The Boat Race
The University Boat Race
The Boat Race. There aren't many sporting events in the world with such a literal name. For example, you don't get "The Football Match" or "The Running Race". Yet, if you say the Boat Race to most people in the UK, they will know exactly what you are talking about. This annual event pits crews from the World renowned universities of Oxford and Cambridge against one another as they race along the 4.2 mile course. The crews train all year for this one event and for all those involved, there are no runners up, just winners and losers. The event is extremely prestigious, attracting oarsmen from around the world and every year thousands will watch, either in person or on TV. But what do you know about this age old tradition? Hopefully this hub will help answer a few of your questions.
History Of The Boat Race
The first University Boat Race was held in 1829 after two friends, one at Oxford and one at Cambridge challenged each other to a race at Henley-on-Thames, a race that Oxford won easily. The next race occurred 5yrs later running over a course all of the way from Westminster to Putney in London. The following years saw disagreement on where the race should take place and in fact Cambridge raced Leander club instead but in 1839 the Boat race as we know it today was formed and has been rowed every year since 1856 (with the exception of during the two World Wars).
Prior to the 2016 race the record between the two Universities stands as below with there being one Dead Heat in 1877 although this is mired in controversy as it is rumoured that the umpire was dozing under a tree!
Each year the Boat Race is rowed over the "Championship" course from Putney to Mortlake and is 4 miles and 374 yards long. Prior to the race the two Boat Club Presidents toss an 1829 sovereign coin to decide on which side of the course they will race. North of the River is known as Middlesex and South, Surrey and there are pros and cons to both sides. As you can see from the course map,it is quite windy so if you gain a benefit on one bend by being on the inside you lose it on the other bend. However, the rules of the race allow you to move across if you have clear water so often the crew might try to take a lead before the second bend and negate the corners disadvantage.
As well as the Boat race itself there are several other races run over the Championship course, albeit usually in reverse. These take the form of the Head of the River races (Men's 8s/Women's 8s/Veterans/Fours/Pairs) and it is in the Men's VIII race that I have competed this course twice.
Having started opposite the Putney Boat Houses from which they launched, the first real landmark that the crews will pass is Craven Cottage, home to Fulham Football Club. When doing the course in reverse every sinew in your body is strain by this point but for the Boat Race crews they are settling in to their stride, with the crew on Middlesex trying to gain a slight advantage round the slight bend.
Next they pass Mile Post. As the name suggests this is a post (actually a monument) one mile in to the race. A traditional timing point, once the crews pass this point the race is official and the result will stand in the history books. There then follows a slightly straighter part of the course before the river bends at Harrod's Depository leading to several minutes of benefit to the crew on Surrey as they pass through under Hammersmith Bridge. If the bridge is open to spectators then this is often one of the noisiest parts of the course.
From here the bend favours Surrey until you approach the end of Chiswick Eyot, a small island in the river. This point sticks in my memory as when I first went to race on the Thames in 2004 our boat came close to capsizing as we turned back to where we had launched from for a training session, shortly before that years race was cancelled. However, in recent times the Eyot gained infamy as the point at which a protester entered the water and disrupted the 2012 race.
The river now bends back the other way and if the crew on Middlesex are still in contention at this stage you have got to make them favourites. They pass the Band stand on the Middlesex bank (I remember doing my pre-race stretches here in 2005) and then pass under the Barnes Railway Bridge. Only one crew has won the race having trailed at Barnes since 1945 so you are up against it if you are behind now.
Finally it is a sprint to the line, crossing just before Chiswick Bridge. The course record from start to finish is 16min 19sec, rowed by Cambridge in 1998 but on average it takes about 17/18mins to complete the course. As the crews cross the line and drift under Chiswick Bridge they are spent although you can guarantee the victors will usually find some extra energy to celebrate. The effort can often be seen with athletes collapsing not being unheard of (the most recent being Oxford's Bowman at the end of the controversial 2012 race).
However, for the victors come the spoils, as they land their boats champagne will be flowing and the traditional act of throwing the winning cox in to the murky depths of the Thames will be undertaken.
The annual race is held using sweep oar VIIIs with crews comprising each of 8 men and one cox (either sex). For those who compete is an annual boat race they are awarded their University Blues, signifying the two shades of Blue that the two crews wear (Dark Blue = Oxford, Light Blue = Cambridge). To compete in the race you must be in full time education at the university and officially neither offers scholarships or bursaries although there has often been criticism of the courses and the requirements to attend that some top oarsmen have got in to the university on. however, with athletes in recent years studying subjects like a PhD in Micro-biology, their not all there for their brawn.
