The Boat Race
|The Boat Race
The BNY Mellon Boat Race
|First boat race||10 June 1829|
|Annual event since||15 March 1856|
|Largest margin of victory||Cambridge, 35 lengths (1839)|
|Smallest margin of victory||Oxford, 1 foot (2003)|
|Course||The Championship Course
River Thames, London
|Course length||4.2 miles (6.8 km)|
|Current sponsor||BNY Mellon|
|Trophy||The Boat Race Trophy|
|Number of wins|
|Note: There has been one dead heat, recorded in 1877|
The Boat Race is a set of annual rowing races between the Oxford University Boat Club and the Cambridge University Boat Club, rowed between eights on the River Thames in London, England. It is also known as the University Boat Race and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, or by a title that includes the name of its current sponsor (from 2013, the BNY Mellon Boat Race). It usually takes place on the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April. The most recent race was the 2015 race which took place on Saturday 11 April 2015, with Oxford winning the race by 20 seconds.
The first race was in 1829 and the event has been held annually since 1856, except during the First and Second World Wars. The course covers a 4.2-mile (6.8 km) stretch of the Thames in West London, from Putney to Mortlake. Members of both teams are traditionally known as blues and each boat as a "Blue Boat", with Cambridge in light blue and Oxford dark blue. As of 2015 Cambridge have won the race 81 times and Oxford 79 times, with one dead heat.
The race is well-established and popular. Upwards of 250,000 people watch the race from the banks of the river each year (in 2009, a record 270,000 people watched the race live) while a further 15 million or more watch it on television; currently no other non-country-representative rowing races are broadcast by a television station.
- 1 History
- 2 Course
- 3 Media coverage
- 4 Competitors
- 5 Sponsorship
- 6 Other boat races involving Oxford and Cambridge
- 7 Build-up
- 8 Popular culture
- 9 Statistics
- 10 Results
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 External links
The tradition was started in 1829 by Charles Merivale, a student at St John's College, Cambridge, and his Old Harrovian school friend Charles Wordsworth who was studying at Christ Church, Oxford. Cambridge challenged Oxford to a race at Henley-on-Thames but lost easily. Oxford raced in dark blue because five members of the crew, including the stroke, were from Christ Church, then Head of the River, whose colours were dark blue. There is a dispute as to the source of the colour chosen by Cambridge. The second race was in 1836, with the venue moved to a course from Westminster to Putney. Over the next two years, there was disagreement over where the race should be held, with Oxford preferring Henley and Cambridge preferring London. Following the official formation of the Oxford University Boat Club in 1839, racing between the two universities resumed on the Tideway and the tradition continues to the present day, with the loser challenging the winner to a rematch annually.
1877 dead heat
The race in 1877 was declared a dead heat. Both crews finished in a time of 24 minutes and eight seconds in bad weather. The verdict of race judge, John Phelps, is suspect because he was reportedly over 70 and blind in one eye. Rowing historian Tim Koch, writing in the official 2014 Boat Race Programme, notes that there is "a very big and very entrenched lie" about the race, including the claim that Phelps had announced "Dead heat ... to Oxford by six feet" (the distance supposedly mentioned by Phelps varies according to the telling).
Phelps's nickname "Honest John" was not an ironic one, and he was not (as is sometimes claimed) drunk under a bush at the time of the finish. He did have to judge who had won without the assistance of finish posts (which were installed in time for the next year's race). Some newspapers had believed Oxford won a narrow victory but their viewpoint was from downstream; Phelps considered that the boats were essentially level with each surging forward during the stroke cycle. With no clear way to determine who had surged forward at the exact finish line, Phelps could only pronounce it a dead heat. Koch believes that the press and Oxford supporters made up the stories about Phelps later, which Phelps had no chance to refute.
Oxford, partially disabled, were making effort after effort to hold their rapidly waning lead, while Cambridge, who, curiously enough, had settled together again, and were rowing almost as one man, were putting on a magnificent spurt at 40 strokes to the minute, with a view of catching their opponents before reaching the winning-post. Thus struggling over the remaining portion of the course, the two eights raced past the flag alongside one another, and the gun fired amid a scene of excitement rarely equalled and never exceeded. Cheers for one crew were succeeded by counter-cheers for the other, and it was impossible to tell what the result was until the Press boat backed down to the Judge and inquired the issue. John Phelps, the waterman, who officiated, replied that the noses of the boats passed the post strictly level, and that the result was a dead heat.
1959 Oxford mutiny
In 1959 some of the existing Oxford blues attempted to oust president Ronnie Howard and coach Jumbo Edwards. However, their attempt failed when Cambridge supported the president. Three of the dissidents returned and Oxford went on to win by six lengths.
