Two years ago I came accross the documentary called Men of the Thames. The film is a journey of watermen and lightermen working in businesses on the Liquid Highway of London.
The story is narrated through the family histories of people with long associations to the London docks, the changes that have shaped their local industry since and their closeness to rowing.
Rowing for them is a family affair, taken up to continue the tradition of family participation in competitions, or as a means of rehabilitation from severe injury in pursue of ‘bringing those who stray back into a much supportive community’. It also highlights how tragedy is reflected upon and the power of responsibility owned by those working on the river.
The second documentary zooms in on the Doggetts Coat and Badge race.
Introduced and funded by Thomas Doggetts, the film takes us into the community within one of the oldest livery companies in London, housed at the Watermen’s Hall.
This is a single sculling race for apprentices in the lightermen and watermen sectors of London, traditionally originating East from the Tower of London.
Rowing in these parts of London was a far cry from the associations of today to university crews and the boat race.
Oared vessels were used to transport people by the river, and the importance of understanding the tides, steering in the streams and the elements in these wider parts of Thames were key to safe and time efficient passage.
Many of the references point to rowing facilities in the east of London. The London Youth Rowing, next to the City Airport is a more recent addition utilised by many regional clubs. Poplar and Blackwall District Rowing Club hosts exhibits from generations of Doggetts winners, many of whom trained from the club. Further athletes went on to row competitively in high performance national, international and Olympic events.
The Eastend is a place of transience and evolving histories, still unfolding to date.
On Sunday, London hosted the annual marathon event, with thousands of participants running the 26 something miles.
The weather was a sizzling 24C with clear skies posing a number of health risks even for the most experienced athletes.
I stood by in Canary Wharf, planning initially to stay only for a few minutes, which turned into hours, after seeing, and being mesmerised by the Kenyan athletes. Their energy is unfathomable, unaffected by the elements, running solidly on their feet, unstoppable towards their own personal target to a medal. Following closely a number of vehicles with cameras indicated the presence of someone important and there you had it, Sir Mo Farah powering through. I was saddened to hear nearing the end of his run that he was seeking a bottle of water, only to be ignored by bystanders wanting to take the best shots as up close as possible. The inhumane treatment of fame, in full display.
Wheelchairs, the visually impaired, following through continued the display of incredible strength of spirit.
Not too long after, people aiming for the 3 hour finish mark, powered through. Pouring sweat and having sustained a considerable amount of sun exposure, gradually more and more were slowing down, even stopping to a walking pace. That was the point, the energy of the crowds and their value, really shined through. At the point where really experienced runners were stopping crowds gathered to encourage on, shouting names of people they didn’t know, edging them to continue on. Strangers, flooding their energy to strangers. The effect was magic happening before our eyes. The runners’ faces lightening up, pace quickening, invaluable seconds saved.
The human endurance has layers unexplored by the majority of us. It doesn’t entertain fear or weakness as concepts. It merely facilitates strength. The psychological status is about completing the task with ease, and resourcing a little more energy for overachieving, unravelling that extra bit of energy as it replenishes itself from the invisible source of confidence.
The fear, and doubt gradually appeared in the lesser trained athletes. You didn’t need to have a discussion. Their feelings stood in front of their faces, attached like a bubble of energy, with rights restricted to the owner exclusively.The take over of these feelings, may as well had been rolled out in a banner. External conditions had made their internal challenge furthermore complex.
This in itself is a very intense experience. It places the human spirit and our conditioning, in the heart of the matter. Challenging mental energy and channelling as well.
Every year I forget… Until I stand by again to watch. And every year I read another layer, of someone running past, a different story, equally important as the very first one, let it be that of the Kenyans or Mo Farah for that matter.
The invaluable value of encouragement. One step at a time, through the stages of being and feeling.
Everything has to do with the mind, and with the limits we have put in and the fact we can overcome them to break them. And what I have done is doping of the mind.
Until the next marathon, exploring the well of our course.
Being in a boat, moving at a speed powered by your own movement and force, is a feeling unlike any other.
If you are not convinced, try hiring a boat on a lake, enjoy the sensations it brings about.
The water has calming qualities. It reflects all there is and for a rower it is the mirror of the investment made in training, on land or water. Rowing is the ultimate competition with oneself.
University rowing crews, whilst studying, instead of joining their peers at the pub, they opt in for the sound of the alarm at 5am, getting in their boats in all weather, come rain or freezing conditions. Or the bravery of the learners turning up at clubs across the country, strengthening mentally and physically so they can lift their boats, catch up with more experienced crews, fine-tune techniques that didn’t even know existed, and balancing this, with work and adult life commitments. Or the juniors, set up in a single scull, a fine balancing act on a tiny boat sliding away at the gentle stroke, at a rate, self maneuvering in windy, and tide against weather conditions. Or the adult master sculler, competing well past their forties, unlike competitors in any other sport.
Crews during an outing in the port of Pireaus, Athens, Greece 2017
Scullers opposite Greenwich, London 2015
Searching out for the ultimate experience visit a rowing competition near you. There are events held on the river, on the coast, at the docks, or a marina, in boats of all sizes. Note the community spirit and peer support.
I am a four year old rower. That’s a baby by competitive standards, yet having transfered from gymnastics, a new lease of sporting life has rolled out in front of me when every other athlete I know, let it be from NBA or Rugby, retired by the time they reached the third decade of their life.I am not simply sharing my insights of the rowing sport, but a small sample of experiences I gained in my infant years, shown through the photos here taken from a range of races, club houses and events.
Head of the Charles Regatta, Boston, USA 2015
Royal Henley Regatta, UK 2015 Blisters and all, being a rower means you have a home at a boat house on any corner of the earth.
I welcome you to some experiences, many call home.