Craft-owning Freeman Tim Koch describes the epic encounter of the 2019 race in his article, which originally appeared on the rowing website ‘Hear the Boat Sing!’
I rarely make predictions when it comes to rowing races and generally adopt the noncommittal approach exemplified by misquoting University Boat Race commentator, John Snagge, and his famous statement in the middle of the 1949 contest that the leader was ‘either Oxford or Cambridge’. However, in my preview of the 2019 Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, I boldly wrote that:
On the scant information that I have, it seems obvious to predict a win for Patrick Keech – unless Old Father Thames has other ideas.
Well, Keech was the winner – even though Old Father Thames did have other ideas and did his very best to turn the contest into one of survival and not speed. Further, it was not only the aquatic deity that tried to prevent Keech from becoming the 305th man to win Doggett’s, his fellow competitor James Berry came very close to denying him the prize Coat and Badge.
The four scullers who lined up just downstream of London Bridge at 2 pm on 4 September were all first time Doggett’s competitors, meaning that three of them have two more chances at racing for Doggett’s.
Doggett’s is nowadays raced with the tide. However, the wind was blowing hard in the opposite direction to the tidal flow, stirring the water up and producing conditions that more than one seasoned observer described as ‘brutal’.
Both Berry and Keech hugged the north shore, with Berry taking the early lead, while Gilbert froze in the frightening conditions, and did not start to scull until he was passed by the umpire. Meanwhile Finelli clung to the south shore, and maintained third place throughout the race.
By the time the leaders had reached Cannon Street rail bridge, 250 metres into the race, Keech had moved out into the faster but rougher stream, while Berry stayed in the flatter but slower water along the north shore.
Approaching Waterloo Bridge Keech decided to go inside the so-called Coin Street barges along the south shore, where the water was slower but calmer. Running against the conventional wisdom for these conditions, Berry kept to the middle of the river, outside the barges, staying in the fast but rough water.
At this decisive point Keech came out in front after the barges and passing the Houses of Parliament he seemed to have a lead unlikely to be challenged, but the water conditions had improved and Berry perhaps decided that the race was not yet over. Approaching Lambeth Bridge he made a big effort to get back into contention, but by Vauxhall bridge the conditions had again deteriorated it was clear that Berry’s challenge had not succeeded.
Berry never gave up and battled on, manfully trying to cope with the elements, as Keech went on to win.
Keech had rowed as a child and won at the Ball Cup Regatta when he was 11. He then gave up rowing for sailing and eventually became a European Silver Medalist in the 29er Class. Going to Portsmouth University, he started rowing again, and on graduation went to Tideway Scullers at Chiswick, West London. Here he was coached by, among others, his brother Jack, who won Doggett’s in 2017, and his father, Tim, who came second in 1983 and 1984. Patrick is entitled to race Doggett’s as he has Freedom of the Company by Patrimony (that is, his father was a Freeman when Patrick was born).
I got some post-race comment from Patrick’s father, Tim: “It was close between Patrick and James from the outset. They’ve raced each other at Molesey, Kingston and Henley Town and Visitors and there has not been a lot to choose (between them over a short course) all summer… Today, Patrick probably steered a better course for the conditions. (He went on the inside of the barges at Coin Street where) you get protection from the weather, you get flat water, you can really get some work done. I’ve always thought that it’s one of those places in the race where you can really stamp your authority.”
Second placed James Berry said “I was happy with my start. If I had more experience, my size would have helped me deal with the conditions, I did not cope with them as well as Patrick did. In the third quarter, I felt that I was coming back (as the conditions improved) but the water got really bad again towards the end. (I stayed in the middle at Coin Street because) it was the only way that I had practised, also I did not want to get used to the good water on the inside (of the barges) and then having the shock of coming out into rough water again – that was what was going through my mind. I was pretty happy with the line I took, there were some steering issues where I was a bit wide, but I think that came down to tiredness… I’ll be back next year.”
Umpire Bobby Prentice said: “It was always going to be a hard race with the conditions; a late tide coming in, the wind holding it back… we had the flood tide with the wind hard against it. The first third of the course was very, very lumpy and some of the lads are new to sculling… I thought that James was going to slip by at Nine Elms (just after Vauxhall Bridge)… he steered a bit wide, stuck on that north shore, and that cost him… A hard but good race.”
A final word from Patrick: “James was in front up until Waterloo Bridge which was where I overtook and then held onto the lead to the finish. It’s such a special race to win, and you get a feeling that I myself have never had before. Really tough conditions for all competitors and everyone done well to survive, the wind was brutal. You could never get into any rhythm as you would be swamped by a real boat stopper wave every few strokes especially the last stretch up to the line. It’s nice to see all my training and early mornings paid off!”
1. Patrick Keech
2. James Berry
3. Jack Finelli
4. George Gilbert.
Click on the video link below to experience the event:
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