Slog on the Tyne 2014

The 2014 Great Tyne Row took place on September 20th with a record entry of 34 from all over the UK. The event is a 25km row along the Tyne from Newburn to Tynemouth and attracts a variety of craft including fixed-seat coastal skiffs, stable quads and doubles and for the first time a dragon boat.

It is intended as a fun occasion and a challenge for rowers at the less competitive end of the scale. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion many crews take part in fancy dress, with prizes on offer for the best decorated crew and boat.

Crews set off in divisions with the slowest going first in the hope that all will arrive at the finish together. As it turned out the degree of togetherness was far greater than anyone could have foreseen!

DARC entered 3 crews, covering all bases with a women’s quad, a mixed four and an open double. All entries have to be in stable boats and have to be coxed. The number of possible entries is constrained only by the number of suitable boats available.

Despite months of preparation and training none of us went with any particular goal in mind other than that of completing the course and perhaps posting a respectable time. The women’s masters crew (Joyce, Sarah, Jacki, Angela and Louise) succeeded in keeping their superheroes costumes under wraps until the last possible moment until Supergirl, Wonder Woman and others emerged from Sarah’s Bongo. Meanwhile Gerry’s Dynasaurs crew (along with Dave, Gene, Debbie and Brian), 3 of whom were taking part for the second year running, retired to the pub to refuel in readiness for their outing. Colin, Roger and Vaughan were first to set off, launching the Dun Cow from the steps at Tyne United Rowing Club and lining up next to the Three River Serpents dragonboat with Clive at the helm.

With its 14 paddlers the dragonboat quickly established a lead, followed by the Hanningfield skiff from North Berwick and we settled into 3rd where we were to remain for the next 20km. Our two planned ‘on the water’ crew changeovers worked a treat and all the time spent practising the interchange of bow, cox and stroke on the Wear paid off!


Twenty minutes later the mixed four was setting off suitably kitted out in military attire in support of the SSAFA charity. After another 10 minutes the women’s quad followed. This time it was Sarah’s turn to crawl along the stern to untangle a log from the rudder, following Brian’s heroics last year. Jacki and Sarah were later to carry out an interchange of cox and stroke which I understand was elegant as well as speedy!

Roger, recently recovered from heart surgery, takes up the story…

I watched the build up and event of the 2013 Great Tyne Row with interest. I’d have liked to compete, but wasn’t at all sure my arthritic knees would cope with the 25km course plus a bit more at either end. Also, I was pestering my doctor regarding serious breathlessness, as a result of which I was diagnosed in October 2013 with a heart condition called Aortic Stenosis. My neighbour, a retired GP put it succinctly “Good God Man, you could drop dead at any minute!” In short, running for a bus, enthusiastic sex etc might bring on a sudden and fatal heart attack – and I’d been pushing the boat out (so to speak) on the river. “Stop all exercise at once” demanded the Doc, but he allowed me to carry on coxing.

The outcome was open heart surgery in January 2014 during which I acquired an aortic valve from a pig and two arterial by-passes using spare parts from my left leg. I am in awe of modern surgical techniques.

I began gentle sculling in April, resumed ‘training’ pressure in June and in July was asked if I’d like to fill a vacant seat in a Northern Rowing Sunday League crew on the briny at Tynemouth. We won all four of our races and the crew decided to keep me – we’ve won every race since too, and are now in contention for the top slot!

My next offer was to fill a vacant seat in a coxed double for the 2014 Great Tyne Row with Colin and Vaughan, two of my ‘League’ crewmates. I said “YES!”

Training began in earnest, not the least part of which was practising swapping places in the boat by climbing over each other, while on the water. Firstly, cox to bow, bow to stroke and stroke to cox, and secondly just cox and stroke. These practise sessions caused great hilarity for those on the bank witnessing our strange antics.

Plan ‘A’ was that if I began the race at stroke, this formula would give me (ie my heart) a break between two 8km sessions. By sharing the rowing in this way we would each row approximately two thirds of the course. Our rowable water at Durham is a mile and a half long and we rowed it non-stop three or four times, twice a week for six weeks, in our only coxed double sculler, a heavy glass fibre trainer named DUN COW. Sadly, there was no bar aboard.

Entries in and paid for, Vaughan suggested we raise funds for British Heart Foundation ‘in my honour’ and posters were duly printed, sailor hats and T-shirts acquired and we felt we looked like a crew.

