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The Light Fund Row: Captain’s Blog, the final run in

With over £54,000 raised so far, the Eiffel Tower is finally in sight.

The true measure of a man is not in the things he achieves, but rather in the things he believes are unachievable, but which he is willing to attempt anyway.

To witness the broken bodies and cowed sprits of The Light Fund crew at Amfreville, contemplating the three days ahead of them after giving everything they had over the previous five days raised some real questions as to whether or not the challenge could be realistically completed.

The race against time from Le Havre to Amfreville would have challenged most rowing outfits as a single event, but to have achieved it after three days of punishing exercise and with three days still to go, left us re-assessing the crew rotations to try to take pressure off the various injured parts.

The original plan was to constantly rotate the crews, pulling the blade through with the right hand in one session, then with the left in the next. But with a back strain for James, damaged arm tendons for Rob and Sam C, infected blisters for Graham and a huge assortment of additional ailments throughout meant rapid re-planning and those members of the crew taking on a punishing schedule of rowing through 72 hours, all on the same side in order to relieve pressure on the damaged parts.

Row5

This final leg posed a new set of challenges. Crews are not allowed to row on the Paris section of the Seine after 10am, the time at which commercial boats and the Bateaus Mouches begin to ply their trade… we would have time to achieve the distance, but it would be a hard slog and the boat would need to maintain just over 5kph every hour from 10am Thursday morning until we arrived in Paris, some time before 10am on Sunday. Having held the boat speed at a significantly higher pace over the previous 48 hours, we knew it was achievable… but we also knew the physical and mental cost to each and every one of us.

Arriving in Amfreville just before dawn on the Thursday, the whole crew was excited that we would be given a break. Four hours of blissful sleep and even the chance of a shower before the restart.

The escort boat facilities were basic at best – a Tripadvisor review might read something like: 5 berth cabin (sleeps 12), aids rest with the massaging throb of two large diesel engines. The en suite shower facility may be used at any time when the bathroom is not being used as a storage facility for crew food and medical supplies. The generous (and only) storage facility of the shower shall be used at all times during a voyage and, should crews wish to clean themselves, they should use generous supplies of wetwipes and ‘Shower in a Can’ products in order to avoid trench foot (or trench- any other parts).

The open air aft deck will afford plenty of space for a daily wet wipe routine and the open air nature of this spa facility will simultaneously aid muscle recovery through basic cold treatment. One toilet is provided for the crew and can be used at all times when not blocked… the toilet should be flushed using the helpful pump provided, though toilet roll is rationed – we wouldn’t want to run out just outside Amferville now, would we? Crews are advised to save money on scented toiletries as the smell of heavy diesel oil throughout is provided at no additional cost.

Row2

The crew certainly got to know each other a while lot better than they previously did… in fact it’s likely to be several weeks before any of us are able to sleep soundly again without the reassuring thrum of an engine to accompany the spooning of a 16 stone man who hasn’t washed for a week.

The promise of a shower turned out to be a terminological inexactitude. Having moored up on the river side just South of the loch, the plan was to use the facilities at a local camp site… but since the escort boat’s last visit three years ago, a new electric fence has been erected and a new (and less bribeable) Caretaker had been installed. The shower became a mirage and the crew repaired to the aft deck to treat all who cared to watch to a display of their new cleansing ritual.

Locking out at Amfreville, the crew regrouped. We had 72 hours to complete over 350km of rowing with the additional challenge of 5 lochs to negotiate.

Each lock was a blessing and a curse. For the non-rowing crew, it meant an additional hour or so in bed whilst we queued to get through… but for the rowing crew, it meant an hour’s delay in the middle of their two hour session, meaning a three hour minimum stint before downtime, increasing the challenge just that little bit more. Having been in the boat for all bar one of the locks, Ben earned himself the nickname of the Locksmith, rivalling Will Smith in his ability to break through the river’s defences and becoming so adept at one point that he was outside with the safety crew helping to tie off moorings… we’re now considering whether to sign him up for an apprenticeship.

Row1

The locks simply served to delay our progress which was otherwise strong and steady. But concerns abounded about our ability to achieve the distance ahead of us in the time available.

The escort crew ran calculations to give us markers to hit while the crew contemplated complaints to Google that 6-man open gig was not an option alongside walk, ride and drive on their maps function, an undoubted oversight.

Once again, nature threw a dice and the challenge increased. Already freezing cold while rowing through the night, heavy rain and hailstorms which seemed to precursor the apocalypse made the hellish experience just that little more uncomfortable. But again the crew gratefully pulled on the Musto jackets provided by Poetic Brands, knowing just how much more difficult the week would have been without them.

River traffic increased as we headed down the industrial heartland of the Seine valley. Nordic Cruise ships seemed to chase us towards every loch and it was a constant battle to try not to be stuck behind them, occasioning a huge delay which we could not afford. Vast barges carrying thousands of tonnes of cement kicked up wash which made rowing conditions more difficult and at one stage an all out shouting match kicked off between one barge skipper and our small flotilla as steel and cement dust bore down on us amidst curses in French and various responses involving hamsters and the scent of elderberries – the Pythons would have been proud.