1987 Oxford mutiny
Following defeat in the previous year's race, Oxford's first in eleven years, American Chris Clark was determined to gain revenge: "Next year we're gonna kick ass ... Cambridge's ass. Even if I have to go home and bring the whole US squad with me." He recruited another four American post-graduates: three international-class rowers (Dan Lyons, Chris Huntington and Chris Penney) and a cox (Jonathan Fish), in an attempt to put together the fastest Boat Race crew in the history of the contest.
Disagreements over the training regime of Dan Topolski, the Oxford coach ("He wanted us to spend more time training on land than water!", lamented Lyons), led to the crew walking out on at least one occasion, and resulted in the coach revising his approach. A fitness test between Clark and Macdonald (in which the American triumphed) resulted in a call for the Scotsman's removal; it was accompanied with a threat that the Americans would refuse to row should Macdonald remain in the crew. As boat club president, Macdonald "had absolute power over selection" and after announcing that Clark would row on starboard, his weaker side, Macdonald would row on the port side and Tony Ward was to be dropped from the crew entirely, the American contingent mutinied. After considerable negotiation and debate, much of it conducted in the public eye, Clark, Penny, Huntington, Lyons and Fish were dropped and replaced by members of Oxford's reserve crew, Isis.
In 1989 Topolski and author Patrick Robinson's book about the events, True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny, was published. Seven years later, a film based on the book was released. Alison Gill, the then-president of the Oxford University Women's Boat Club, wrote The Yanks in Oxford, in which she defended the Americans and claimed Topolski wrote True Blue in order to justify his own actions. The journalist Christopher Dodd described True Blue as "particularly offensive".
In the 2012 race, after almost three-quarters of the course had been rowed, the race was halted for over 30 minutes when a lone protester, Australian Trenton Oldfield, entered the water from Chiswick Eyot and deliberately swam between the boats near Chiswick Pier with the intention of protesting against spending cuts, and what he saw as the erosion of civil liberties and a growing culture of elitism within British society. Once spotted by assistant umpire Sir Matthew Pinsent, both boats were required to stop for safety reasons.
The umpire, John Garrett, decided to restart the race from the eastern end of Chiswick Eyot. Shortly after the restart the boats clashed and the oar of Oxford crewman Hanno Wienhausen was broken. Garrett judged the clash to be Oxford's fault and allowed the race to continue. Cambridge quickly took the lead and went on to win the race. The Oxford crew entered a final appeal to the umpire which was quickly rejected; and Cambridge were confirmed as winners by 4 1/4 lengths. It was the first time since 1849 that a crew had won the boat race without an official recorded winning time. After the end of the race Oxford's bow man, Alex Woods, received emergency treatment after collapsing in the boat from exhaustion. Because of the circumstances, the post-race celebrations by the winning Cambridge crew were unusually muted and the planned award ceremony was cancelled.
Oldfield was convicted in October 2012 of causing a public nuisance, fined £750 and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. In June 2013 he was refused leave to remain in the UK, a decision against which he successfully appealed, with the appeal judge stating that there was "a public interest in providing a platform for protest at both common law and the European Convention on Human Rights".
In the 1912 race, run in extremely poor weather and high winds, both crews sank. Oxford rowed into a significant early lead, but began taking on water, and made for the bank shortly after passing Hammersmith Bridge to empty the boat out: although they attempted to restart, the race was abandoned at this point because Cambridge had also sunk, while passing the Harrods Depository.
Cambridge also sank in 1859 and 1978, while Oxford did so in 1925, and again in 1951; the 1951 race was re-rowed on the following Monday. In 1984 the Cambridge boat sank after colliding with a barge before the start of the race, which was then rescheduled for the next day.
The course is 4 miles and 374 yards (6.779 km) from Putney to Mortlake, passing Hammersmith and Barnes; it is sometimes referred to as the Championship Course, and follows an S shape, east to west. The start and finish are marked by the University Boat Race Stones on the south bank. The clubs' presidents toss a coin (the 1829 sovereign) before the race for the right to choose which side of the river (station) they will row on: their decision is based on the day's weather conditions and how the various bends in the course might favour their crew's pace. The north station ('Middlesex') has the advantage of the first and last bends, and the south ('Surrey') station the longer middle bend.
During the race the coxes compete for the fastest current, which lies at the deepest part of the river, frequently leading to clashes of blades and warnings from the umpire. A crew that gets a lead of more than a boat's length can cut in front of their opponent, making it extremely difficult for the trailing crew to gain the lead. For this reason the tactics of the race are generally to go fast early on, and few races have a change of the lead after halfway (though this happened in 2003, 2007 and 2010).
