The Pairs Head: a launch driver’s perspective

The 2019 Pairs Head of the River took place last weekend with 417 crews and nearly a hundred volunteers on and off the water

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(c) Chris Freeman

While over 400 boats were racing in the 2019 Pairs Head – with Reading University Boat Club proving the fastest crew overall – coach Andy James from host club Barnes Bridge Ladies was busy driving launches on the water. Here is how his day unfolded.

My alarm sounds at 7:30 and after a quick breakfast I’m on my bike and making the 25-minute cycle to my rowing club, Barnes Bridge Ladies. This morning instead of coaching I’ll be driving a launch for the Pairs Head.

At the club there is already an army of volunteers making food and organising trailer parking. Timing Teams are holding a briefing while boating helpers are on standby to help the crews onto the water – holding boats, passing blades and grabbing wellies.

Getting so many crews afloat on time and without incident, year after year, is something the club prides itself on. My role today is ferrying one of the 32 marshals joining the armada of volunteers on the water who will all ensure that the race passes off safely and fairly. But my first task is to tow our spare launch up to Chiswick Pier – the lifeboat station, where Race Control will be based.

Launch driving is the only way to be on the river during the race and means I get the best possible view of the crews as they pass by

With both launches safely delivered comes the most important event of the morning – bacon sandwiches! This is a particular perk of driving for the Pairs Head. It’s accompanied by the pre-race safety briefing, and then the ‘speed dating’ when the launch drivers and marshals are paired up before heading out onto the river. I find my match and get afloat.

We drive up to our station at Barnes Railway Bridge, just across the river from the club. Our job is twofold: first, to make sure that crews marshalling on the Surrey bank are in the correct order and position and, second, to prevent any racing crews from steering too wide and colliding with the bridge.

By now the sun has come out, and happily the race passes largely without incident – we only have to warn a couple of crews to steer clear of the bridge; which they do.

Launch driving is the only way to be on the river during the race and means I get the best possible view of the crews as they pass by.

Once the final crew, number 458, has passed we follow behind to Race Control where the marshals will debrief after the race.

My volunteering duties done, I return to the club and my coaching duties to have a post-race debrief with the Barnes Bridge Ladies racing crews.

I like being out on the water as much as possible and seeing events run smoothly. I know from my own rowing career that the best-run events are always the most enjoyable to take part in. I’m just doing my bit to make sure that important, and often very historic, races like the Pairs Head are there for the next generation to have the opportunity to participate in.

See the full results for the 2019 Pairs Head here.

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