Night gave way to day and, with it, the birthdays of both Marise and Jenny… in Jenny’s case, what better way to celebrate your 30th than pulling a double shift at the oar in the middle of a hail storm?! But with the crew making good progress, the Posh House made a small diversion, leaving Gallivant (our backup escort boat) to care for us whilst Lance and Dave made a mercy dash to a local shop, primarily to replenish the non-existent stock of loo roll, but simultaneously to give Dave a chance to buy enough finger cakes to be able to construct a form of very well-received birthday cake for the two crew members.

Row3

Sadly, candles are not considered a sensible accessory aboard a boat, and the row was, ironically perhaps, the driest Light Fund challenge to date so no champagne was available, but the cake raised spirits once again and the gig surged on.

After interminable nights and days, we were 30km from the final lock. With some good sessions ahead of us, there was the possibility that, assuming we could clear the lock without delays in the queues, we might be able to buy ourselves an hour’s downtime for the whole crew before beginning our final assault on the capital.

Lance felt an extra boost was needed. Deep Six Two, the forebodingly named fast rib was called into action and despatched as an extreme form of Deliveroo. The rowers listened in to the debate among the support crew as to what they could do with ‘the vegan’  but we were reassured that they’d sort something. Adding his name to other similarly named characters – The Prisoner, The Revenant, The Incredibles, our own proud possessor of the definite article, The Vegan, waited with bated breath.

And sort something they did… through the haze, brought as strong sun burnt off the recent heavy rains, came Deep Six Two carrying a Sainsbury’s bag which had hidden within its recesses the ineluctable delights of McDonalds cheeseburgers.

But of course, as with most aspects of this voyage, the simple act of delivering a takeaway could not go without a hitch and, even before we considered the merits of tipping a delivery sailor or not, the river police arrived on scene. Pulling alongside the Posh House, the heavily armed officers looked at the gig with bemusement while trying to board the escort boat.

To shouts of ‘keep going’, the rowers continued to hack along while Keith mounted the Sainsbury’s bag on the end of a boat hook and proceeded to the bow. The police looked unamused, Lance yelled ‘hand it over to them’ and we grabbed the bag from the end of the hook, hoping it contained nothing but takeaway food and contemplating the type of prison time we could be facing if this whole event were in fact some form of National Lampoon’s smuggling exercise to which we had become unwitting accessories.

With the package finally delivered, bemused officers looked on as we unwrapped the shipment,  continuing to row whilst trying to eat the wonderful contents, we were even pleased to see that ‘the Vegan’ had indeed been catered for, with an additional cheeseburger!

Row4

Day begat night and night begat day before, after an enormous effort, a team of rowers who resembled the extras cast from The Walking Dead, finally arrived at the final lock, pushed on through and moored up for a 90 minute break before the final push.

As 06:00 Sunday revealed perfect conditions – a blue sky, slight but favourable tail wind and flat water, the final 12km were split in two. The crew to cross the finish line was pulled from a hat with the other six taking on the first half of the final row before switching in the finishing crew.

Resplendent in their splash jackets emblazoned with sponsor names including Brand Licensing Europe 2019, Banter Collectables, Character World, Angry Birds, Poetic Brands and Zag Toys, the crew proudly saluted The Entertainer flag once more and pushed for home, cheered on by people on the banks and bridges.

The crew which had set off from London eight days before, rowing like a drunken octopus now flew along the Seine like Leander in the finals of Henley. The noise of six simultaneous catches, the rip of the water as all blades moved together, the yell of Anne at Cox pushing us on to an Olympic finish… and then it was there, just off the starboard side, the Eiffel Tower… as we passed her and easy oared, the crew gave hugs all round and benefitted the aroma of a week without showers, with a shower of fine English sparkling wine, courtesy of Hush Heath Estate.

Organising the L2P has been an enormous undertaking with huge challenges all round – every time the crew tried to get into a boat, a new named storm came in from the Atlantic. We battled 45+ knot winds on Bewl Water, injury problems taking out committed crew members, rule changes on the rivers and at immigration, but with great crew spirit. An event which had the propensity to turn into Fyre Festival 2 went off without a hitch and, I’m delighted to say, we never had a problem getting our mineral water through customs so nobody had to ‘take one for the team’.

The London to Paris is one of the toughest rowing events around. A Cornish gig is heavy and unyielding with big, weighty oars and planks for seats. The Thames and the Seine have viscious tidal sections, determined to prevent any progress against the flow of water; and the Channel whips up from dead calm to terrifying swells and gusts of wind in a matter of minutes. But the scratch crew of licensing people, with very little rowing experience between them, braved all and proved from the outset that team spirit and positivity can overcome practically all barriers.

As well as a huge sum of money raised for The Light Fund, this challenge has proved beyond all things that we are capable of achieving things way beyond our comfort zones. That whatever obstacles are placed in your way, and the knocks to your self confidence, the human body and mind is capable of great things. Self belief and hard work, together with an extraordinary team of like-minded people can turn the insurmountable into a simple challenge… all you have to do is keep the boat moving.

The Light Fund London to Paris Row blogs have kindly been sponsored by Little Brother Books.
The Light Fund London to Paris Row blogs have kindly been sponsored by Little Brother Books.
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