Andy Ross [OOD] Race Report: 15.00 Sunday 23 July 2017: War Stories
When King Henry VII decided that the air quality of London was so foul [as today] and that royal country residences outside the capital were preferable, the need for upgrading palaces locally was met in Kew, West Sheen [Richmond], and at Hampton Court and Windsor – so establishing a conceit of royalty visiting the countryside as a classical “Arcadia” – the wilderness home of Pan the god of the forest and nature – in a landscape of grand riverside houses and gardens that both dignified and added a political and social importance to the river and its banks and gave the whole of the rural Thames valley a greater significance than just the mundane trading usage of the Thames.
The aristocracy quickly followed suite and Chiswick House and Grounds was created beside the river featuring a lake and a clean water cascade derived from Spring Grove, [so Greek!] with wilderness areas and woodland glades and with agricultural fields for food and ornamental gardens for recreation and kitchen gardens for cuisine, perfecting the idealized “sub-urbes” suburban style of the English Garden landscape, designed to interconnect the city with the countryside – and thereby setting a pattern for a domestic suburban house and garden that was then copied throughout Chiswick, and worldwide.
Without a river frontage of its own, Gunnersbury House and Park exploited a penthouse approach based on the hill line above Chiswick, thereby both seeing – and being seen – with wide horizon views out to Windsor and across to the Surrey Hills – ironically now increasingly obscured with the giant tower blocks of the Golden Mile, and their penthouses. Now, only Richmond Hill and Park with its sightlines to Windsor one way and to the City of London the other still exists as having legally-protected long views of London and Thames valley. As the suburbs spread and the open agricultural land was in-filled with houses, and less and less of the river and its landscape could be seen, or even accessed, so the demand evolved for clubs for rowing and boating and sailing, essentially for recreation and pleasure; the sports of the King brought to the people.
To try to conserve the original idea of the landscape scale and sense of place of west London, and the social significance of the river, the Thames Landscape Strategy [TLS] was developed by two landscape architects in 1994 with a 100-year plan to define and emphasise the value to society of the entire Thames river system. To photograph some current day aspects of a peaceful river scene for the TLS a former war-photographer, Paul Stewart and his wife Vivien, asked SGSC if they could watch a typical sailing race and record it for history and so, with David Jones as their driver, Tim offered them places on the Safety Boat.
A warm and gusty Westerly wind was quite inviting. James in his Enterprise [with Lev’s son David onboard] was joined by Lev and Tim [both in Gulls]. A long triangular ‘A’ course was set by Andy Ross [OOD] using the red rowing buoy and a brisk start ensured a first round lap of 10 minutes by James and 13 and 14 by Lev and Tim. Our photographic guests were relaxing in comfort, clicking away at their leisure.
It was then that the first in-coming wind bomb exploded. Having spotted the famous war photographer, and seizing the opportunity to strike with shock and awe, and fame in history, the wind went on the war path. SGSC was in its sights.
Sudden gusts turned a gentle leisurely pleasure into white-knuckled panic. A dancing set of quicksteps upstream on the windward tack – then crossing after the trots to the rowing buoy [becalmed for moments in the Surrey bank doldrums while slithering dangerously quickly on the tide up to the buoy] was followed by a rapid acceleration on a long reach to the upstream buoy; rounding it in a flash and rollicking and rolling downwind to the line. The second lap time of 7 minutes then shortened to 6 on the third. The intelligence from the eye-spies on the weather was that enemy big battalions were now maneuvering – and seriously threatening that it wasn’t going to end well.
As machine-gun bullets of wind began strafing long lines across the river, ripping off the tops of the incoming flood water, Lev was the first to fall victim of a sniper; capsizing at the downstream buoy on his third lap. Amazingly, he recovered, uninjured, climbed back in, baled out – and resumed racing! By then everyone was desperately spilling relentlessly rolling barrages of incoming mortar shell bursts of wind out of their sails to try and stay relatively upright. It was asymmetric guerilla warfare. Dramatic rocking around the river indicated a scattering and fleeing fleet. Suddenly enforced deviations off-track paradoxically meant that as the wind speed increased, so also did the lap times.
