“And now the shipping forecast for inshore waters:
Gibraltar Point to North Foreland: Another sweltering hot and steamy day, folks, so
go easy on the cold lagers, at least until the Croatia v Denmark kick-off at 7.00pm
when you can crack open the Carlsberg….and especially leave plenty of room for
Stand on the Green sailors zigzagging around on the Thames in the sunshine during
another baking hot day; everyone knows they’re totally mad, so leave them to it.”
Lev was first to arrive. Keen to go, he’d been uncovering his boat practically at dawn.
Then Alex, limbering up in super zany blue and white Hawaiian shorts and crocs.
Finally Tim, cycling in with a flourish and tales of having been up at 4.00am the day
before for a whole day sailing on a tug from Brentford to Greenwich and back. No
sign of Michael who had said he’d sail. John Bull turned up, as did James, and they
kindly assisted everyone getting ready; despite already sweating in the heat.
Boats were trundled down across a sticky brown foreshore; the river had had no
fresh rain in it for three weeks and so the agricultural run-off of farming fertiliser from
farmland up-stream had been sinking undiluted into ditches and small streams;
loading the foreshore with nutrients and producing mats of algal sludge.
The odd puff of wind was just that. James was quizzed about the timing of a start:
‘Some time after 10.00am – so as to get to Battersea railway bridge just on the turn
of the tide – about 12.00pm.’ But the general opinion was that around 10.15am
would be about right. So Tim set off; and meandered around aimlessly in no wind
until he drifted listlessly under the railway bridge and was recorded by the OOD as
having officially started at 10.09am.
Alex followed at 10.19. And finally Lev, sailing his newly-rigged and restored
Enterprise single-handed, passed under the bridge at 10.21am.
There was a bit of a breeze; oddly from the North, but enough to send everyone
down to Chiswick steps which Tim reached at 10.25, Alex at 10.35 and Lev at 10.45;
all at the same 10-minute interval from the start.
But, in a sign of things to come, a sudden flip of the wind caught Lev sideways – and
he was at 60 degrees for a dramatic moment. Calm was restored and he drifted
under Chiswick Bridge into a pool of plain, silver-smooth water.
By Barnes railway bridge Tim was out of sight, but Alex was easing his way round
towards Corney Reach while Lev cleared the bridge at 11.05.
The majestic long line of twenty tall black poplars at Corney Reach arched over their
tops; there was a bit of wind up there. And by Pissarro’s [now sadly defunct, with its
brand name letters askew] a sprightly new breeze from the East was encouraging
the thought of better sailing.
The sign post at the end of Chiswick Ait indicating the headroom at Hammersmith
Bridge showed there was 6m clearance; easily enough for us.
At Corinthians, Tim was still out of sight but Alex passed the LCSC signal box at
11.07 and Lev at 11.17 – still exactly a 10 minute gap between them. Oddly, there
was not a single other boat to be seen anywhere on the river; no rowers, sailors or
motor boats. Where was everyone? Unbuttoning lagers?
Under Hammersmith Bridge and along to the Harrods Furniture Depository [or the
Oligarch’s Suppository, as it’s unkindly known] all three boats were back in sight; Tim
down by Fulham Football Club, Alex at SBSC – while Lev was plugging up the rear,
so to speak.
The time between the three began to tighten. Tim passed under Putney Bridge at
11.40 followed by Alex at 11.45 – and Lev at 11.50; each now at five minute
intervals. Was Tim slowing down? Or Lev catching up – or both? The wind was
freshening to a steady Easterly.
The whole character of the River Thames changes at Putney bridge.
To start with, it has 16 CCTV cameras on it; covering all arches, both sides.
Suddenly the GDP of London becomes much more obvious. The buildings are
bigger and make important statements about their presence. Tiered and set-back,
they rise up in geological layers; stratification of wealth and ownership, overlooking
Wandsworth Park and Hurlingham Gardens.
And with the architectural grandeur came an even stronger hot wind. Stiffening
breezes from the East were making waves – and arriving in unexpectedly big gusts.
It was at Wandsworth Bridge that the dramatic action began.
Tim passed through exactly on 12.00 noon. Alex was through at 12.04.
But Lev, still upstream and right beside the Wandle river as it tried its best to add
some fresh water to the turgid Thames, spun around in a gust and heeled over into a
capsize. Thus he found himself carried under and through the bridge; fortunately
without any traffic about. Easing himself onboard he found that in the stiff wind it was
just about possible to make sufficient speed for the self-balers to begin to gurgle
away – and he resumed the race – though still noticeably low in the water.
Battersea Bridge was then in sight!
