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Our history with the Thames

PUBLISHED: 11:01 26 June 2008 | UPDATED: 09:54 23 August 2010

MAKING WAVES: Teams from several pubs around Gravesend are captured after a hard day’s rowing.

MAKING WAVES: Teams from several pubs around Gravesend are captured after a hard day’s rowing.

FOR more than 300 years in the height of the English summer the stretch of the River Thames in Gravesend has been the site for a series of hotly contested river races. The borough is home to three different regattas, the Town Regatta – which takes place

FOR more than 300 years in the height of the English summer the stretch of the River Thames in Gravesend has been the site for a series of hotly contested river races.

The borough is home to three different regattas, the Town Regatta - which takes place next weekend (July 5/6) - the Summer and Junior Regatta which take place this month and the New Shrimpers Regatta in August.

Records of the Gravesend Town Regatta show it is the oldest event of its type in the country, with the first organised rowing races held in the town dating from 1698.

Historian Tony Larkin said: "The history goes back a long way. I can't think of anything else in Gravesend that has gone on longer than the regatta. Gravesend is the river really. Without the Thames it would be nothing. It is part of the heritage of the town and the regatta is part of that, but the greatest thing about it is that they are fun days out."

In the early years, the regattas were organised by private enthusiasts and what is now Gravesend Town Regatta became sponsored by the town council in 1846. This was also the year that the famous waterman's skiff was first introduced as a prize. The skiffs were used to take goods from the shore to the waiting ships and were highly sought after by the workers.

Sue Beecham, 46, Honorary Secretary of the Gravesend Regatta Committee, of Norwood Lane, Meopham, said: "It's not rowing like they do in the Olympics. The Waterman's skiffs they use in the Regatta are something that is quite unique to Gravesend. In the early days they used to row to win the skiffs which was a huge thing to win at the time but nowadays people just row to take part in the race."

Originally 21-foot traditional oak skiffs were used in the regatta, but after the death of skilled craftsman Eric Mastin in 2004 there was no longer anyone with the expertise to build or maintain them, so they were replaced with the four fibreglass Clayton versions used in the races today.

The Regatta has also played host to other events such as the Long Ferry Race, a 26 nautical mile race from Westminster to Gravesend which was introduced in 1967 but discontinued due to the high cost of towing the skiffs along the Thames to the starting point.

The Long Ferry was traditionally used to take passengers from London to Gravesend as it was quicker by boat than by road. However, by the end of the 18th Century the advent of improved road transport led the use of the Long Ferry to decline.

The late 1800s were a dark time for the regatta. There was a lot of resentment and fighting between the river workers which resulted in the formation of a number of different bodies each organising their own regattas. During this period it was not uncommon for a waterman to hold a regatta solely for members of his family.

Despite the dwindling numbers of river workers, the Town Regatta was subject to something of a revival in 1925 and continued without interruption until the Second World War. The Summer and Junior Regatta helped to rekindle the interest once more when it was started in the 1970s. It is held over one weekend in June and features a special points competition throughout Saturday and the Junior Regatta for 10 to 18-year-olds who are in full time education on Sunday afternoon, which is the only event that children can compete in. This year will see the officially organised 162nd Gravesend Town Regatta which will take place on Saturday, July 5 as part of the Gravesend Reporter sponsored Big Day Out and the following day as part of the Maritime Festival.

The events will also feature the Gravesend Power Boat Grand Prix which will be round five of the Royal Yacht Association National Championship. The boats will be racing on both days for two hours from 2.30pm on Saturday and 3pm on Sunday.

Other attractions include Sea Cadet Colours display with their band and drill exhibition and a programme of musical entertainment.

jason.goodyer@archant.co.uk

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