The Boat Race, probably the most famous rowing event in the world, israced between Putney and Mortlake in London, on a tidal stretch of the Thameswhich changes 20 feet in depth, and totally in character, twice a day. Since Beefeater Gin took over sponsorship of the race in 1987, it has grown froma mere national institution to an international event, watched by 500million people live, and by millions more as a documentary a few weeks later. Beefeater's publicity agents run a press office at the river for two weeks before the day itself, and hold media promotion events, such as theChallenge a month before, the Weigh-in five days prior to the race, and the Toss onrace day, for choice of station. Earlier in the season, each university runs aTrialEights race, which raises media awareness of the event, gives the press alook at the squads, and puts each oarsman and cox through a blade-tip toblade-tip test of courage and endurance similar to what they will experience on theday.
Why bother? Hard to tell. The oarsmen are not the best in the world,although some crews have contained the best. The crews are not usually the best ofthe world's students, although many years they come very close. The most wecan sayis that this private challenge, begun in 1821 between college crews fromthe twoancient rival universities, is one which has caught the globalimagination. It now has a formidable publicity machine ensuring its endurance, and the two universities receive millions in sponsorship for equipment, kit, andpaying someof the best professional coaches. This money without doubt filters downrowing in Britain, a country which does not find it easy to raise sports support.
And there is the nature of the race itself. It's always the same twocrews "in the final" because this is a private challenge. The race is run over awinding unbuoyed course, making the skill and knowledge of the coxswain ofparamount importance. The river, although broad, has a strip of fastest stream onlytwo boats wide, which is hard to identify until you know the course well.Being offthe stream can cost you up to a quarter-length a stroke..... The rulesallow a cox who is more than a length up to move into the other boat's water,washing them down and gaining even more advantage. Blade clashes must "materially disadvantage" the losing crew before they are adjudged a foul. In thelong tradition of the race, there has not yet been a disqualification for themain boats (one in the reserves race), and some coxes yield under the pressure,and let their opponent steal their water. It is the rowing equivalent of a heavyweight title fight.
The race is four and a quarter miles long, usually taking over 17 minutes.In aclose race, every inch will be rowed at top pressure, and frequently at35-36 strokes a minute. In such a test of speed _and_ endurance, the crewstrain for up to 40 hours a week for the preceeding 6 months, fitting it in aroundtheir academic work, and their vestigial social lives, in two universities whichdo not recognise the importance of sports in academia. Their only reward forthis is to get a Blue (for the first crew) or reserve colours.
So, what of the recent races? Following a long run of Dark Blue Oxfordsuccess in the seventies and eighties, the Cambridge Light Blues have now wonsince 1993, and taken the reserves race since 1989. Pundits have attributedmuch of this to the famous "Cambridge style", a fluid rowing technique promoted bytheircoaching team which allows them to waste minimal effort throughout thelong, tough races. However, this year Rene Mjinders, coach of the victoriousDutch Olympic eight, has joined Oxford's efforts, and has brought in a similarly relaxed, smooth style which has added much speed to the Oxford crews seenat thewinter head races. Anyone could have predicted a close race: my personalbet was that we would know who was going to win by the Bandstand,three-quarters of the way up the course.
With such a media spotlight, controversial details are hyped by the press.Thisyear's Oxford President, Ed Bellamy, a Blue in 1996, accepted Mjinders'decisionnot to put him into the first crew, and was rowing in Isis, their reserves- something not many Presidents have been so dignified about. In theCambridge camp, last year's winning stroke, James Ball, returned to training verylate, inthe New Year, prompting worries that he would not be up to it after losingso much fitness. Three days before the race, the Cambridge reserves beattheir first crew in two extended pieces, normally a very bad sign. Withoutpanicking,coach Robin Williams sneaked his crew for an early-morning seat-swap,resulting in a drastically altered lineup, although with Ball still at stroke. Last year's winning cox, Kevin Whyman, had returned to the Light Blue crew,beating Susie Ellis, the GB women's cox and a highly experienced Tidewaysteerswoman, for the seat. Each of these events was played out in the full glare ofthe media over-excitement. In the Oxford crew, recently a common place tofind international oarsmen, GB Olympic and Worlds medallist Tim Foster atstroke was backed by Luka Grubor, the Croatian and IC Henley champion, Jordan Irvingfrom Yale and the first Italian in the race, Olympian Roberto Blanda. InCambridge'sboat, Ball and Whyman's experience of the race was backed by PresidentEthan Ayer from Harvard, and several 1996 Goldie winners.