Rather as the Hubble telescope observes the passing of exoplanets across a distant
sun, seen by the dimming of the light they cause, so the sails of Tim, and then Alex,
darkened from white to grey in the shadow of the bridge – and then lightened again –
only to darken once more, and return to white as they re-emerged, having turned
around and come back. Tim went dark at 12.06 – and returned to white at 12.08.
Alex went dark at 12.20 – and returned to white at 12.21.
Lev, meanwhile, was held in a slowly becalming arena of water around Plantation
Wharf; beside the stacks of apartments like ocean liners, even with white balconies
looking like empty lifeboats strung alongside. The reed beds on the embankment
were being gently ruffled; but without much to indicate which way to bend in the light
and fickle wind.
Stories of Lev’s capsize were exchanged as Tim and Alex passed by. But now the
real race was on to see if Lev could get to the bridge in the face of the turning tide.
Firstly he attacked the south bank. Tacking to and fro in the gentler tide by the side
of the Battersea heliport he inched his way forward, only to find that the shadow of
the buildings was blocking the little wind. So he went into the mid-channel. Only to
find the ‘Cockney Sparrow’ was jauntily steaming down river towards him, with no
intention of giving way to the intruder on his [her?] territory. Back to the south bank.
From 100m back the OOD observed, firstly, the Overground train going north to
Willesden. And then a hugely-long freight train went the other way to Clapham
Junction. After a while, another Overground train followed to Clapham. The Sunday
timetable is a relatively relaxed affair. How many more would come and go before
Lev got to the bridge?
Significantly, the level of fuel in the tank was hovering down to minimal. And it was
with great relief that the OOD thanked John Bull who, despite the OOD having
assured him that he was quite certain there was more than enough fuel for the
journey had, nonetheless, wise virgin keeper of the oil lamp that he proved to be,
tucked in a small can in reserve. It was glugged in.
There was then a difficult conundrum for the OOD to ponder: whether to go and ask
Lev what he intended to do? On the one hand, Tim and Alex had long gone and
were probably sailing happily together. The obvious priority was to stay with Lev.
But in asking what he wanted to do would be rather like asking Schrodinger’s cat if
it’s alive or dead – the question itself would make the difference. And it was clear
that Lev was engaged in a Nietzschean existential battle; overcoming nihilism with
insight into the meaning of life though positive engagement with difficulty as a
personal triumph of the will. He crossed the river again; just 20m from the bridge.
The Battersea Heliport windsock hung like an elephant’s trunk.
But what was that noise: a clattering in the distance – and a helicopter coming into
land! Would the downdraft blow him through the bridge? Alas no. And five minutes
later, it took off again – doing its best to send a flurry of wind his way. But there was
no way against the water.
At 13.25 the game was over for Lev. Human willpower cannot contradict nature.
Turning into the main channel he picked up the current and shot away.
But no sooner than Wandsworth bridge had come in sight when a big gust of
following wind spun Lev round – and into another capsize: No. 2. This time, the OOD
felt it was appropriate to ask if he’d had enough? No way! He was baling out and
baling out – and carrying on!
And then capsize No. 3, at Putney road bridge – with, no doubt, the operator of the
16 CCTV cameras watching the drama.
Capsize No. 4 was at Fulham football stadium. And it was the same syndrome. Not
helped with jugloads of water sloshing around in the bowels of the boat, it seemed
that as the wind bore down on the mainsail it couldn’t accelerate the sluggish boat
speed; so the centreboard acted like a plane wing lifting and tilting further and faster.
Capsize No 5 was at The Dove.
By this time Lev was sailing in a well-filled bathtub with loads of warm water and
plenty of soapy suds [Sustainable Urban Drainage System] for company, but not
really something to relax into and enjoy. There was, in addition, the distinct smell of
rotting seaweed in the air – a fragrant reminder that the incoming tide was bringing
back up the presence of the sea.
Capsize No 6 was at Corney Reach.
This time, the event was watched by the passengers on the packed-out Princess
Rose, going upriver, The captain decided not to overtake him and hooted four times
– and all the passengers applauded as Lev eased himself back onboard like a seal
hauling itself onto a sandbank.
Lev eventually crossed the finishing line at the railway bridge at 14.54; after some 4
hours and 33 minutes of gruelling sailing in broiling heat.
Alex [who had finished at 14.00] had taken 3 hours 41 minutes.
Tim [who had finished at 14.06] had taken 3 hours 57 minutes.
Alex and Tim had very kindly waited for everyone to return and it was much
appreciated that they helped to bring all the boats and gear ashore – and to share
their stories of the Long Distance Race.
1 July 2018