Saturday September 20 2014 –

My wife (Andrea) and I set off for Newburn at 9.00am. The weather had been miserable all week, but the Met Office promised better for Saturday 20th September, the Big Day, so in spite of early mist and drizzle, it had faired up by late morning and was clear and mild for our start on the ebb tide at 2.30pm. Meanwhile we had unloaded the boats. Three Durham crews entered, ourselves as ‘Three into Two will Row’, a ladies crew ‘Wear Together’ dressed as Superheroines, Super Mum, Super Girl, Super Woman, Cat Woman and Elastigirl (from the Incredibles), and mixed crew DARC Dynasaurs themed as Officers and Gentlemen (and Gentlewomen) with a Tom Cruise lookalike as Cox.

We arrived at Tyne United Rowing Club at 10.00am, from where we had been designated to launch. The trailer had already arrived and the boats were unloaded, we finished the re-rigging while Andrea followed the trailer to Tynemouth where it would be ready to load at the finish, and brought Dave the driver back to TURC as he was rowing ‘stroke’ with one of our crews. Our trestles were then loaded into her car to be taken back to Tynemouth after she had seen us start the race. TURC. is opposite Tyne Rowing Club on the North bank, to where we walked across Newburn Bridge to register and attend our briefing session, and at 2.10 launched the little DUN COW and made our way to the start at Newcastle University Rowing Club just below Newburn Bridge. The 34 entries were to set off in 6 divisions at 10 minute intervals. We were off with Division 1 at 2.30 prompt, Vaughan coxing, me at stroke and Colin at bow.

We lined up alongside a Dragon Boat (with fourteen oars), three St Ayles coastal skiffs, and a Hanningfield Lake skiff (odd, this one – 3 rowers, stroke and bow with sweep oars and a sculler in the middle). We felt a trifle overwhelmed in our little double sculler, but when given “GO!” we surprised ourselves by holding our own against them all. The Dragon Boat gradually pulled away followed by the Hanningfield, but we held on, opening up a huge gap between us and the other skiffs.

The Dragon Boat kept increasing its lead but we held a steady third place close behind the Hanningfield for 9k until out first crew swap, soon after passing the hugely impressive Dunston Coal Staithes, the largest wooden structure in Europe, and within sight of the King Edward VII railway bridge. We climbed over each other in the boat (Cox to bow – stroke to Cox – bow to stroke) losing 300 meters to the Hanningfield, but still 500 metres ahead of the next boat as we rowed on below the seven iconic Tyne Bridges. A crowd lining the ‘Blinking Eye’ Millennium footbridge cheered us on and now in the Cox’s seat I had the opportunity to take photographs with the little pocket Fuji I’d tucked into my shorts. I was surprised how many green areas there were alongside the river, lots of small private boats moored on ‘trots’ (mooring chains in the river rather than at a wharf) and a surprising amount of housing right on the river banks, then derelict industrial land and dilapidated dry docks, until we reached the Port of Tyne area where the really big shipping was.

We did our second crew swap smoothly and quickly just before the 20km point, I went back into stroke and Colin took the Cox’s seat for the final push. The Hanningfield was still visible; a dot in the distance, a strong young crew in a St Ayles skiff from the second division was about to pass us but the other boats that started with us were still way behind us.

We were going well and were lying 4th in the running order having just been overtaken by the fast St Ayles skiff when at about the 20km mark a River Police launch pulled us up and stopped the race because the DFDS Amsterdam Ferry was coming in!

Imagine how devastated we were as the rest of the field gradually caught up with us until the police launch had all 32 of us corralled. The Dragon boat and the Hanningfield skiff had just got through in time! We were held for 35 minutes (less for the other divisions who set off after us) before the police let us continue. Our flotilla of boats drifted together, the wind blowing us into a derelict wooden wharf and the current carrying us downstream. We constantly manoeuvered to avoid collisions, chatting to the other crews. The police launch twice instructed us to row back upstream. Why I can’t imagine, because we were nowhere near the ferry dock, so I couldn’t see that it mattered if we all drifted downstream in a bunch. Having been ‘sent back’ for the second time we lost our ‘first place’ in the queue when they finally let us go.

It was a mass start and we were in the middle of it! Thirty two boats of different types, some decorated with bunting and crews in fancy dress, jockeying for position heading into the final bend passing under the lee of huge commercial vessels moored alongside us. I settled into a good pace, about 26/28 strokes a minute I think, and held our position at about a third of the field against the fours with much younger crews.

