In July, I took part in the Oarsome Challenge for the first time - a significant fundraiser for LYR, the charity I work for. The challenge? Crews rowing skerries down the River Thames from Greenwich to Chiswick. My role? Coxing one of the boats.
I was nervous and excited for the two days: the prospect of guiding a crew through Central London on the Thames both exhilarating and somewhat terrifying. I envisioned rolling with the waves under Tower Bridge and past Big Ben; what a life-long memory it would leave, and what a huge responsibility it would be.
At least I could ease myself in. On day one, with fewer boats taking part, I was warming the bench as reserve cox. I’d help at the set-up and once crews had set off, I could head home before taking on the challenge the following day. I gleefully told my colleagues that once they left my intention was to head to Wimbledon and spend the day on Henman Hill. I should have known such talk would result in swift karmic justice. As fate would have it there was an extra amount of people: enough for an extra boat with an extra cox - step up the reserve cox… there’d be no tennis watched today.
I rushed around making sure I had enough provisions for the journey, introducing myself to the team I’d be leading and getting to know them. Quickly it turned into go time and we clambered into our boat, The Fanmaker, ready to ship off.
There was solid company to help me through the journey. Sat in bow pair were two LYR colleagues you’d hastily select to help you through the challenge before anyone else could snap them up: the inordinately competent Owen Shepard and LYR’s ‘Resident Olympian’ Andy Triggs Hodge. I’m sure throughout Andy’s rowing career he’s had more experienced coxes at the helm and beginning with an immediate minor hiccup our boat appeared to make its way towards a docked barge, with Andy bellowing “where are you going!” at me. Crisis was averted, our skerry set on a new course and with our right-side oars drawn across we were safe, ready to begin our journey down towards Tower Bridge.
Once I’d gotten to grips with the navigation, I was able to widen my eyes to absorb and appreciate the unique, enriching experience we were enjoying. I was in a boat of people I had for the most part only met that day, but the sense of camaraderie was high. We were rowing down one of the most iconic city rivers in the world, passing landmark sights by the minute. Having had a training day with LYR at the Olympic Park, the crews were up for the challenge, counting down together down as they pulled through the river.
Beginning at Greenwich, we made our way by Canary Wharf, under Tower Bridge, past HMS Belfast and St. Pauls Cathedral, towards the London Eye, Big Ben, and Westminster (where I gave the grateful crew a break for food), onto Battersea Power Station and then beginning the boat course race in Putney for the time trial, finishing amidst the calming greenery of Chiswick. On the Boat Race course the crews emptied the tank of all they had left after a few hours of rowing, celebrating as they passed underneath the finish line at Chiswick Bridge, coming ashore to a well-deserved pizza and beer.
At the finish line, the atmosphere was one that can only be found through the buzz after moments of shared sporting achievement. No matter the ability or the ambition in terms of the time trial, everyone had completed the 30 kilometres from Greenwich. Everyone would be able to say for the rest of their lives they’d rowed through London. Naturally in these moments, people were smiling, proud, and full of conversation, despite being absolutely knackered!
The next day we did it all again with new teams. I was more settled and able to soak in the experience from the very start, witnessing the beach replete with teams of fancy dress (sailors and knights to name a memorable two), to the racing line and finish with the same feelings of achievement and celebration.
One thing that was particularly personally satisfying over the two days were the conversations I was able to have with the two different crews. I was able to tell my teams about my role at LYR, bringing young people in Alternative Provisions who have been excluded or at risk of exclusion from mainstream school rowing to improve their life skills. I was able to tell them about our wider reach and mission, engaging every day with young people through Active Row and a variety of other programmes to offer opportunities and grow key life skills through our sport.
Equally, I had the opportunity to listen and learn about the companies who were supporting us. I had the privilege of taking Draker Lettings and Tideway East down the river. I received a wonderful riverside property tour from Tim of Draker Lettings, detailing the history of houses on the banks, and got to see and hear about the many different Tideway sites we rowed past from Tideway East.
At the end, in a circle of pizza-eating fancy-dressed company, Andy made a speech, illustrating in a far more captivating way the same stories I had been telling my teams on the boats. He described the work we do at LYR. The everyday commitment to reduce inequality, afford fair opportunity, and develop young people. That what we do at LYR is so important, so inspiring, and so essential. That by taking part in the Oarsome Challenge, the money raised would go directly towards affording and developing that essential work we do. Andy finished by saying that the challenge was one of the best rowing events he has ever taken part in, adding with a wry sincere smile that he wasn’t taking the mick.
Overall, the event raised the amazing total of £40,000, money that will directly fund more positive influence for the youth we work for. A recent study by State of Life concluded that for every £1 invested on LYR’s Active Row programme, young people benefit to the tune of £40 of improved wellbeing. Imagine how much return fundraising crews had given back to society, simply by rowing down the Thames for the day.