Emerging at Putney Bridge on April 2nd just before 2pm the only words I could think to describe our three day journey along the Thames from Oxford was ‘rollercoaster’. I felt like a talent show contest judge, only far wetter and dishevelled, and as a first foray leading a team of people, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan.
A rollercoaster was just about the only form of transport we didn’t use during the 100 mile journey.
The grand vision to row from Oxford University boat houses as an 8 person team and arrive beneath Putney Bridge in the week leading up to the Oxford-Cambridge boat race was brilliant on paper. What I hadn’t planned or back-up planned for, was the possibility of the Thames being flooded and locks being under-construction.
Following a heavy downpour the Thames was upgraded to ‘red flag’ (and therefore unable to row) the day before we were due to start and coupled with that we learned repair work had recently started on several locks.
At 9 am on Monday morning the idea of arriving at Putney Bridge heroically and being lifted into the air by the Oxford and Cambridge rowers had been dashed before we even had chance to start.
Still, there were a group of our Atlantic rowing prospective candidates, all of whom with amazing stories to tell and ambitions to realise, and whose sense of adventure wasn’t the least bit perturbed by the disappointing news.
Was it to be a marathon 3 day walk? A gruelling 3 day ultramarathon run? A leisurely Thames path cycle? After some debate, and a short amount of time cycling tandem bikes around Oxford (the surreal highlight of a very surreal trip) we opted for the most sensible option, and most sensible pair of shoes, to walk.
Already feeling the need to put the day to bed, we walked for 9 hours through the night along the Oxfordshire country roads, doing no favours to downplay the reputation for eccentricity of British ramblers as we carried a portable radio to keep spirits high.
The feeling of my knees during the night following that 24 mile walk is still vivid in my mind, every movement in bed that night was painful but Tuesday was a new day.
We said goodbye to several of the team and welcomed Becky. A befuddling explanation of why weren’t in a rowing boat later, and Becky, myself and the remainder of the team were phoning every water centre in the greater Oxfordshire area in search of a kayak.
Engage Watersports in Maidenhead were immediately happy to help, and incredibly generous in lending us three, two person kayaks, especially as Hans was the only skilled kayaker among the group.
We were finally on the water, the weather warm, and the only decisions we’d have to make between here and London would be to lazily ask the lock-keepers to open the gates, or un-lock gates ourselves.
We arrived at Staines rowing club just after sunset, secured the kayaks thanks to the generosity of one of the coaches at the club, tucked into a curry, and tried to ignore the thought of the 4am alarm for Wednesday morning.
A deadline was ahead. In action-triller style we had to arrive at Richmond lock before the London tidal waters flowed out, making it tough to kayak against. We had 35 miles to cover before 12:30pm. Our boats were on the water in Staines-upon-Thames by 5am, the temperature crisp enough for thermals for the first time, but a great tranquillity to the water, passing the affluent riverside frontages and disturbing the sleeping residents of narrowboats with our Encore player, a portable radio that helped us through the graveyard shift.
Throughout the entire three days everyone was incredibly positive and always looking for the best option rather than griping about the numerous problems and our 5am kayak was no different, so much so we arrived at Richmond lock and had time to pose for a few pictures.
We had to face the final 10 miles between Richmond and Putney against the tide with a late downpour just for dramatic effect, but as we pulled into the mooring just in front of London Rowing club, the crews of Oxford and Cambridge were taking to the water to prepare for the University boat race as if to applaud our efforts.
Those three days felt like a lifetime but on reflection the experience provided insight into just how determined all the people who have come forward for our Atlantic row are. The only winging all week was directed towards our Tuesday night curry, and that was very justified. It was far from plain sailing, but I feel I learned much more about myself and our potential crew through our problem-filled journey.