If you are able to watch the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race or catch it on BBC Television, you might catch sight of the Queen’s Row Barge Gloriana, her gilded dolphins glaring into the dark water of the Thames.
She will lead the Boat Race Flotilla ahead of the actual races, a warm-up act for the crowds waiting along the bank for the great event.
She will be promoting the Future Blues – a year-round community outreach project that aims to increase the total number of school rowing clubs in the UK by 50%. The Boat Race Company say, ‘We hope this initiative will leave a legacy of not only social upliftment but diversity and education for the future.’
I was fortunate enough to join the crew as they rowed from Chiswick Pier up to Putney Bridge in 2018. I wore the black cap of my rowing club, City Barge and the red shirt of the Gloriana:
After mooring up near the Putney boatsheds where television cameras were lining up under the sponsors’ banners, we rowed our passengers down the official four-mile course. I’m on the right of this shot (above) wearing a black City Barge cap.
The Men’s Boat Race, from Putney to Mortlake, was established in 1845 and has also been used for The Women’s Boat Race since 2015.
Our flotilla was joined by standing-up oarsmen from City Barge, rowing Italian and Maltese vessels, while members of other rowing clubs joined us in Thames skiffs and a variety of traditional craft.
They added colour and brought life to the River Thames reminding onlookers of her past glory.
Glimpses of this rich history are depicted on the cabin walls of the Gloriana, while hand-painted pictures of water birds adorn the ceiling.
As in the days of old, food and drinks are laid on for guests including excellent English sparkling wine, which has become a feature of the day.
While the men’s eights to row the course in under 17 minutes, it took us 52 minutes to reach Chiswich Bridge in the Gloriana.
However, we were pulling 9 tons. Since we were a crew of 18 oarsmen, we each pulling the equivalent of half a ton, against the stream but with the tide. It’s exhausting.
We had more than twenty passengers on board – representatives from schools nearby who hope to participate in the Future Blues scheme.
The big thing for the oarsmen is to keep together. This is trickier that you might imagine as the curve of the hull makes alignment tricky.
We were watched by thousands crowded along the riverside.
The challenge was in raising our oars to salute almost every crowded pub or boat-house along the route.
These wooden oars are 16 foot long and quite a weight. I look at myself now and wonder how I did it.
I have managed to lift my oar in Venice after rowing the Voga Longa but found it tricky in the Gloriana.
Our cox was gracious but it was clear I need more practice. I got there in the end.
Once under Chiswick Bridge we were able to wait for the racing eights to come through after the finish.
We had been asked to grace the back of shot for the BBC coverage of the event.
This put us in a prime position to watch the crews pull in and gather for the prize-giving.
We almost became part of the antics that otherwise could only be seen on television.
Back in 2018, Cambridge University won both the Men’s and Women’s races with ease and enjoyed traditional celebrations despite the cold.
You can watch the coverage on BBC iPlayer here
It was great to have taken part in such an exciting a national event. Many thanks to Malcolm Knight and The Queen’s Row Barge Gloriana for having me.
with additional photos by Richard Bailey of City Barge