Doggett’s 2021: History and Pageantry, Rivalry and Fraternity

The splendid silver arm badges adoring the scarlet livery belonging to the Doggett’s winner for 1999, William Woods, and the blue livery of the Watermen’s Barge Master and 1996 Doggett’s winner, Robert Coleman. The White Horse of Hanover on Woods’ badge reflects the fact that the race was founded by Thomas Doggett in 1715 in celebration of the accession of George I. In his will, Doggett demanded that the race continue “for ever”.

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.

The Keech brothers, Patrick (left) and Jack (right) won in 2019 and 2017 respectively. They were on duty at Crown Pier on the Victoria Embankment to welcome those who were boarding the boat chartered by the Fishmongers’ Company to follow the 2021 race.
Barely visible in the bottom right, Lucas Britton sculls under Tower Bridge towards the competitors’ meeting point alongside HMS Belfast.
Max Carter-Miller passes the Tower of London on his way to the start.
Britton is again dwarfed, this time by the bows of HMS Belfast, a permanently moored museum ship that was in service with the Royal Navy between 1938 and 1963.
For historical reasons, Doggetts is umpired by the Barge Master of the Fishmongers’ Company, a body that has only recently passed the organisation of the race onto the Watermen’s Company.

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.

An appropriately named tourist boat passes the Tower of London, its passengers probably unaware of the significance of the little gathering of scullers alongside them.
The “VIP Boat” carrying sponsors and senior officials of the Fishmongers’ and the Watermen’s was the splendid Bourne, a modern copy of a “gentleman’s commuter boat” that travelled between New York City and The Hamptons in the 1920s (possibly engaging in some Prohibition-era booze smuggling at the same time).

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.

George Gilbert (left) and Max Carter-Miller (right) are observed from the bows of the Bourne. The Doggett’s man is William Woods who won in 1999.
New boy, Lucas Britton.
Coran Cherry was on his second attempt.
Cherry, Gilbert and Carter-Miller await the umpire’s instructions.
The boys turn to go onto the start, just upstream of London Bridge.
Even though relevant part of the river is closed for the race, the course should dissuade all but the brave or the foolish as it is 7,400 metres of unsettled and unsuitable water containing washes, bends and currents, plus the potential to hit any of fourteen bridges and numerous other unyielding floating objects.

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.

Pictured 2 minutes and 50 seconds into the race, the boys pass under the Millennium Footbridge. Left to right/south to north: George Gilbert, Station 4, Black; Max Carter-Miller, Station 3, Light Blue: Lucas Britton, Station: 2, White; Coran Cherry, Station 1, Red.
A race of two halves. At 3 minutes 40 seconds in, Carter-Miller leads Gilbert.
Passing Crown Pier at 4 minutes 40 seconds in, Cherry (leading) and Britton battle for third place.

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.

On the far left, Gilbert and Carter-Miller go on the inside of the barges at Coin Street, while, on the right, Cherry and Britton stay in the middle of the river.
Gilbert (left) and Carter-Miller (right) go between the south shore and the barges, heading towards Waterloo Bridge.
Cherry and Britton take the faster water outside of the barges.
Having passed under Waterloo Bridge (2,000 metres), Gilbert and Carter-Miller approach the Golden Jubilee and Hungerford Bridges (2,350 metres).

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.

Having been passed by the umpire, Britton has to deal with the resulting wash.
Gilbert (left) and Carter-Miller (right) head towards Westminster Bridge (2,950 metres) and the Houses of Parliament.
At Westminster Bridge, Gilbert left and Carter-Miller right.

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).

At Lambeth, the extent of Carter-Miller’s lead is clear.
Carter-Miller downstream of Vauxhall Bridge (4,500 metres), dwarfed by architecture that demands the return of the Luftwaffe.
The leading pair approach Vauxhall Bridge and the new American Embassy.
Seventeen minutes in, Gilbert sculls gamely on.
The race approaches the iconic Art Deco outline of the former Battersea Power Station, designed in the “brick cathedral” style in 1929 (5,900 metres). 
Approaching Grosvenor Rail Bridge.

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. 

Umpire Prentice passes George Gilbert.
Gilbert battles on…
But has to deal with the flotilla’s wash.
Moored near the finish, Carter-Miller’s supporters are excited.
Last few strokes…
Mission accomplished.
A victory salute from Max Carter-Miller, the 307th winner of the Doggett’s Coat and Badge.
George Gilbert finishes a very creditable second.
Coran Cherry and Lucas Britton finish closely together. To finish Doggett’s upright is a form of victory.
On Cadogan Pier, the boys go over the race.
Ken Dwan and Max Carter-Miller.
Gilbert and Britton share a joke.

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…

Winners all.

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.

Max joins the Band of Brothers.

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.

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