The BoatsNow, it has to be said that the concept of rowing 2,340 miles down a massive commercial river is, in and of itself, reasonably daunting. You are sitting for hours a day (probably averaging around eight), facing the wrong way (so you cant see the huge container ships bearing down) and involved in a gruelling physical activity which will require 5,000+ calories per day (if I only want to lose 15 kilos over three months). So, why not make it harder? No sliding seat, no energy efficient outrigger, no sleek shell only a foot or two wide, made of ultralight carbon kevlar. None of these attributes. Instead, it is a short (23 feet) wide (4 feet) heavy (circa 300lbs) and slow (we will be lucky to average 4 mph).
Why then, you might very well ask, would anyone who had a choice, opt for a Thames racing skiff, of Victorian design? The answers are, in fact, remarkably simple and I think compelling. The first reason is beauty. When you see a slick, fast racing eight on the water, you are struck by the elegance of the image. But the image is of the elegance of the rowers, not the shell. The skiffs are simply glorious in design, proportion and line – that elusive, aspirational quality craved by boat makers. Secondly, when you see a skiff on the river it looks as though it absolutely belongs on and to the river. You will see endless “pleasure craft” of all shapes and sizes, named things like “the Saucy Susan” or “Spirit of Wall Street” ploughing up and down rivers, churning the water as they go. Inevitably, these seem to be driven by men, cold beer in hand, with female guests sipping a non descript blush wine. They will be oblivious to the rest of the river users and the only certainty is that the “pleasure” is theirs alone. When you then see the skiffs, they immediately look in keeping with the river and have done so now for getting on for 200 or more years.
These boats are derived from the Wherries, or water taxis, which plied their trade in London in the Georgian and Victorian eras. They were captured in paintings by Canaletto, Whistler, Wylie and others who were captivated by river scenes. The design has changed little for the obvious reason that it is a very, very good one.
The last reason is the easiest of all – I LOVE these boats. They are immediately accessible, in that anyone can get in and have a go. Try doing this in a traditional racing shell, and you will be a) terrified and b) inevitably wet very soon. The action of rowing these boats is an easy swing, which is beguiling once found. Many of the participants in the project had never rowed before and each one of them has fallen in love with these skiffs. I have described skiffing to people as very similar to baseball. Both are fundamentally “easy” to both understand and to begin to play, but to do them well takes years and years of practise and skill. So come and see the boats and tell me whether our boat “Doreen”, with all that name means to this project and the charity (check the website), stacks up against anyones Saucy Susan……