The race is rowed upstream, but is timed to start on the incoming flood tide so that the crews are rowing with the fastest possible current. If a strong wind is blowing from the west it will be against the tide in places along the course, causing the water to become very rough. The conditions are sometimes such that an international regatta would be cancelled, but the Boat Race has a tradition of proceeding even in potential sinking conditions (see Sinkings above).
During the race the crews pass various traditional landmarks, visible from the river:
||Westminster School Boat Club (left), and Cambridge from King's College School Boat Club (right). Both clubs are near the Start, just downstream of the Black Buoy. The crews warm up by rowing downstream below Putney Bridge before taking their places at the start.|
|| – though this is not statistically significant.|
||Craven Cottage': crews stay wide (preferring the Surrey bank) round the bend as the area in front of the football ground (known as 'the Fulham flats') is shallow, with slack water.|
||Steve Fairbairn. Exactly a mile from the Boat Race start, it is a traditional timing point. The Middlesex bank water continues to be shallow and slack all the way to Hammersmith Bridge.|
||pub on the Middlesex bank (just to the right of the camera).|
|| The turning point comes once the crews are under Hammersmith Bridge.|
||Marks the end of the long Surrey bend. The deep water channel is in the centre of the river.|
||Emanuel School Boat House is very tight: if the crews are level then the coxes may jostle, subject to directions, for the centre.|
||Chiswick Bridge, is marked by the University Stone on the south bank and a University Post on the north bank.|
At the conclusion of the race, the boats come ashore at Mortlake Anglian & Alpha Boat Club, directly upriver of Chiswick Bridge. Here shortly after the race the Boat Race trophy is presented to the winning crew. It is traditional for the winning side to throw their cox into the Thames to celebrate their achievement.
Moved from the original festivities by the stone in Mortlake, these are therefore at the clubhouse by Grove Park, Chiswick west of the busy bridge. Nonetheless the arms of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, covering more than half of the Surrey bank has two griffin supporters that hold oars, one light blue, one dark, in reference to the Boat Race, colours which are 'later tinctures' in English heraldry.
The course for the main part of the race's history has been from Putney to Mortlake, but there have been three other courses:
- 1829 – At Henley-on-Thames
- 1839 to 1842 – Westminster to Putney
- 1846, 1856, 1862, 1863 – Mortlake to Putney
In addition, there were four unofficial boat races held during the Second World War away from London. As none of those competing were awarded blues, these races are not included in the official list:
- 1940, 1945 – At Henley-on-Thames
- 1943 – Sandford-on-Thames
- 1944 – River Great Ouse, Ely, Littleport to Queen Adelaide
The event is now a British national institution, and is televised live each year and has been covered by the BBC since 1938 while the BBC first covered it on radio in 1927. For the 2005 to 2009 races, the BBC handed over broadcasting rights to ITV, after 66 years, but it returned to the corporation in 2010.
On the radio John Snagge commentated for the BBC from 1930s to the early 1980s on BBC Radio 2. Peter Jones, Brian Johnston and Robert Hudson commentated in the 1980s on BBC Radio 2 and Jon Champion, Tony Adamson and Peter Drury commentated for BBC Radio 5 and 5 Live in the 1990s.
Howard Marshall commentated on the first BBC TV Boat Race in 1938 with a camera at the start and the finish. Desmond Hill commentated for the BBC in the 1960s and Harry Carpenter commentated for the BBC in the 1970s up to 1990 and Gerald Sinstadt commentated in 1991 and 1992 while Barry Davies became the voice of the Boat Race for the BBC for the years 1993 to 2004 and Steve Rider was the host, previous BBC hosts were David Coleman, Frank Bough and Harry Carpenter. Peter Drury then took over as the main commentator for ITV from 2005 to 2009 while coverage was presented by Gabby Logan, then Mark Durden-Smith and finally Craig Doyle.
Andrew Cotter has commentated for the BBC since its return in 2010 with Dan Topolski and Wayne Pommen while Clare Balding has presented usually with Sir Matthew Pinsent, Sir Steve Redgrave and others within the world of rowing. Jonathan Legard commentated on the 2012 Race while Andrew Cotter was at the US Masters for the BBC but has returned in 2013. Barry Davies has returned to commentate on LBC Radio when the TV coverage moved to ITV. BBC World News holds the worldwide rights to the race taking UK coverage.
The race is for heavyweight eights (i.e. eight rowers with a cox steering, and no restrictions on weight). Female coxes are permitted: the first to appear in the Boat Race was Sue Brown for Oxford in 1981. In fact female rowers would be permitted in the men's boat race, though the reverse is not true.
