March 28th 1999
A breezy, bright day at Henley saw an enthusiastic crowd, the odd pleasure-boat and TV camera team, and a new umpire for the Women's and Lightweights Boat Races. Chris Drury, Cambridge Blue and himself no stranger to the big rowing occasion, had taken the coxes down the course two days before with a stern word about clashes, making it clear he did not intend to allow pushing and shoving on the unbuoyed course.
In the morning the challenging Presidents called for the toss, with Oxford winning all four and choosing the Buckinghamshire station. A cheeky and freshening cross-tail from that direction suggested it was a good choice, backed up by Drury's positioning of the stake-boats further towards the towpath and Berkshire station.
The race afternoon always kicks off with the women's reserves race, Osiris for Oxford versus Blondie for Cambridge. Last year the few Light Blue reserves who were not already blond(e) dyed their hair to match their name, so this year's Osiris crew sported t-shirts stating "Blonder", and proceeded to demonstrate their point with a decisive victory despite several warnings. The margin was given as a length and three-quarters, but with times of 6:09 and 6:17. This was a win one second outside the reserves record, and broke a streak of nine consecutive losses for Oxford.
Naturally the Dark Blue women's lightweights had to top that, and duly did so, carving a staggering eighteen seconds off their long-standing record to finish in 6:01.5, just under a length in front of Cambridge. A great advertisement for their Resolute shell, which had been cracked during the Women's Head two weeks before, but was clearly well-mended.
Cambridge hopes revived again as their Women's Blue Boat made an excellent start, getting away cleanly and immediately up on Oxford. By Lion Meadow they were half a length up, and although the Dark Blues' one-minute push gained some ground back, by Remenham the Light Blues were starting to draw clear. In a year when Cambridge had no returning Blues against Oxford's four, and form had suggested a tight race, this was quite a performance, and Cambridge, on average a nippy rate pip above Oxford, held their ground to the finish line despite desperate Oxford pushes, and crossed in 6:01, four seconds to the good. This was the eight win in succession for Ron Needs' girls, and obviously a huge relief to the underdog crew.
The men's lightweights race often makes an exciting finale to the day, but the Oxford men plainly had no intention of leaving it anywhere near a photofinish just to entertain the spectators. They had a length on their opponents by Upper Thames, and, equalling the Fawley record of 3:02 at half-way, held their lead with confidence, and drew out another half-length by the end, finishing in 5:31, two seconds outside the record.
After several years of at least three Light Blue wins, the Dark Blue supporters on the towpath were jubilant at the reversal of fortune. No actual clashes to worry the new umpire, no disqualifications, and a big crowd to satisfy new last-minute sponsors Chase Manhattan. Olympic champion Gary Herbert presented the prizes to the victorious crews and the towpath steadily cleared, leaving just the binbag-rubbish-gatherers mopping up the picnic debris.
Watch this space for the Boat Race report on April 3rd.