The 1998 Boat Race - Cambridge cox's perspective

The Rowing Service

The following comments were sent to me by Alistair Potts, cox of the winning 1998 Cambridge Blue Boat crew. He requested that I make them available online, although he doesn't have direct access at the moment. They are made in response to comments found on the rowing newsgroup by people around the world.

It is not currently possible to send feedback to these remarks to the author, and any sent to the Rowing Service will be binned. It is suggested that if you wish to discuss the matters further you use the rowing newsgroup for that purpose.

Over to Alistair....

"I know this year's coxing for the Boat Race has caused,again, some comment. Everyone seems to have a differentopinion - from Geoffrey Page, who has been an arse allyear, for reasons well-known to anyone who follows CUBCclosely, to the Daily Mail (!) where I was 'hailed as ahero'. But the next day the pilot who bravely landed thatburning plane at Stanstead was 'hailed as a hero' too,which rather put it all into context.

Many people seem to think that the reason that there hasnever been a boat-race disqualification is because ofcommercial pressures. This is wrong on two counts - first,more trivially, there has been a disqualification.Cambridge fouled Oxford in the second race of 1849(?), andwere promptly dq'd. Anyway, as to the more important point,I can only say that Mike Sweeny impressed on me that hewould not hesitate to disqualify a crew if a crew infringedthe rules. He's a FISA umpire, chairman of the HenleyStewards etc. etc. and pretty scary too. I had no doubt atall that he would keep to his word, and I had no intentionof putting my crew in a position where he might disqualifyus.

Both Alex and myself are experienced coxswains. We're bothentirely capable of putting our boats exactly where we wantwithing a few inches. Any overlapping, or worse, can andshould be read as deliberate. Mike said that anything lessthan two metres between the tips of the oars, and he wouldstart warning. This is fair enough, because (this isimportant) it is the umpire's job to get the two crewssafely over the course. When you're steering the race, theonly line that matters is the umpire's, and it's imperativethat he lets you know who is burdened to move when the twoboats' opinions of the line differ, or one boat thinks itcan steal an advantage by crowding the other boat.

It's all very well being a so-called experienced Tidewaycoxswain. But the Boat Race is not the Head of the River.When you're steering side by side on the Tideway, yourknowledge of the tide counts for very little. You relyentirely on the umpire to guide you. All the shouting thatgoes on is not a bad thing, or indicative of over-aggressiveness, or bad steering, or the umpire gettingespecially upset. It's a crucial part of the Boat Race -without it, the two crews would probably be tangled in abig heap after less than two minutes (as happened in 1980,when the Umpire's launch didn't start properly).

Anyway, to my impression of the race, which is obviouslysubjective and probably biased, but this is the way I readit. Start on Surrey, went off at 46, very quickly down to41, one man down for c. 40 seconds at 37, into race pace,through the Black Buoy with boat speeds very even, pulledback to level without extra effort, Oxford slip out a managain at about 90s. Situation good, under control, rowingwell (but not best). Approach Fulham, their bend, tide (v.strong!) starts to pull me towards Oxford, immediatewarning from Mike. Suspect Alex's reaction was to dab alittle left rudder to make life harder for me.

Move away. Boats v. close now, oars overlapping, startingnot to like the situation. Warning to both crews to moveapart. My first mistake: dab a little more left rudder,Alex lets the stream take him and the boats diverge. Cursemyself - Oxford have moved a classic Middlesex turn, leftme going too wide, and could have taken more men;fortunately Alex fails to take advantage of a good move andmoves back in towards me. A huge relief. Oxford warnedtwice or three times, but I don't try to crowd them, justlet the boat float round the bend. And now sitting just oneman down, bend winding out, call to crew that we've negatedtheir advantage, we've won the bend.

Bend coming out, pick point, feel the turn straighten. Cansense Oxford now at angle to us, closing too much. Have todecide - stay or move - hear warning "Oxford ...OXFORD!..." Call to crew to hang on to blades. Crunch,spray, hull shakes, Oxford drop one man, Mike going madbehind "Both CREWS! Move apart!. Their momentum is gone.Brad, at 4, calls "let's go guys", me too now, we can sensetheir rhythm is knocked, I've had to rudder away, but I'mcalling "go go! Let's go!"

Then ruddering straight, now one man up, then two, boatsvery close again, "Cambridge!", but parallel so OK. Callingto crew to breathe, to relax, to move away. Now up to theirfour man, approaching our bend, go straight, then jink,straight, then jink, every time taking men. Now on theirbow man, feel them move in close, Oxford warned. Good. OK.Then slice in front, right in front, about three feetbetween my stern and their bow. Anyone who's been in abumping race knows the feeling well. Must be horrible. Askthe guys to send me down some bombs...

And that was that. I should say that I too don't think thatblade clashing has any part in the Boat Race. I know Ethan Ayeris a Cambridge man, but he did say that from the lauchbehind he was secure that when the clash did happen Mikewas flagging Oxford. I couldn't see that but I knew it too.I'm not a coxswain who will pick a fight senselessly, notsomeone who would needlessly jeapordise my crew for themisguided kudos of 'aggressiveness'. It's something that wonme my seat. What's more, I feel that the victory wasslightly tarnished by what went on, that the crews' battlewas lessened by that event. I don't think it changed theeventual outcome, but I'd rather the coxing was a bit moreanonymous. Kevin (1997) coxed brilliantly - I think I'll beremembered more for notoriety, and that annoys me a bit.

One final thought, which may seemungracious, but is, I think, relevant. After last year'sevent Kevin Whyman got all the plaudits, and Alex was, insome quarters, blamed. When Alex got the boat again thisyear all of us at Cambridge knew that he would want to turnthe tide, to bury that demon. When we read that the Oxfordtrial eights race had to be stopped because of clashing weknew that it would probably be a vicious race. We preparedfor it off the water, and we prepared for it on, weprepared for it even in the final quiet minutes before wewent on the water. So we knew what was coming. When it cameto the crunch, I think it made a big difference."

Alistair James Potts, April 6th 1998.

For more reports, see the 1997 Boat Race report on this website and, in Regatta Online, Cambridge make it six in a row in record time, and the 1997 Regatta Report.