Although the contest is strictly between amateurs, and the competitors must be students of the university for which they race, the training schedules the teams undertake are very gruelling. Typically each team trains for six days a week for six months before the event.
Such is the competitive spirit between the universities that it is common for Olympic standard rowers to compete, notably including four-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Matthew Pinsent, who rowed for Oxford in 1990, 1991, and 1993. Olympic gold medallists from 2000 – Tim Foster (Oxford 1997), Luka Grubor (Oxford 1997), Andrew Lindsay (Oxford 1997, 1998, 1999) and Kieran West (Cambridge 1999, 2001, 2006, 2007), 2004 – Ed Coode (Oxford 1998), and 2008 - Jake Wetzel (Oxford 2006) and Malcolm Howard (Oxford 2013, 2014) have also rowed for their university.
Other famous participants include Andrew Irvine (Oxford 1922, 1923), Lord Snowdon (Cambridge 1950), Colin Moynihan (Oxford 1977), actor Hugh Laurie (Cambridge 1980), TV presenter Dan Snow (Oxford 1999, 2000, 2001) and Conspicuous Gallantry Cross recipient Robin Bourne-Taylor (Oxford 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005).
Oxford University does not offer sport scholarships at entry; student-athletes are not admitted differently to any other students and must meet the academic requirements of the university, with sport having a neutral effect on any application. Likewise, bursaries and scholarship opportunities for athletes at the University of Cambridge are only open to those students who have already been admitted to the University on academic merit. There have been unproven accusations that some students are admitted to the universities for their rowing skill without meeting the normal academic standards. Participants in the boat race are indeed academically capable:[according to whom?] the 2005 Cambridge crew, for example, contained four PhD students, including a qualified medical doctor and a veterinarian.
In order to protect the status of the race as a competition between genuine students, the Boat Race organising committee in July 2007 refused to award a blue to 2006 and 2007 Cambridge oarsman Thorsten Engelmann, as he did not complete his academic course and instead returned to the German national rowing team to prepare for the Beijing Olympics. This has caused a debate about a change of rules, and one suggestion is that only students who are enrolled in courses lasting at least two years should be eligible to race.
Standard of the crews
The question whether the Boat Race crews are up to the standard of international crews is difficult to judge, since the Boat Race crews train for a long-distance race early in the season, so their training schedule is quite different from crews training for international regattas over 2000 metres that take place later in the year.
According to British Olympic gold medallist Martin Cross, Boat Race crews of the early 1980s were viewed as "a bit of a joke" by some international–level rowers of the time. However, their standard has improved substantially since then. Current Boat Race crews do race against some club and international crews in the build-up to the race, and are competitive against them, but again these matches are over various non-standard distances, against crews that might not have been together as long as the Oxbridge crews.
In 2005 a strong Oxford crew, similar to the crew who had rowed in the Boat Race, entered the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta, losing to the winning German international crew in the first round by a third of a length. The same year, Cambridge won the Ladies Challenge Plate at the same regatta.
In 2007 Cambridge were entered in the London Head of the River Race, where they should have been measured directly against the best crews in Britain and beyond. However the event was called off after several crews were sunk or swamped in rough conditions. Cambridge were fastest of the few crews who did complete the course.
The Boat Race has been sponsored since 1976, with the money spent mainly on equipment and travel during the training period. The sponsors do not have their logos on the boats, but do have their logo on kit during the race. They also provide branded training gear and have some naming rights. Boat Race sponsors have included Ladbrokes, Beefeater Gin, Aberdeen Asset Management, and the business process outsourcing company Xchanging, who sponsored the race until 2012. Controversially, in the renewal of the deal with Xchanging, the crews agreed to wear the sponsor's logo on their kit during the race itself, in exchange for increased funding. Prior to this, all sponsorship marks had been scrupulously discarded on boating for the competition, in line with the race's amateur and ‘Corinthian’ spirit. Xchanging also became title sponsor in November 2009 so, from the 156th Race until 2012, the event was known as The Xchanging Boat Race. In 2013 the sponsor BNY Mellon took over and it became the BNY Mellon Boat Race.
Other boat races involving Oxford and Cambridge
Although the heavyweight men's eights are the best-known event, the two universities compete in other rowing boat races. The main boat race is preceded by a race between the two reserve crews. The Oxford reserve crew is called Isis (after the Isis, a section of the River Thames which passes through Oxford), and the Cambridge reserve crew is called Goldie (the name comes from rower and Boat Club president John Goldie, 1849–1896, after whom the Goldie Boathouse is named).
