As the sport of rowing developed, the design of racing boats moved ever further from that of the traditional watermen’s skiffs. By the turn of the 20th century, outriggers, sliding seats and a more streamlined shape were the norm, and the racing calendar was filled with local and national events.
For many years, Gravesend RC played host to other clubs in the region at their annual Club Regatta. The course originally started at an old explosives notice-board at Denton (just below the Ship and Lobster public house) and finished at the clubhouse, a distance of nine furlongs. At just over a mile in length, this made it one of the longest on the Thames. However, in 1965 a jetty was built out into the river which meant that the best available course was now just over half a mile, so the event became known as the Gravesend Sprint Regatta. At this time it was possible to race over short courses without affecting one’s status in the event of a win (any win at a modern regatta results in additional points being added) so the course provided valuable race experience and attracted some prestigious London clubs.
The Gravesend Sprint Regatta was a modern-style race event, to which other rowing clubs were invited, and should not be confused with the type of rowing represented in the Gravesend Town Regatta. This is rowed in traditional four-oared waterman’s skiffs and has its origins in the old Gravesend Regattas first recorded in 1698, possibly the oldest in England. Over many years skiff racing has been a significant feature of boat racing on the Promenade, with the ‘Shrimpers’ Regatta Committee and the Town Regatta Committee still hosting a number of events throughout the skiff rowing season (May – September).
After the war, the Town Regatta Committee raised funds for the building of six traditional waterman’s skiffs (heavy clinker-built boats, 21 feet in length) which were named after local notables George White, A.W. King, John Burberry, Percy Sargent, and R.D. McKellar. The latter was captain of the Sea School (a national sea training school) and also served several years as Gravesend RC’s Club Treasurer. These boats were raced at local events during the season, including the Long Ferry race from Westminster to Gravesend which retraced the old ferry route granted exclusively to Gravesend watermen by Royal Charter in 1401. It was this committee which staged the professional races for apprentice watermen and freemen which were such a feature of the pre-war regattas. The prize for the apprentice’s race was a brand new fully equipped waterman’s skiff, designed to set the winner up in business. A notable winner in 1938 was the late Eric Phelps (who won the Doggett’s Coat and Badge the same year and went on to become British and European sculling champion and noted coach), followed by Gravesend Rowing Club’s own Eric Lupton who took the title from him in 1954. The decorated backboards (seat back rests) of these prize boats adorn many pubs and clubs in the Gravesend area, with those of Eric Phelps and Eric Lupton hanging proudly in the club-house of the rowing club.
The original clinker-built wooden boats have now largely gone, especially since the death of Eric Mastin who lovingly built and repaired them. Their place has been taken by 21-foot Clayton-class fibre-glass boats but the popularity of this type of rowing lives on, with crews of both sexes and all ages formed from local clubs and pubs. Today there is still much cross-over between the two types of rowing, with many Gravesend RC members competing in skiff events, and many skiff rowers continuing to train and race throughout the winter as members of the rowing club.