Though as secure and confident as a cavalry warhorse, charging at the enemy in full pomp and splendor, plumes waving aloft and galloping along the parapets, his finely-polished hull glinting in the spray, it was a long distance Big Bertha of a wind bomb that finally did for Tim in Axolotl, catching him at the top mark just as he was about to gybe. The wind had seen his intention far ahead and the big gun had roared – aimed directly for him. Irresistibly, and caught on a time-lapse, slow motion camera, he toppled over. It was a Frank Cappa photography moment.
As James rounded the same upstream buoy he performed not a balletic pirouette of a gybe but more of a double granny knot of turns of twisting sheets and flailing sails entailing desperate leaning-out – while young David was nonchalantly totally unperturbed in the belly of the boat, waving happily back at spectators; who were aghast at the peril he was apparently in.
As James crossed the line on his sixth lap he begged for the race to be finished early; without even a last lap flag. Acting like the Red Cross coming to the rescue, flying a white flag, the OOD did so. And rather than send Lev round another lap, as he was just 40 seconds behind James, but still two laps behind him, the OOD finished him too for Pity’s sake and to end hostilities.
Meanwhile, by then swept far upstream on the strong flood tide, Tim had managed to right his boat – but only to find himself confronted by the lowest arch of Kew Bridge. He had no option but to capsize again to avoid crashing his mast into it. By then the safety boat was beside him – but found it utterly impossible to stem the tide. Axolotl went under the bridge, dragging its mast on the riverbed – until ramming into and jamming the upturned hull underneath the steel pontoon. Tim, unable to hold onto the slippery hull was swept under the pontoon, fortunately uninjured, and eventually managed to scramble out and get ashore some five houseboats further down.
Having returned the guest photographers to the Club and with Andy and Lev now onboard the safety boat with David, they hurried back to rescue Tim. With the still-rising tide Axolotl was jammed hard under the pontoon, risking cracking its hull; until eventually the tide began to slacken and inch-by-inch the mast eased up – and the boat was maneuvered to the bankside beside the bridge walkway.
Baling commenced and Tim soon confidently announced: “Right, we’re OK now!” And he took a step forward. But he had no idea the vertical edge of the concrete bank was so close. Being quite unable [contrary to pre-conceptions] that he could walk on water, with a mighty explosion he plunged in like a depth charge – totally drenching Andy standing on the bow of the safety boat.
Spluttering to the surface and bobbing amidst a multitude of plastic bottles that were assembling in a small convoy, waiting to join the 10,000 tonnes of plastic the river Thames sends every year on a journey to eternity in the Pacific Ocean, and rather than go with them, he hauled himself ashore again. His previously immaculate salmon-pink trousers were now crimson-red and baggy-wrinkled with embarrassment, which drew applause and much laughter from spectators on the bridge above who took photo-journalistic pictures – possibly wondering if they had spotted a famous local celebrity in trouble with a wardrobe malfunction, and whether they had got the i-phone aspect-ratio right to sell a war-photo scoop.
Axolotl, having been de-masted and turned round alongside the safety boat, was towed under Kew Bridge and rather than collect Tim from the Indian Queen [Pocahontas] Slipway he re-embarked from Pier House Garden close by the Steam Packet [Café Rouge] Steps. On-board, the losses were assessed. The SGSC boathook pole had been snapped in two in attempting to stave off the collision with the pontoon.. “But at least I’ve still got my own favourite little boathook”, said Tim – as he dropped it into the river, – and just managed to catch it. But he’d lost a paddle, a bucket, a burgee, a rope – and, most upsetting, his SGSC sweater – and a certain amount of dignity.
In the arch, journalistic stories from exotic Foreign Fronts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Vietnam and the Middle East could in future be accompanied by a Home Front story of the day that a royal Arcadian gentle leisure river trip turned into a violent waterborne battle that pitted boatmen [and a shipsboy] against the elements; turning the tranquil Thames into a stormy and splattered battleground.
Frank Brazell with his crew Brian Ganly were also on the water for the first time, but very wisely decided to venture no further out than the side of Oliver’s Island and so lived to sail unperturbed another day.
The day ended with everyone thankfully safe and well and [relatively] happy; and were well comforted in the best of English traditions with big slices of home-made blackberry and apple crumble cake, washed down with a huge pot of China and Darjeeling Fairtrade Loose Leaf Fine Tea. It was probably just as King Henry VII himself would have wanted after enjoying the exceptionally bracing fresh air of a day out beside, and on – and actually in – the river Thames “Arcadia”.