The women's eights, women's reserve eights ("Osiris" and "Blondie"), men's lightweight eights and women's lightweight eights race in the Henley Boat Races, usually a week before the men's heavyweight races. There is also a 'veterans' boat race, usually held on a weekday before the main Boat Race, on the Thames between Putney and Hammersmith. The Women's Boat Race moved to the Tideway, using the same course and running on the same day as the men's race, in 2015.
Training for the Boat Race officially begins in September, before the start of term. The first public tests are in November at the British Indoor Rowing Championships, where each university sends around 20 rowers to compete. Everyone races 2 km on an indoor rower with the club presidents using adjacent machines. Both universities also send crews to the Head of the River Fours race in London, which is raced over the reverse Boat Race course, that is to say the Championship course from Mortlake to Putney.
In December, the coaches put out Trial Eights where two crews from the same university race each other over the full Boat Race course. These crews are given names such as Kara and Whakamanawa (Māori words for strength and honour, Cambridge 2004) or Cowboys and Indians (Oxford 2004). Other trials boat names have included such pairings as Guns and Roses.
Over the Christmas period the squads go on training camps abroad, where final places for the blue boats are decided. After the final blue boat crews have been decided, they race against the top crews from the UK and abroad (e.g. in recent years they have raced Leander, Molesey, the German international crew, and a composite crew of Olympic scullers). These races are only over part of the course (from Putney to Chiswick Eyot).
In case of injury or illness, each university has ten extra rowers, eight in the reserve boats Isis and Goldie, and two as the spare pair. Isis and Goldie race 30 mins before the Blue Boat event over the same course. As for the spare pair, in the week before the main event they race each other from the mile post to university stone (i.e. from a point one mile into the Championship Course back to the Boat Race start). In the final week, there is also an official weigh in and the average crew weights are announced. The perceived slight advantage of being the heavier crew leads to the practice of drinking large volumes of water directly before the weigh in order to artificially increase weight for a short period of time.
In the stories of P. G. Wodehouse, several characters allude to Boat Race Night as a time of riotous celebration (presumably after the victory of the character's alma mater). This frequently sees the participants in trouble with the authorities. In Piccadilly Jim, a Lord Datchett is described as being thrown out of the Empire Music Hall every year on Boat Race Night while an undergraduate. Bertie Wooster mentions several times that he was fined five pounds at "Bosher Street", possibly a reference to Bow Street Magistrates' Court, for stealing a policeman's helmet on Boat Race Night. The beginning of the first episode of the Jeeves and Wooster television series shows his court appearance on this occasion. In the short story Jeeves and the Chump Cyril he describes having to repeatedly bail out of jail a friend who was arrested every year on Boat Race Night.
The detailed nature of the record-keeping over the event's history has many record statistics being carefully monitored. A selection of the more frequently cited statistics includes:
- Number of wins: Cambridge, 81; Oxford, 79 (1 dead heat)
- Most consecutive victories: Cambridge, 13 (1924–36)
- Course record: Cambridge, 1998 – 16 min 19 sec; average speed 24.9 kilometres per hour (15.5 mph)
- Narrowest winning margin, excluding the dead heat: 1 foot (Oxford, 2003)
- Largest winning margin: 35 lengths (Cambridge, 1839)
- Most races: Boris Rankov, 6 (Oxford, 1978–83)
- Heaviest rower: Thorsten Engelmann, Cambridge 2007, 17 st 6 lb 4 oz (110.8 kg; 244 lb)
- Lightest rower: Alfred Higgins, Oxford 1882, 9 st 6.5 lb (60.1 kg; 132.5 lb)
- Heaviest crew: Oxford 2009, 15 st 9 lb 13 oz (99.7 kg) average
- Tallest rower: Josh West, Cambridge 1999–2002; Paul Bennett, Oxford 2013; 6 ft 9.5 in (2.07 m)
- Tallest crew: Cambridge 1999, 6 ft 6.3 in (1.98 m) average
- Oldest rower: Mike Wherley, Oxford 2008, 36 yrs 14 days
- Oldest cox: Andy Probert, Cambridge 1992, 38 yrs 86 days
- Reserve wins: Cambridge (Goldie), 29; Oxford (Isis), 17
- Main race
There have been 161 official races in 185 years.
|Decade||Total races||Cambridge wins||Oxford wins||Notes|
|1870s||10||7||2||1 dead heat|
|Total||161||81||79||1 dead heat|
- Reserves race
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to University Boat Race.|
- The BNY Mellon Boat Races official website
- Watch the 2007 Boat Race
- The Boat Race course visualization on Google Earth/Maps (Italian)