There have been some very well known individuals take part in the Boat Race. Olympic Gold medalists like Matt Pinsent, Tim Foster, Ed Coode have all competed, the Winklevoss twins (of Facebook founder notoriety) raced in the 2010 Oxford boat and the 1980 race saw Dr House himself, Hugh Laurie, narrowly lose out in the Cambridge boat.
Controversies - Sinkings, Protests and Mutinies
Despite the seemingly gentile nature of the Boat Race, two crews of University gentleman paddling down the Thames, there has been the fair share of controversy over the years. I've already mentioned the controversial dead heat of 1877 and made reference to the 2012 race which was ruined by a protester. There have also been several years where boats have sunk which always gets the attention of the non-rower watching who loved to see a "Wet Toff"!
However, as someone who has rowed to a high level and dedicated a lot of my time (but no-where near what a Blue would do), I would rather not focus on the events that come down to bad luck and leave a years worth of solid training to waste. However, there is one controversy that looks deeper in to the build up of the Boat Race and has been made in to a film, the Oxford Mutiny of 1987.
In the UK? Find the film True Blue here!
As Oxford prepared for the 1987 race, several Americans came across the pond to race including Gold medalists from previous Olympics such as Dan Lyons. However, disagreements soon started to occur between the Americans and the Oxford Coach and President Dan Topolski and Donald MacDonald. The Americans saw the training regime as old fashioned and the British contingent saw the Americans as unmotivated and arrogant. The whole issue came to a head when it looked like Macdonald would be selected ahead of one of the Americans and they tried to stage a mutiny. However, Macdonald and Topolski won a vote of confidence and proceeded to build a squad of rowers from the reserve crews which against the odds went on to win the race.
This whole incident was written in to a book by Dan Topolski and in 1996 converted to the film True Blue starring, among others, future star of The Wire, Dominic West. It depicts the entire build up from the Oxford defeat in 1986 to the 1987 victory. There is no doubting that it has been told from one side of the argument so there is a definite bias but for a rowing buff it is still worth a watch. I remember watching with my crew just prior to the 2004 Head of the River race as it felt like the right thing to do!
You can watch a trailer of this movie on YouTube below.
Other Boat Races
As well as the main race between the Blue crews, Boat Race day also sees a race between the two reserve crews Goldie (Cambridge) and Isis (Oxford) held just prior to the main event. There are also races between the universities women's squads and lightweight crews which are held at Henley-on-Thames although from 2015 the Women's race will be raced on the Championship course on the same day as the main event.
The concept of the Boat race has spread as well and now you can find head to head races between universities up and down the country. I myself narrowly missed out on selection for the Durham Novice Squad crew for the 2004 Boat Race against Newcastle University (although the races were then abandoned due to poor weather).
Who Will You Be Supporting This Year?
The Most Recent Race
2015 - Oxford Win By 6 Lengths
The main talking point of the 2015 boat race was it being the first year that the women's race was run alongside the men's race on the tideway. Unfortunately I was unable to watch this race but was home just in time for the men's race.
After the issues of last year, Cambridge were looking for revenge, despite the fact that Oxford were firm favourites. Cambridge won the toss and chose the Surrey side but got off to an awful start. As they hit their rhythm they drew level and the race was quite close as the crews approached Hammersmith Bridge. At this point the bend should have favoured Cambridge but Oxford had other ideas and pushed through to overhaul the light blues and pull in front.
From that moment on the race was a formality and Oxford gradually pulled further ahead. I felt for the guys in the Cambridge boat as they had trained for months and it must have been demoralising. Oxford rowed across to close the gap on overall victories and stroke Constantine Louloudis joined a unique band of athletes to have won 4 different races.
2014 - Oxford Win By 11 Lengths
Unfortunately the 2014 race was not much of a spectacle for the rowing fan. Oxford were always favourites with a vastly more experienced squad but upsets can happen.
Off the start Cambridge started well, surprising many as they took an early lead. But just 5mins in disaster struck as the Cambridge cos aggressively steered towards the Oxford boat there was a clash of blades. Unfortunately for Cambridge, this flipped the blade of two man Luke Juckett just as it was entering the water, causing him to pull what is known in rowing terms "A Crab". The force almost ejected him from the boat and whilst he did get back on his seat, by now Cambridge were already 5 lengths down and the race seemed a foregone conclusion. It came out after the race that Juckett's rigger had broken as well so for the rest of the race the crew only had seven rowers left able to race and the rhythm had gone. Cambridge did appeal the result but as the umpire deemed it to be their fault, the result was not over-turned.
In many ways it was a real shame, not only because the race was not really a race, but also the Oxford crew will always have it said they only won because of this incident. However, I think if the race had been clean we could have still seen one of the best crew performances in recent years by Oxford.
Do you watch the Boat Race? Have you competed in it? I would love to hear any comments you have on this British tradition!