Joanne Harris |

Pairs Head: ‘We all felt so grateful for being able to race. It was almost quite emotional’

The sun shone on Sunday as the Pairs Head went ahead with a slightly different format due to COVID-19 and the closure of Hammersmith Bridge. Joanne Harris reports

It finally seemed as though the rowing gods were being kind on Sunday (11 October). After torrential rain and strong winds over the previous fortnight, the wind settled, the stream slowed and the sun came out. Pairs Head, the traditional season-opener of the big Tideway head races, was able to take place.

The race took a slightly different format to usual years. The combination of COVID-19 restrictions and the closure of Hammersmith Bridge meant that the organisers at Barnes Bridge Ladies Rowing Club (BBLRC) had a number of new challenges to make the race happen.

The race ran with 99 entries purely from clubs situated upstream of Hammersmith Bridge, across open, women’s, junior and masters categories, down a 4.5km course from the University of London (UL) boathouse to the London Corinthian Sailing Club upstream of Dove Pier.

The overall winners were Tideway Scullers School’s (TSS) George Bourne and Sean O’Mahony in open championship 2x – pictured above – who started first and finished in a time of 14 minutes 17 seconds. TSS’s Kieran Brown and James Stevenson took the open championship 2- pennant, finishing an impressive third overall.


World Championship lightweight bronze medallists Emily Craig and Imogen Grant raced as a UL and Cambridge University composite. They won women’s championship 2x by a margin of over a minute from their nearest rivals and finished fourth overall. TSS’s Kate Wagstaff and Anna Terry took the women’s championship 2- pennant.

“It was a bit of a shock to the legs to suddenly find yourself at rate over a long course”

It was the first Pairs Head for TSS’s Bourne and also the first time he and O’Mahony had raced together. Both athletes are fresh out of university and their last race saw them face off in quads for Durham and Reading Universities at BUCS Head in February.

“It was a bit of a shock to the legs to suddenly find yourself at rate over a long course,” Bourne admitted afterwards. “It was good to get out to race and not to have it all our own way as well.”

Bourne said the St Paul’s crew that started second had kept the pressure on and not let TSS have the race all their own way.

“I think we’d have liked to have done better, but it’s a bit easier to reflect on that when you’ve got the result that you want,” he added.


Further down the start order, Putney Town’s Katie Moore and Kate Pontes de Freitas were also taking part in their first Pairs Head, competing in women’s masters B 2x.

“We all felt so grateful for being able to race,” said Moore. “It was almost quite emotional.”

The river was not closed, due to the lower number of entries and at one point the Putney Town crew found themselves racing past a solo kayaker out for a leisurely paddle.

“It was a real contrast of energies. We were really psyched up to race and they were just wanting a little pootle down the river in the sunshine,” Moore said.

“Pairs Head has got such a reputation and the reduction in crews made it that extra special,” added Pontes de Freitas. “It makes you more proud to represent your clubs.”

“It feels like a bit of normality; the umpires and marshals were thrilled to be out there again”

Organising committee chair Joanna Broadhurst said planning began for the race even before it was certain it could happen. A decision was made to run the event on a cost-neutral basis and clubs canvassed to see if they were keen.

When Hammersmith Bridge closed to river traffic in August that created a clear, contained area from which entries would be sourced and in which the race could be run – disappointing for lower Tideway crews, but making the entry target of 99 boats achievable.

Meetings went virtual as the committee made sure Pairs Head could be run in compliance with government and British Rowing rules. Documentation was emailed out instead of being printed, spectators discouraged and the traditional tea stalls at clubs were out.


Despite the changes, Broadhurst said the atmosphere at BBLRC was good on the day.

“It feels like a bit of normality; the umpires and marshals were thrilled to be out there again,” she said.

Combined years of experience among organising committees also helps in unusual situations. The Pairs Head committee is a small group who know their race and their river well, and used this knowledge to their advantage.

“We’re agile and I think that’s probably why we felt we could tackle this. It’s a small boats head and it’s the first, and we’ve got the experience and that agility to respond quickly,” Broadhurst said.

Daniel Walker, who regularly volunteers for Pairs Head as well as chairing the Tideway Events Committee, said other events would be able to learn from this weekend’s race.

“Quite apart from anything else, it sends the message that we can run these competitions on the Tideway and based on what we’ve seen we can run them perfectly safely,” Walker said. “I’m very keen to take some of these experiences forward to other Tideway competitions.”

Photos: Ben Rodford