1 river, 2 towns, 500 rafters – Rock the Boat and save the music

Regatta was launched in 2015 as a way to revive the Round Table Raft Race, which was on the verge of collapse after 40 years. It has, arguably, become second only to Bonfire Night on the social calendar. Anyone who is everyone is involved somehow, a whole community of organisers, supporters, rafters or spectators.

In 2014 only four rafts arrived for the start at Lewes Rowing Club in Cliffe. The next year the start was moved to the top of town at Malling Rec, meaning the race went through the centre of town and allowed families to gather all along the river bank. The rowing club created an opening parade of members boats and added extra races, including canoe events and a dramatic sprint solely for the town’s famous bonfire societies. Tesco donated £500 to pay for trophies and set up a BBQ on the embankment, all proceeds to charity. The four rafts and a handful of spectators in 2014 suddenly became 24 rafts, 20 canoes, 20 boats, four bonfire dragon boats ablaze with fireworks and 5,000 spectators.

Last year we added a food fair, singing pirates, marching drummers and the opening parade was headed by a kayak paddled by soldier Paul Jacobs, George Medal, who has become a national treasure for the courageous way he has triumphed over a bomb in Afghanistan that left him blind. This year regatta has grown again, and become Ouseday – Lewes and Newhaven Regatta and Raft Race was just too much of a mouthful, and anyway this wonderful event is all about celebrating the River Ouse.

The 2017 event is organised by a dedicated group called Riffrafters, founded by Lewes Rowing Club and Round Table but now with extra members from both Lewes and Newhaven town councils, the Bonfire Council, and the new Newhaven Gig Club.We have also recruited specialists to help manage an event that has become perhaps second only to Bonfire Night in the social calendar. These include Rewind Adventure kayak tours and Triple A Event Security from Hove.

We will rely on an army of volunteers to help manage the crowds, all stepping forward from the bonfire societies, the charities we are supporting, Table, the rowing club, the town councils – even the town’s football club is promising to lend a hand. Riffrafters meet every month and then every week as the event date nears. Posters are designed, printed, put up all around the district by a team who give up weekends and evenings.

And then there is the river – with 500 people on the water, safety is a huge undertaking. Last year we had around ten safety boats, all with trained crew. Most were volunteers from the rowing club, led by our admiral David Sykes, but we also had support from Newhaven and Seaford Sailing Club, all working under the direction of the brilliant professionals Sea Training Sussex. This year we are stepping up another gear, creating a safety fleet with the help and guidance of RNLI and just about every authority or professional who works on our waterway.

Then there are the sponsors, the Environment Agency that lends us services and equipment. The bunting supplier, the toilets, the vital radio comms and the public address system, the media support – all given freely or and reduced rates. And, of course, there are the heroic crews of the rafts – hundreds of people get together to design, build and then paddle these lumpen, lazy ridiculous works of art seven miles down to the sea through a hail of flour bombs and other stuff, paddling until their arms drop off or their craft sinks beneath them, each crew rating money for a charity of good cause close to their hearts. As a thank you, staff at the new marine college UTC Harbourside last year gave up their weekend to organise and host a welcome party at Newhaven.

And then there is you, the public, our audience. You come in your thousands, to share in a day of innocent, unifying joy. You bring a picnic or feast on food from local suppliers who give a share to the common cause. And you contribute thousands, all of it going to the charities because local firms have covered our costs.
Ouse day will start around 6 am when volunteers start putting up the Zoe Tompsett’s Beautiful Bunting and banging in stakes and plastic fencing donated by Chandlers builders. At 8am the lorries start arriving with the rafts that have taken weeks to build. At the rowing club, boats are launched, engines tested for the parade. Canoeists arrive, temporary launch pontoons are moved into place.

More than 30 radios sets are charged and tested. Safety briefings are held for all the marshals and the race control boats, each of them manned by crew who have been trained for this role. One RIB was bought last year with a £1,000 grant from Lewes Town Council. Life jackets are put on, managers check the rafts to make sure they are constructed safely according to the rules. As soon as the incoming tide provides sufficient water, the boat parade begins, with the Wellington Wailers dressed as pirates singing their shanties in the vanguard. Kayakers and canoeists go next for 30 minutes of competition. By 2pm the tide will reach its highest point, the rafts will be launched, the sky rains missiles like arrows at Agincourt. Finally comes the bonfire societies, six of them this year, their crafts ablaze with flames and fireworks as they do battle for the Tesco Dash Trophy. By four pm it is all over at Lewes, teams from Lewes District Council are collecting the rubbish and by 5pm, or thereabouts, parents at Newhaven will be clearing the last of the remains of the rafts from the marina slipway generously loaned by Simpsons Chandlers. 6pm, all done. Twelve crazy busy hours, four hours of messing about on the water, one mad wonderful day for our community, lasting support for charities we value. One regatta, which is an anagram for Great, Ta. One dishabill of joy – which, of course, is an old Sussex word meaning crazy disorder or disarray. A chaotic, crazy, single tide of joy. One regatta. One Ouseday.