Or, The Boat Race
The Boat Race, as it is commonly known, is the annual race from Putney Bridge to Chiswick Bridge contested by two VIII's (boats consisting of eight rowers and one cox), representing Cambridge University — who row in light blue — and Oxford University, wearing dark blue. The race extends 4 miles 374 yards along the river Thames.
The origins of the race date to 1829. Charles Merival of Cambridge University and Charles Wordsworth of Oxford University had been friends and crew-mates at the public school Harrow. They discussed the possibilty of a race between the two Universities, and subsequently, Cambridge issued a challenge to Oxford. The first Boat Race took place at Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, on 10 June, 1829. Oxford were victorious. From this first race at Henley sprang two annual events: the Henley Royal Regatta and the Boat Race. The second Boat Race was held in 1836, on the Thames at Westminster, but was moved upstream to Putney in 1845 owing to river congestion. In 1856, it became an annual event, the war years excepted.
Dates and Tides
The ceremonial Boat Race Challenge is issued annually at the Hurlingham Club in London, roughly one month before the crews actually meet on the water. Tradition dictates that the President of the club defeated in the previous year's contest will challenge the President of the opposing club to a rematch.
The date of the race is usually the last weekend in March or the first weekend in April. As the Thames is a tidal river, the date and time of the race are subject to the laws of nature. The race is rowed upstream on the Flood Tide, roughly an hour before high tide. This means that the crews are rowing away from the sea, but with the help of the incoming-tide. High tide occurs roughly once in every 12.5 hours; however, this is not a definite time, as it is affected by the sun, moon and levels of rainfall. The majority of other races that take place on the Tideway (as the stretch of the Thames populated by oarsmen is known) are rowed on the Ebb Tide, when the tide is flowing out to sea, along with the natural stream of the river.
Preparation and Crews
The preparation for the crews is gruelling, with each oarsman putting in roughly 2000 hours of training for the race. Although training for the race would ostensibly begin at the beginning of the academic year, it is really more of a continuous cycle, with both clubs developing their own systems of training and maintaining their squads.
Trial Eights are held in December, on the Tideway, which gives the coaches an idea which oarsmen are coming-on the best and who is most adept to handle the Tideway conditions. A tradition has evolved in which the Trial Eights are given names, rather than being referred to as "Crew A" and "Crew B". These names vary every year, and are often pertinent to events surrounding the race. For example, the 2001/2002 Oxford Trial Eights were called "Bitter" and "Twisted", a play on the crew's attitude following the loss of the 2001 race in difficult circumstances.
Final crews are not selected until much closer to race day. Should a member of a squad fail to make the final VIII for the Boat Race, there is also the Reserves Race, which is normally rowed about thirty minutes before the Blue Boats compete. The Oxford Reserve Boat is called "Isis", whilst the Cambridge boat is known as "Goldie". There is also the Womens Boat Race, and the Lightweights Race. These events are held at Henley-on-Thames a week prior to the competition on the Thames.
The last week of training is spent on the Thames, practising starts, developing plans and sometimes even finalising crews. Cambridge base themselves at the Kings College School, Wimbledon boathouse whilst Oxford use the facilities of the Westminster School boathouse. The Press (especially the the Times and the Daily Telegraph) always report on the progress of the crews. There is a public weigh-in for crews on the Monday prior to the contest, which, combined with the training reports often serves as an indication to the winner. Generally, the heavier crew holds the advantage.
The race is always umpired by a previous Blue (i.e. somebody who has rowed in the race), from a following launch. An umpire must have also presided over the Reserve Boat Race. The choice of umpire alternates each year between Oxford and Cambridge. Thus, Cambridge might compile a shortlist of possible umpires one year, all of whom will have rowed for Cambridge, from which Oxford will make a selection. The following year, the roles are reversed.
The Course and Coxing
The course features three major bends, two of which curve towards bow-side (or to the right) and one towards stroke-side (or to the left). The bow-side bends favour the crew drawn on the Middlesex station (which is the north bank), whilst the stroke-side bend favours the Surrey crew (south bank).