In order to catch the incoming tide, the Boat Race time varies each year.This was an afternoon race, the reserves starting half an hour before the mainevent at 4:10 pm. Bellamy tossed for both crews, losing the Isis call andwinning forthe Blue Boat. Both winning crews chose the Surrey station, with a vast advantage half-way through the race. As the banks filled with thousandsof spectators in the afternoon sunshine, the reserves took to the water,going out under Putney bridge to the choppy warm-up area. Half an hour later, withIsis and Goldie on the stakeboats, the Blue Boats brought their shells down,hounded by TV cameras searching for any sign of weakness or fear. As each rowersteppedinto his seat , he stripped off the branded top to show plain blue kit,and the race returned to its unsponsored origin, an ancient grudge match betweentwo
The reserves blasted off, Goldie taking an early leadround the outside of the Fulham corner, pushing steadily away from Isis to win in 17 minutes 32 seconds, over six lengths clear. As he brought his shell off the water, Bellamy was kidnapped by the BBC and stood watching a monitor, a TVcamera focused on his poker face, waiting to catch every reaction to his BlueBoat's race.
Oxford had chosen the southern, Surrey side, and wentoff slickly beside Cambridge, holding their ground round thedisadvantageous first corner. Both crews looked extremely relaxed over the first mile ofthe course, Oxford rating 33-34 to Cambridge's 34-35 after an early settle. Theconditions were difficult- choppy cross-head for most of the course, favouringneither boat and rewardingTideway skill and experience. Oxford took a seat or soinitially in the flusterof the start, and Cambridge pulled it back round theirfirst, advantageous, corner. Oxford looked long and relaxed, finishes wellheld in, but Cambridge had sharper, quicker catches, the large hatchet spoonsseeming heavier than those of Oxford as they dropped straight into the waterat the end of each recovery. At the lower rate though, towards theMilepost, Oxford were looking more efficient, calmly holding Cambridge's efforts incheck and clearly aware that there was a long race ahead. There were severalinterlacing strokes, but neither cox came out of these with much advantage.
Round that first bend, then, no major moves, and wewatched with bated breath asthe start of the long Oxford-favouring Surrey bend cameinto view. Now, thoughtDark Blue supporters, a difference would start to show. But Cambridge's cox, Whyman, decided to throw his opponents off their scent,and inched sideways, crowding Oxford's Greaney towards the Harrods Depository wall. As Oxford pulledforward, making the most of their bend, Whyman pushed in again, defying any attempt by Greaney to steal his water. Much flag-waving from the umpire, and some more blade-tip clashing, which seemed to rattleDark more than Light Blues,and as they rounded St. Paul's school Cambridge heldonto a canvas overlap, refusing to acknowledge defeat.
Here the long bend flattens past Chiswick Ait, but itcurves again to Surrey before the Steps. It seemed that in his enthusiasm toget all the corner advantage and to avoid a clash, the Oxford cox cut itslightly, moving partiallyout of the stream. Whyman saw his chance, moved inagain and urged his crew on.As they passed the steps Cambridge had drawn back tolevel, and Oxford couldn't ignore the obvious - Cambridge had held onto themthrough every inch of advantage, and now had the last bend in their favour.The on-boat cameras flicked from one stern to the other, then back to theblades, where we began to see that it was no longer the stern pairs clashing.Moving towards Barnes Bridge Cambridge put in a sustained effort, and as theypassed under the arch their stern camera turned round, giving us the view allBoat Race oarsmen want to see - that of their opponents' backs.....
By now nothing Oxford could do daunted the Cambridgecrew, who had visibly relaxed into their famous smooth style of previousyears. As they progressed majestically towards the finish, the gap opened to twolengths in total, an incredible feat from a supposedly nervous Cambridgecrew, and an unbelievable disappointment for Oxford. Their faces at the finishsaid it all - triumph versus despair. Like Donald MacDonald ten years ago inthe mutiny race, Cambridge President Ethan Ayer stood up in the middle of his crew as the Light Blue shell drifted out into the west sun under ChiswickBridge, and the Goldie boys rushed to the water's edge to cheer their boathome.
The time this year was a slow one, hampered by theconditions and the wind, which was stronger than for the reserves race. ButCambridge will be delighted to have produced a strong second crew yet again, andOxford have at last scentedthe potential for victory after some staggeringly baddefeats. Earlier in the week Dan Topolski, Oxford's guru coach, told aninterviewer that "the Boat Race is a side-by-side struggle until one crew decides thatit can't win", and his point was well proved. A hell of a race, and neitherside will be complacent for the future. Cambridge were "asked the question"round the outside of the longest bend, and gave Oxford an answer they justcouldn't match. Watch this space - next year's race could also be a classic.
Crew lists and background information: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~quarrell/REGATTA/BoatRace.html,including links to a map of the course, the official race site, this year's press previews and previous race details.
Milepost both crews 3:51, record 3:31.
Hammersmith Bridge Oxford 6:55, Cambridge 6:56, record6:21.
Chiswick Steps both crews 10:49, record 10:12.
Barnes Bridge Cambridge 14:35, Oxford 14:39, record13:57.
Finish Cambridge 17:38, Oxford 17:44, record 16:45.
Copyright Rachel Quarrell 1997. This article is alsopublished in Independent Rowing News.