2 towns, 1 river, 5 races, 6 battling bonfires, an armada of joy



AN astonishing 183 raft crews are jostling for a place in this year’s charity race from Lewes to Newhaven. It is the biggest entry list in the 42-year history of the race and adds up to an entire kilometre of rafts if laid end to end.

The race is the central event in Ouseday on Sunday July 9, with festivities in Lewes and Newhaven at the same time. Ouseday, sponsored by Oakley Properties, is expected to attract thousands of spectators all along the riverbank as rafters paddle seven miles downstream through a hail of flour bombs.

Shell-shocked Round Table chairman Liam Jackson said: “ We are flabbergasted. This has to be the biggest fleet since the Spanish armada and we still have a week to go before the entry closes.”

Applications began flooding in as soon as organisers announced this year’s race theme will be Britannia Rules, a celebration of our outward-looking seafaring heritage at a time of Brexit.

Said Liam: “We put up a simple page on Facebook and it went viral. We have 4,000 followers and every day get new requests for an entry form. They will top 200 for sure. Not everyone will complete their form because it takes real commitment to pay an entry fee, build a raft and paddle seven miles. There is potential for the world’s biggest raft race.”

Sadly, the huge armada will have to be limited for safety reasons.

Liam explained: “We only have a brief window when rafts can launch at the top of the tide, and we also need sufficient safety boats to rescue crews in trouble. We will be taking advice from the RNLI and our other safety advisors and have to accept their view on the maximum number we can manage. We don’t want anyone disappointed but safety must must must come first.”

Three years ago the raft race was on the brink of collapse with only four entries. In 2015 the start point was moved from Cliffe to Wiley’s Bridge at the top of town and other events were added by Lewes Rowing Club to create a regatta. Thousands of spectators filled Malling Rec to watch 20 rafts, a boat parade, canoe races and a dramatic sprint race solely for the bonfire societies.

Last year’s regatta was equally successful and the opening parade was by led by a kayak paddled by soldier Paul Jacobs, George Medal, who has become a national hero for the courageous way he has fought back since losing his sight in a bombing in Afghanistan.

This year Ouseday will see new events in Newhaven, where the town council is supporting a public party. Entrance will again be free of charge for spectators, thanks to sponsorship from local firms, led by Oakley Property with extra support from law firm Lawson Lewis Blaker, Veolia, and Brewers Decorators.

Funds raised will go to two local charities that support young people at critical moments, preventing short-term difficulties turning into long-term disasters for individuals and society. Home-Start East Sussex, based at Newhaven, provides help and support to young families and A Band of Brothers supports young men in crisis, providing mentors and practical help in turning away from a life of crime.

Ouseday is organised by Riffrafters, a group with members from the rowing club, Table, both town councils, bonfire and the newly-formed and hugely popular Newhaven Gig Club. All regatta details, including entry forms for the Table raft race, can be found at a website built and donated by designers NTD: Ouseday.com

Ouseday chairman Gavin Keegan said: “Ouseday has three goals: to unite our community in a day of joy messing about on the water, to support local charities, and to remind us all to treasure the river that remains our beating heart. We invite everyone to come on July 9, bring sunshine.”

Newhaven mayor Steve Saunders said: “I am really looking forward to Ouseday as we have great new events and celebrations planned for the regatta and for our town. It will make it a truly Lewes to Newhaven affair, bringing the two communities together and celebrating the shared natural asset of our River Ouse.”

Chris Oakley, chairman of main sponsors Oakley Property, said: ” We were blown away by last year’s wonderful regatta and are proud to be the main sponsors of the first Ouseday. As a business we regularly advise clients on commercial and residential property in both Lewes and Newhaven and some of the schemes benefit greatly from the presence of the Ouse. So Ouseday is a great opportunity for us to put something back into the community. “

Oakley office at the bottom of High Street in Lewes will act as an information HQ for the public in the run-up to the event.

Sponsor Rory McColl, of solicitors Lawson Lewis Blakers, said: “We are delighted to be involved in such a wonderful event. And remember, if ever legal problems give you a sinking feeling, LLB will keep you afloat!”.

Allan Key, General Manager for Veolia South Downs, said: “We are absolutely delighted to be making a splash and supporting this exciting local event. The team at Veolia’s Newhaven Energy Recovery Facility are really looking forward to being involved with the regatta.”

Brewers chairman Mark Brewer said: “I am excited to see the raft race has become such a major family event. We plan to enter the raft race ourselves, so come cheer us on.”

At Home-Start East Sussex, chief executive Kate Lawrence said: “Fabulous that Ouseday will be supporting us and the families our volunteers help, with everything and anything from potty training to preparing healthy food, finding a school place or even a home. Thank you Ouseday.”

A Band of Brothers spokesman said: “We are already building a raft and we will be sending volunteers to help on the day. Thank you Ouseday!”

Full event details, including news about a food fair run by Food Rocks can be found at Ouseday.com