10 September 2021
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch on four young scullers following a 300-year-old bequest.
Famously, history repeats itself. This is certainly true for the Doggett’s Coat and Badge, a sculling race for newly qualified Thames Watermen that has run for more than 300 years, and never more true than for 2021 when the pandemic delayed race for 2020 was held on 25 June, rapidly followed by the 2021 Doggett’s held on 8 September.
Umpire Robert Prentice won Doggett’s in 1973 and holds the course record. His timekeeper (partly obscured on his right in the above picture) was Ken Dwan, a two-time Olympian, Doggetts winner, six-time Wingfield’s Champion and Diamond Sculls finalist. The Dwan family has the most living Doggett’s winners. Ken is the father of Nicholas (2002) and Robert (2004). His brother, John, won in 1977 as did John’s son, Merlin, in 2012. Eighteen months ago, Ken had a well-publicised near-death experience with COVID.
After the race, I and a few others from the press boat Windrush travelled back to Central London on the elegant Bourne, gratefully accepting offers of Champagne and canapés. For the duration of the trip, I was Not-So-Great Gatsby or possibly The Talentless Mr Ripley. Bourne is available for hire from Thames Limo.
At 11.44, Umpire Bobby Prentice dropped his white flag to signal the start of the 307th Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager and Max Carter-Miller immediately powered off to take the lead. He soon passed under Cannon Street Rail Bridge, a mere 250 metres into the 7,400 metre race, but then passed uncomfortably close to a buttress of the next bridge, Southwark, 400 metres in. No doubt he was always conscious of the fact that in his first Doggetts last June he led for the first 3,000 metres but was overtaken at Westminster by the eventual winner, James Berry.
The race soon developed into one of two parts with the athletic Carter-Miller, 6ft 4in and 91kg, rating 30 and hotly pursued by the smaller man on his immediate right, George Gilbert, striking 27 strokes per minute. It was quickly apparent that Gilbert had been training hard and was much improved from last race in June. This left Lucas Britton and Coran Cherry to race each other for third place. Cherry, the bigger man of the two at 6 foot and 98kg, was leading the trailing pair but Britton, a smaller man with even less rowing experience than Cherry, was sculling gamely.
After the race passed under the newest bridge on the course, the Millennium Footbridge, 700 metres in, Umpire Prentice was seen to signal with his white flag to steer Lucas and/or Cherry away from the buttresses of the next bridge, Blackfriars Rail, 1,050 metres into the course.
In the 850 metres between Blackfriars Road Bridge (1,150 metres) and Waterloo Bridge (2,000 metres), the competitors can choose to hug the South shore and go inside the moored barges at Coin Street, cutting the corner and taking flatter but slower water, or stay in the middle of the river and go outside of the moorings, taking a longer route but with faster though potentially rougher water. The conditions were calm so rough water was not an issue and the two leaders, Carter-Miller and Gilbert, took the inside while third and fourth placed Cherry and Britton kept to the middle.
Seven minutes into the race, Britton began to fade, his few weeks of training not enough to build the endurance needed for a race of perhaps twenty-five minutes or more, and Umpire Prentice soon took the difficult decision to go past him to keep contact with the rest of the race. Of course, as soon as the umpire passes a competitor, the following flotilla of spectator boats can do so as well, with the result that the unfortunate straggler is washed down horribly. Not long after, as the leading two passed under the Golden Jubilee Bridges (2,350 metres), Prentice “dropped” Cherry as well and set off in pursuit of Carter-Miller and Gilbert as they approached Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament (2,950 metres). Here, Gilbert took the better line, but Carter-Miller maintained his lead.
Carter-Miller reached the approximate half-way point, Lambeth Bridge (3,650 metres), in about 11 minutes 45 seconds and so could, in theory, beat Umpire Prentice’s record of 23 minutes 22 seconds set in 1973 (though Prentice had the assistance of a strong supporting wind and tide). Race commentator Robert Treharne Jones clocked Carter-Miller rating 28 strokes per minute and Gilbert, far behind but not giving up, at striking 26. Carter-Miller reached Vauxhall Bridge (4,500 metres) in approximately 14 minutes 25 seconds and maintained his unassailable lead past the former Battersea Power Station (5,900 metres).
Just before Grosvenor Rail Bridge and Chelsea Bridge (6,300 metres), Umpire Prentice passed Gilbert and went ahead to follow Carter-Miller over the winning line, seeing his 1973 record safe – but by only eight seconds. Prentice later said that, had he steered a better line, Max would be the new Doggett’s record holder.
Max will receive his yet-to-be-made Coat and Badge at a Grand Dinner at Fishmongers’ Hall in November but on going ashore at Cadogan Pier there was an informal victory ceremony. Here Max told Robert Treharne Jones:
Ken Dwan and Max Carter-Miller.I knew that I had to go off hard and then settle. I stuck to the race plan and tried to look where I was going this time… (In June’s race) my steering was described as “erratic”… it could still use a little bit of work but it was a lot better this time… The 2020 Doggett’s was my first ever race… (but in preparation for this year’s race) I raced at Molesey and Peterborough… Having that little bit of race experience was valuable… Having someone next to you, you panic (but) after you’ve raced a couple of times, you learn to settle yourself… Maybe in four year’s time, I’ll do the Diamonds at Henley, but there’s a lot of hard work to do first…
As to the other three competitors, Coran Cherry will be too old under Doggett’s rules to race next year, but Lucas Britton and George Gilbert have both said that they will be back, the latter benefiting from a new rule change allowing four, not three, consecutive attempts. Hopefully, Britton will train harder for 2022, perhaps learning a lesson from Gilbert’s progress.
In his first race in 2019, George Gilbert “froze” on the start and was immediately passed by the umpire, understandably fazed by the conditions which were described as “brutal”. In the next Doggett’s (June 2021), Gilbert finished the course and came third out of four, defeated by two very strong opponents. In this, his third attempt, he was much better prepared, and put up a very creditable performance. He was perhaps two-and-a-half minutes behind Carter-Miller at the finish, but this does not truly reflect his form as he was passed and washed down by the umpire and the following flotilla in the last 1000 metres. George told me about his future plans:
I’m going to train my bollocks off… I only (raced in June) because COVID stopped me going travelling… I was at Popular (Blackwall and District Rowing Club) at 5am every morning with Max. No matter what the tide was, we went out and I’m going to do it all again for another year. Obviously, I’m upset that I got second but I’m happy with the course that I did, I know it well, I work in that stretch all the time, I know where to be… I went inside at Coin Street and I always stuck to the shores, keeping in the tide but making the shortest line possible… “cut the bends, stay with the tide”, that was the plan!
If George Gilbert does win next year, it will be a great story and one in the best traditions of the unique event that is the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Wager.
The race was live streamed with commentary by Robert Treharne Jones and then made available on demand. In the 24-hours following the race, there were over 1000 views made on YouTube.