5 March 2019
By Jeremy Dale
Jeremy Dale has spent much of his life rowing at Emanuel School, Oxford (losing three Boat Races, in 1969, 1970 and 1971, but winning the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta in 1966) and Tideway Scullers (winning the Britannia Challenge Cup at Henley in 1976). He has been coaching at Emanuel School, Shore School Sydney, the King’s School Ely and Emmanuel College Cambridge. Jeremy also likes to take photographs and has taken some of the images in John Pritchard’s book The Great River Rowed: The Mississippi Million.
Some time ago, John Pritchard, Olympian and Chairman of UK Right to Play, was visiting a school in Ghana for children with learning and physical disabilities. After seeing the plight of Richmond, a little boy the same age as his son, John was inspired to do something to make a proper difference and from that the Mississippi Million challenge was born.
Fast forward five years and on 25 October 2014, John Pritchard and Paddy Broughton, John’s crewmate from the victorious Cambridge ‘Hell Boat’ of 1986, rowed their final strokes into New Orleans in two Victorian skiffs, having started their journey from the source of the river, Lake Itasca, 2,320 miles away and 85 days earlier, and in the process raised more than $1 million for the charity Right to Play.
The completion of this daunting physical challenge was only part of the story, and the efforts to set up the project were equally impressive. The two skiffs were built in Windsor by Stanley & Thomas and shipped out to the States in June only to get ‘lost’ in the U.S. transport system – the skiffs reached Lake Itasca with a day to spare. Then there was the logistics of booking the accommodation and sorting out the transport for the core team and the 60 or so participants who would be rowing for two days at a time.
Each day was literally a new adventure. Early on the river was only wide and deep enough for canoes, but finding the way through the braided and forested channel nearly brought them back to where they started. After five days the river was just deep enough for the skiffs, but the shoals were often difficult to see and the metal strips on the keel saved them from any major damage. As they moved downstream the river traffic got bigger and BIGGER. The 42 barge tows, as they are called, that were encountered south of St Louis along with the ocean-going freighters, created significant wash and usually meant steering out of the main channel and often stopping to ride the swell. Thankfully, they did not have to share the locks with the barges, but if there was one ahead of them it could mean a wait of two and half hours, or getting the skiffs on the trailer to get them round the lock.
An aerial view of the Mississippi will show you how circuitous it is and one day the crews rowed 25 miles only to end up half a mile from where they started having gone round an enormous meander loop. The critical factor of the weather, about which a whole article could be written, mainly hinged on the wind direction and despite some serious praying there was a headwind for much of the last month of the voyage. At one point the wind was so strong and the water so rough that they decided to draft one of the barges to get some shelter. After rowing for up to eight hours in temperatures over 30°c fluid replacement was a critical concern and the crews learnt to discipline themselves by consuming electrolytic drinks every 30 minutes along with some form of carbohydrate. As a contrast on some days, fog delayed the start, a tornado narrowly avoided them, and one day was completely lost as the team sheltered from a severe storm.
The flora and fauna had a mixed reception: lots of majestic bald eagles most of the way down the river; the regal cottonwood trees lining the river and turtles basking on the bank. But then there were the flying carp that jumped into the boats, the mosquitos, the leeches, the water snakes and the very aggressive deer flies. The bites along with the physical exertion, the wear and tear on bodies, and the heat kept Alex Conty, the team physio and medical officer, very busy patching up the team for the following day, and the work he had to do on some backsides is beyond the scope of this article!
Graeme Mulcahy, as well as coaching all the participants new to skiffing, organized all the boating points. This was relatively easy early on but lower down where the river was more industrial than recreational many of the ramps were closed and south of Baton Rouge they incurred the wrath of the Homeland Security by trying to disembark on private oil company land, but they were very understanding when they discovered what they were doing. Also the abnormally high rainfall in September flooded many of the roads leading to the boat ramps, which resulted in some challenging driving and flooded vehicles. Perhaps the biggest challenge came in the last month when a miscalculation in the distance meant that John and Paddy had to row in excess of 50 miles on some days and forfeit a rest day.
Undoubtedly, the skiffs were the stars of the show. ‘Gee, neat canoes!’ was one typical comment. The considerable interest they generated often manifested itself in wonderful acts of generosity, from free hotel rooms to running repairs and direct sponsorship, and the friendly and supportive reaction of the local population along the river will be a lasting memory for the team as well as an immense sense of achievement.
John Pritchard’s book on the endeavor on the Mississippi, The Great River Rowed: The Mississippi Million, has just been published. It is available on Amazon and all profits go to the charity Right to Play.