Photo: Team bear bones/CC
Photo: Team bear bones/CC

Rowers competing in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race were warned not to enter the water due to the presence of E. coli. Water companies, including Thames Water, have come under fire for record sewage discharges into rivers over the last year. A rower looks at the consequences for the sport.

Andy Crisp, Reading Socialist Party

For several years, I have rowed on the River Thames. The water has never been clean. Recently however, people noticed it looking even worse than normal. Rowers will ask me what the stuff is in the water floating around our boat and legs. I tell them: whatever it is, it means the water is filthy and they should be careful.

But you can only be so careful when rowing on the water. It is very common for someone in the boat to accidentally splash the person behind them, which can send river water straight into their mouth, potentially causing them to get very sick. I’ve heard multiple stories of people getting seriously ill from river water entering their system. One person had a cut on their leg which got covered in Thames water and they ended up in hospital. Another went for a quick dip in the Thames and ended up with a UTI, which left them sick for weeks. Neither of these instances are unique. 

The dirtiness of the water has not been the only issue. Climate change has meant that rain has become more frequent and more intense which has led to the stream being so fast it’s not safe to row on most of the time. The boathouse I use is fortunately on a tidal stretch of the Thames, which means we are able to go out during the flood tide, but these windows are short. During the ebb tide, the river has frequently been too dangerous for novice or even experienced rowers. This is the worst it has been in many years, with lots of clubs on non-tidal parts of the river completely unable to row on the water for months.