The Great River Race Guardians

First sight of the Great River Race flotilla with the Lady Mayoress shallop, accompanied by safety boats, leading the way

As with all official events on the River Thames, there were a number safety boats watching over the tough 21.6 mile course of the Great River Race, rowed from from Millwall to Richmond on Saturday, 16th September. Here below are a few pictures of the safety boats I managed to spot from my perch on Lambeth Bridge.

Detailed rules were issued to those taking part concerning equipment such as towlines, bailers, multitools, mobile phones, and life jackets. Safety boats, watching over them, included Port of London Authority vessels, LAMBETH and BARNES, and Marshalls mainly on Ribs, whose instructions or red flag signals have to be respected by all, or risk disqualification. There are other rules too. Competitors must be off the water six hours after the start of the race and in case of difficulties, any crew accepting a tow, will not be counted in the results.

The race is for boats with ‘fixed seats’ only, and must carry a passenger and a cox but is open to all kinds of craft including “traditional Thames Watermen’s Cutters, Gigs, Skiffs, Celtic Longboats, Cutters, Currachs, Dragon Boats, Whaleboats and an assortment of novelty craft.”

Compared to the rigorous challenge to row the distance, safety boats have it easy but their responsibilities are serious and I saw a couple giving clear *guidance* to a few of the boats as they splashed, clashed oars, and scrambled on their approach to Lambeth Bridge…

A Port of London Harbour Master’s boat leading the flotilla

The Port of London Harbour Masters ensure compliance with the Port Marine Safety Code by all vessels on the tidal Thames. Their boats are often to be seen accompanying events taking place on the river.

DD Marine Services’ Ribzilla

Approved by the Royal Yachting Association, Ribzilla is a powerful Rib with the latest training and safety equipment.

Thames Trainer Rib support boat

One of Thames Active’s Ribs watching over the flotilla. And as well as other functions, they supply boats for event preparation, provide umpires, and act as safety and escort vessels.

A northern Exposure support Rib

Northern Exposure, a registered charity, operates on a not for profit basis supporting events across the country, and have been engaged with the Great River Race since 2005.

Thames Rowing Rib support boat
The flotilla, escorted by support boats ready to intervene if needed, approaching Lambeth Bridge
Support boat Valliant
The flotilla of more than three hundred competitors, flanked by support and safety boats as they approach Lambeth Bridge
Rib support boat Scorpio
Thames Active’s safety boat Molly Brown

Thames Active’s fully PLA licensed commercial safety boat MOLLY BROWN is based in Greenwich and available for charter from Gravesend to Teddington.

Port of London Authority vessel LAMBETH
Cornish support boat PEGGY towing a Rib
A Wheely boat making a splash
Port of London Authority vessel BARNES overtaken by a Marine Rescue Company Rib
BLUE LIGHT, from Kingston Maritime Volunteer Service, following the race

The Kingston Maritime Volunteer Service’s boat, BLUE LIGHT, a former Thames Police launch, is usually to be seen on the non-tidal Thames but on Saturday, September 16th, as she approached Lambeth Bridge she was sailing upstream following the race having, as James Deller told me, “acted as a marshalling boat at the first critical bend on the river to ensure the competitors stayed alongside the right hand side and did not cut the corner and move into the middle channel.” He added that “Once the race had been through, we assisted by following up and helping to keep other vessels away from the rowers.”

However, as well as the boats photographed above, there are others regularly involved with patrolling events on the river. London Fire Brigade fire rescue boats, RNLI Lifeboats and the Metropolitan Police Marine Policing Unit, as well as their normal duites, are frequently to be seen watching over competitions and ceremonies on the Thames.

Plans are already in motion for next year’s Great River Race which will take place on September 21, 2024. If you’re in London then, it’s worth an hour of your time to see this flotilla passing by at some point along the course. It really is a lovely sight.