On Sunday 3rd June 2012, 1000 boats processed down the Thames as part of the Jubilee celebrations and two St Ayles Skiffs were there, Unity from Eyemouth and Ulla from Ullapool. It was an incredible experience, never to be repeated in our lifetimes. They have been planning for it for two years, and boats applied to join the Pageant last November. Lord Lieutenants of counties were invited to nominate boats to represent their counties, and Ulla was representing Ross, Cromarty, Skye and Lochalsh, with Unity representing Berwickshire.
After lots of paperwork, security clearances, fundraising, and painting, we finally found ourselves afloat on the Thames and rowing down from Chiswick to Hammersmith to pull up on the bank and let the narrow boats go up past us. We could admire the other rowed boats, including a rowing lifeboat from Whitby with 10 oars which weighed 3 tons, several Pilot Gigs from the south coast, a large ships boat from the Trinicomalee, and the three Atlantic Gigs including Bien Trouve from Findhorn, representing Moray. Some people had taken enormous care with their costumes, including five ladies from Wales dressed as daffodils in a Celtic Longboat decorated with inflatable leeks and daffs.
We rowed down to Wandsworth Bridge and held on to ropes moored down the river on each side. We in Ulla rafted up with Unity on one side and Ska’lava’gr which is a traditional boat from Shetland very similar to our Skiffs. It was very jolly being with the crew of Unity, some of whom were from St Abbs, led by Peter Nesbit, looking very smart in their yellow jackets. There was a theoretical plan for the order of the Man Powered Squadron but to be honest when the order went out to form up, everyone went hammering down the river and the order went out of the window. Nine columns was the plan but it soon became apparent that at the places where the river narrows this would not work, and there was some close work to avoid oar clashes or collisions. People were lining every street, walkway, bridge and balcony, cheering like mad. As we went towards the centre of London the crowds built up and the noise was terrific, so that at times it was difficult for the crew to hear the cox.
We soon came to Cadogan Pier where the Queen was standing on the Spirit of Chartwell, and everyone rowing with one hand and waved with the other. The Australian surfboats didn’t even row with one hand; they waved with both. The plan was for a Regimental Sergeant Major to give the order for the Squadron to easy oars, salute with the oars, give three cheers, and lower the oars again, but the noise was so loud we did not hear the orders. We did however see others stop rowing, so we did too, and raised our oars when Gloriana raised hers, but the cheers were rather ragged because to cheer you need to know when to do it.
Rowing past the Houses of Parliament was surreal and I was aware that we would never do this again. By Westminster Bridge and the London Eye a lot of tripper boats were moored, absolutely packed with people. All the new tall riverside flats were thronged with people, and the river was solid with boats. The atmosphere was carnival and our crew of Sue, Fiona, Kathleen and Lisa were rowing so enthusiastically I had to keep telling them to paddle light. Occasionally we had to stop rowing altogether to avoid running into the boats ahead, so we were well able to keep up the speed needed. Jan was in the bow, our video camera operator, and we have high hopes of interesting footage.
We made friends with a Pembroke Longboat, a Pirate Gig from Bristol which had a replica cannon at the bow, and a crew from Trinity House whose cox had dyed her hair red. When we passed Tower Bridge the channel narrowed between the Avenues of Sail and it was very tight indeed to avoid clashes. Dragon boats having little races with each other and kayaks were coming through and an 82ft gondola with 18 gondoliers was making good time too. Then the rain really came down and it was a long cold row to Millwall Slip. The operation to recover hundreds of boats was quite slick but it was a wet and cold time, and were glad to finish strapping Ulla down to her trailer and walk to the Canary Wharf tube station.
So many wet people were on the tube the ticket machines were struggling to digest the wet tickets. The post-row party was abandoned in favour of getting home and warm and dry, which was a pity, but nothing will erase the memory of rowing down the middle of London in a huge group of lovely rowing boats with crowds cheering from every walkway and bridge. Thanks to everyone who made it possible!