At home on the Thames
Ken and Kate Dwan in their boatyard on Eel Pie Island.
With family links to the river stretching back five centuries, the Thames will always be home for rower, Queen’s waterman, Olympian, Doggett’s Race champion and boatbuilder Ken Dwan – and his two sons and five grandchildren.
“One of my earliest memories is playing on the beach at Rotherhithe, where I was born. My grandparents ran The Torbay pub in Elephant Lane.
“We lived in Greenwich for a while, before moving out to Swanley in Kent.
“Living so close to the river, it was a very happy childhood.
“It’s fair to say I wasn’t a natural scholar – for me, getting out on the river always took priority over studying.
“I learnt to row at Poplar Blackwall & District Rowing Club, aged 12.
“It was the start of a life-long love for the sport.”
“Competing in both the Mexico and Munich Olympics was a privilege I will never forget.
“My prediction is that Team GB will win 25 medals in Tokyo, including one of each colour for the rowers. Anything else will be a bonus.”
“It’s now 50 years since I won the Doggett’ s Coat & Badge Race.
“I am proud to say I have I have not missed one since.
“Competing in the race is a matter of honour for Thames families like ours.
“It’s a source of real pride, that passes from one generation to the next.
“My brother, John, two sons, Nick and Robert, and nephew, Merlin, have also had the honour of competing.
“I fully expect my grandchildren to follow suit. I try to take them out on the river as much as possible. We constantly talk about the river as a family.
“I am sure the race will survive for many years to come. It’s part of the fabric of the river.
“Competing means a lot to all recently-qualified river apprentices eligible to take part.
“It showcases their knowledge of the river, with all its twists and turns.
“Physical strength and power are important, obviously, but understanding the river and its currents is also a major factor.
“This year we are enjoying a double helping of Doggett’s.
“James Berry was a worthy winner in the delayed 2020 race in June.
“Max Carter-Miller, the runner up, has to be the hot tip for the 2021 race on 8 September.
“Perhaps I should declare an interest – he works for my sons, Nick and Robert, who run fuel supply business Thames Marine Services.
“I caught COVID in March 2020 and was in intensive care for three weeks. No family visit or calls were allowed.
“Without a doubt, they were the worst days of my life. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone.
“On admission to A&E, a young doctor recognised my name and introduced herself as my brother’s neighbour. She visited me before and after every shift and would update my wife Kate and the rest of the family on my condition when she got home. I don’t know how I would have got through it without her.
“One afternoon, Kate was asked to get a mobile phone in, so I could say goodbye.
“Later that evening a young doctor came on duty and suggested they try an antimalaria drug on me.
“It had an almost immediate effect and my oxygen levels increased rapidly. I was over the worst.
“I wish the pandemic would go away once and for all.
“I am very fearful for the people who refuse to have the vaccine.”
Busier than ever
“Despite the pandemic, the boatyard I run on Eel Pie Island has never been busier.
“During the initial lockdown, we closed for 13 weeks to protect our staff and their families. Everyone came back recharged and raring to go.
“The closure of Hammersmith Bridge was an inconvenience for customers eager to get their boats surveyed for insurance renewals, but everyone was understanding. We just brought forward the jobs we could do.”
Looking back, looking forward
“I have had a good life, earning a decent living on the Thames.
“There have been hard times of course, but I emerged from them a better waterman and a stronger person.
“I have been fortunate enough to have been involved in most of the great river pageants. All were great occasions.
“In my lifetime the river has changed beyond imagination.
“I hope it can move forward and become a thriving industry once more.
“I would always encourage anyone considering a career on the Thames to give it a go.
“It’s a life full of great opportunities.”
- Top spot on the river? I don’t have one particular favourite place. I’m happy anywhere between Letchlade and the sea.
- Holiday plan?: We are going to Dartmouth this summer. Post the pandemic, I can’t wait to get to Turkey, where we have a boat.
- Pet hates? Things not put back in their right place.