The start of the course is marked by University Stone, just upstream from Putney Bridge. From here, there is a relatively straight stretch of water for about half a mile, before the first Middlesex bend takes the crews past Fulham Flats and Craven Cottage, the Fulham Football ground. At the Mile Post, which is the first timing point, the river begins to swing towards the Surrey station on a bend that lasts approximately two miles. The next marker is the Harrods Repository, before the apex of the bend is reached roughly as the crews pass under Hammersmith Bridge and onto Chiswick Reach. The next significant marker is Chiswick Eyot, a small island towards the Middlesex bank and shortly after that comes Chiswick Steps, the second timing point. After about three miles, the Surrey crew loses its advantage as the river straightens and both crews hit open water, which can subject them to strong winds and rough waters. The final bend takes the crews towards the Middlesex bank, under Barnes Railway Bridge, which is the third timing point. There is now three-quarters of a mile to go. For the leading crew, it means almost certain victory, very few trailing crews have come by to snatch glory on the line, just before Chiswick Bridge.
The Presidents toss a coin to decide from which station the crews will start. The nature of the Thames, the weather and even the composition of the crews themselves affects the choice of station. Consequently, the race is not only a fantastic test of the oarsmen's stamina, but is reliant on the skill of the coxes. Aggressive: always; dirty: sometimes. This does not stop women from coxing either. In 1981, Sue Brown was the first female varsity cox, taking Oxford to victory. Coxing is not just about looking for the five centimetre band of water where the stream is flowing fastest, putting the boat there and defending it. It can be about looking for the calmest stretch of water. It is most certainly about finding the motivating factor to lift eight exhausted men a little bit more, and keep them fighting until the finish.
Competition and Controversy
The record for the fastest time was set by Cambridge in 1998: 16 minutes 19 seconds. Of the 148 starts to date, Cambridge have won 77, Oxford 70 and there was a dead heat in 1877. Although, by all accounts, it was not really a dead heat. The Umpire was drunk and unable to discern that Oxford had crossed the line six feet ahead of Cambridge!
The Boat Race has not existed without controversy, which has included sinkings, restarts and even a mutiny. Cambridge sank in 1859 and 1978, whilst Oxford sank in 1925. Both crews sank in 1912, leading to the race being rescheduled the following day. In 2001, the race was restarted by Umpire Oberholzer after a clash of blades resulted in the Cambridge bow-man "losing his blade", meaning that his oar was knocked from his hands. Cambridge won following the restart, although Oxford had held the advantage until then. In 1987, Oxford faced a mutiny after the Club President, Donald MacDonald, was selected over an American crew-mate. The other American crew members refused to race in protest, but MacDonald remained in the crew. Oxford still won.
The Rowing World and Beyond
Perhaps the advent of sponsorship (Ladbrokes first sponsored the race in 1976, whilst it is currently sponsored by Aberdeen Asset Management) removed some of the romanticism of the event, but the passion and the significance has in no way diminished. The prize for winning is a trophy, pride, one's name in the record books and the knowledge that the opposing crew was defeated. Oarsmen drive themselves to collapse (Sebastian Mayer in the 2002 race) and coxes to starvation to be a part of it (well, not literally, but there are stories of diets from hell).
With respect to setting a standard for rowing, five of the oarsmen who brought home gold medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics were Blues, including Matthew Pinsent. Crews from all over the country will record the Boat Race and analyse the technical aspects of the rowing in an attempt to improve their own. As for other famous Blues, the comedian Hugh Laurie rowed for Cambridge in 1980 and Lord Snowden was also a light blue, but in 1950.
Should you wish to leave the warmth of your house and the comfort of your sofa to watch the Boat Race in the flesh (for the BBC have broadcast a radio commentary of the race since 1927 and have televised it since 1938), then I offer the following suggestions:
- Wear lots of layers, good shoes and bring sunglasses and waterproofs. Changeable spring-time weather and all.
- Take Public Transport. Parking is horrendous in London at the best of times.
- Hammersmith Bridge is the only road bridge that crosses the course and offers arguably the best viewing position, allowing the crews to be seen from both directions, before disappearing around the Surrey bend. If you want to stand there, you need to get there early. (Hammersmith tube station is not a long walk.)
- To see the finish, Chiswick Bridge is perhaps the best vantage point.
- There are plenty of pubs and restaurants along both banks of the river that offer good spectator positions, but they do
get busy, so again, get there early.
- 10 March: Challenge issued by Cambridge University Boat Club President, Tim Wooge to Matt Smith, President of Oxford University Boat Club
- 1 April: Official Weigh-in
- 6 April: The Boat Race! 4.30pm
With thanks to:
- www.theboatrace.org - comprehensive, but difficult to navigate. 17 August 2003: is being updated and will hopefully be easier to navigate!
- My own good fortune to have learnt to cox at Cambridge (when still at school) and to have coxed the Tideway when representing my University