I then began to sense the pace was quickening as some crews put in an extra push. We must be nearer the finish at North Shields Fish Quay than I thought. I wasn’t sure how much further it was, but I could sense it was near. Determined not to let anything behind us overtake I increased my leg drive and felt Vaughan respond as I heard the Finish Umpire shouting “Show your number! Show your number!”. The boats would normally be strung out with plenty of clear water between them; I don’t think they ever imagined almost the entire entry storming past the finish together! Colin waved our No.2 in the air and we’d finished in fine style!

Finished? Was it over now? Not likely! The water was open and choppy now and we had further ‘delay’ instructions from the port authority. A large container ship was coming into the harbour mouth; we had to row round the red lighthouse into the south of the bay to avoid it. There followed more waiting, but this time in choppy open water with a swell enhanced by the passing ship. At times we could see only the heads of other crews as boats and bodies vanished into the troughs! The broad seagoing St Ayles Skiffs with their high prow and sides were in their element, bobbing like corks on the swell. After 20 minutes of being soaked and thrown about, my feet were in a pool and Colin was at last getting the hang of using the rudder to help us keep the bow ‘head-on’ to the swell. To be fair to Colin, unless you’re actually making progress by rowing the rudder doesn’t have any effect – and Vaughan and I were constantly pulling hard one side or the other to keep us bow-on to the swell. Eventually we were given the go-ahead to cross the wide open harbour mouth into the sheltered bay where the rowing and sailing clubs were waiting to greet us. This was quite scary at times, as our position relative to the swell changed and Cox tried to keep us bow-on to the waves. We took on quite a lot of water, and at times were pulling hard and getting nowhere as the next wave took us back where we’d come from. The coastal skiffs were loving this, while we low sided and narrow river boats struggled with the unfamiliar conditions. We eventually crossed the open harbour mouth into calm water below the harbour wall – and more waiting.

As we waited our turn to disembark the sun went down over the headland. There is no landing stage at Tynemouth Rowing Club, and we queued for the helpers standing in the water to steady the boats as crews stepped out over the side. Then, while the exhausted rowers splashed ashore the boats were quickly carried out of the water for us and laid on the beach (thank you Tynemouth R.C. volunteers). We could hear the sound of the band and party at the rowing club and smell the barbeque waiting for us. We’d been on the water for just over four hours in all, and given the detours had probably rowed near 30km. The event was over an hour behind the expected final finish time, the sun was setting, and we had the three Durham boats and equipment to carry up the hill to the trailer park, de-rig and load, passing delicious aromas from the barbeque each time. We missed the results and presentations while we strapped the boats to the trailer, finishing in the dark.

I was tired, people were leaving, it was dark, and I couldn’t find Colin or Vaughan, or Andrea. I was still in my wet rowing kit, tired, feet soaked; I wanted a beer and one of those delicious smelling hamburgers but my money was locked in the car back in the car park, I just couldn’t be bothered to walk up there and back again. I found Andrea near the beach;

she had done much running around ferrying people and parts between the start and finish, and helping to carry boats and equipment. She was tired, and she’d also left her handbag (money) locked in the car. I suddenly felt fed up. I wanted a shower and dry clothes – sod the Amsterdam Ferry, sod the container ship, sod the dark, sod the party, sod the barbeque; we went home.

All the DARC crews arrived safely on the beach at Tynemouth to join the merry throng. Because of the unscheduled delay the finishing order and timings aren’t very meaningful. Only the dragonboat was given a time for the full course – times for all other finishers are relative to the finish time of the second crew, but this in no way detracts from the success of the day or the satisfaction gained by participants.

Photos of the day by Al Johnston are on British Rowing’s facebook page. Further news reports can be found on the British Rowing and North East Rowing websites along with more photos.

Thanks must go to Dave for volunteering to tow the trailer and, along with Sarah, to provide transport to get us to the start and back from the finish. Also thanks to Andrea for providing mobile support on the day, and to the many other helpers and supporters who made it all possible. A total of £2364 was raised through sponsorship and was divided between Grove House (Children’s charity), SSAFA (Sailors, Servicemen, Airforce and Families Association) and the British Heart Foundation.

Next year’s Great Tyne Row is scheduled to take place on Saturday, September 6th 2015.