So off we went, Penny, Clemmie and me, learning only in stages that the expedition really was going to succeed. The first day, which was also my first-ever full day of rowing downstream, compared to there-and-back again practices, saw me clock up 17 miles between 10am and 6pm. The second was a little shorter, but I had no ill effects. The third day, which included rowing’s shrine of Henley, saw me literally getting into the swing. As I told friends, It was like my long-standing hobby of hill-walking, on a seat.

As I forged on, through Marlow, Windsor and the riverine suburbs before Hampton Court, I grew increasingly but happily surprised by the lack of damage to Clemmie and myself. Remembering Ed and Howard’s lessons, I used my legs as much as I could for power, my arms as levers and – crucially for blister avoidance – my hands and fingers as hooks. The other notoriously vulnerable area for rowers is also pristine, thanks to Clemmie’s extremely comfortable sliding seat.

Demonstrating the resting position on Clemmie during practice.

I owe lasting thanks to the weather gods – 15 minutes of drizzle over seven days – and to the excellent and interesting lock-keepers of the Environment Agency and the staff of the Port of London Authority, whose guide to Rowing on the Tideway is clear and good. Also to Paddle Points for small boat access info on the Thames, the rowing and riverfront community who gave me overnight resting places for Clementine, and courtesy plus encouragement on the Tideway when I was nervously hurtling along, as required by the PLA, in my inner ebb lane with crews and scullers on either side going in both directions.

Arrival at Chiswick Slipway.

I can’t recommend a trip like this too highly, even when your 70th birthday is less than two years away. Younger and tougher rowers could also enhance it by camping en route. A final advantage of Clemmie is ample room on board for a tent, sleeping bag, picnic, pyjamas and toothbrush.

Mission accomplished!

Photography: The “Clemmie” Team.

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