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Slippery challenge for watermen looping Isle of Dogs in Thames historic barge-driving race

PUBLISHED: 13:00 21 June 2018

Heave-ho!  Thames lightermen negotiating fast current around Isle of Dogs. Picture source: Company of Watermen and Lightermen

Heave-ho! Thames lightermen negotiating fast current around Isle of Dogs. Picture source: Company of Watermen and Lightermen

Company of Watermen and Lightermen

A grueling seven-mile race that starts off by negotiating 30 tonne barges on the bends around the Isle of Dogs is being staged in “extreme rowing conditions” later this month.

Making headway... traditionalThames barge-driving race. Picture source: Company of Watermen and LightermenMaking headway... traditionalThames barge-driving race. Picture source: Company of Watermen and Lightermen

The 43rd annual Thames historic barge-driving race sets off on June 30 from Greenwich, opposite Island Gardens, finishing at the Houses of Parliament.

Every barge is nearly 100 years old, each manned under 15ft oars by crews of Freemen and apprentices of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen.

“This is not a challenge for any amateur rower,” a livery company spokesman warned. “We’re not satisfied just testing crews’ rowing abilities over seven miles, but their navigational skills—we’re making each crew collect a pennant flag from a moored barge along the course.”

That’s the tricky bit—one slip and the crewman collecting the pennant ends up in the drink.

The crews have to make use of the strong tidal currents which are especially strong on the double loop around the Isle of Dogs.

The race held annually since 1974 commemorates the traditional watermen who ferried passengers and the lightermen who once moved freight by barge under oars, long before container shipping put the London Docks and the waterfront wharfs out of business.

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