The independent voice of rowing in Britain

Driving out of history

Posted by rowingvoice on July 27, 2012

River Thames Barge Driving Race, Saturday 21 July 2012

The barge driving race started in 1976 under the auspices of Transport On Water (TOW) that was set up by trades unions, the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Company and docklands MPs to sell the waterway of the Thames as a commercial prospect in the face of changes in the way trade and goods were handled.

The race is run over a seven-mile course with the tide from Greenwich Palace to Westminster Palace, open to weight categories of lighters manned by crews of five watermen. Each crew must contain at least one apprentice.  The overall winner was Diana from Trinity Buoy Wharf, a 112-year-old barge manned by the Smith family. Runner up was Steve Faldo of Capital Pleasure Boats, witnessed by hundreds of passengers on dozens of steamers and tugs that follow the race.  As the commentator aboard the Princess Pocahontas  put it, the Thames was alive again.

The three weight categories start simultaneously from Tunnel Glucose, Trafalgar Tavern and Convoy’s Wharf Lower respectively.   Each barge is equipped with three wooden sweeps, two at the bows and a steering oar at the stern. Pennants must be gathered from each of three unmanned ‘target barges’ moored in the reaches below Tower Bridge, which entails landing a man to collect the flag.

Three or four barges arrived at one of these simultaneously like giant dodgem cars, and the first to touch base with the target , the Darren Lacey , became the last to get away, while Hoppy left a man stranded on the target barge. He plunged into the deep and was hoisted aboard as Hoppy made off first. Meanwhile, a combination of the target barge’s mooring buoy and the next barge to attempt to pick up a pennant turned the Darren Lacey half circle, creating all manner of problems for the crew but excitement for the spectators.

Sculling and pulling in jubilee pageants and the like certainly adds glamour to hard work, but taking a run up a board with a big sweep oar and hurling yourself back to drive a barge is surely not for the faint hearted.  The race illuminates the skill and precision which was required before tugs came along , to say nothing of what it must have been like to manoeuvre a loaded lighter on a dark and foggy night when the tide’s running out.  It’s a sobering thought, too, that the race programme contained obituaries of two men lost in accidents on the river in 2011.

Christopher Dodd

River Thames Barge Driving Race – finishing order

1 Diana, 2 Steve Faldo, 3 Blackwall, 4 Balmoral, 5 Benjamin, 6 Shell Bay, 7 Spirit of Mountbatten, 8 Hoppy, 9 Ian Campbell, 10 Jane, 11 Darren Lacey.


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