Monday, April 18, 2011


Oxford and Cambridge Crews

   The event generally known as "The Boat Race" is a rowing race in England between the Oxford University Boat Club and the Cambridge University Boat Club, rowed between competing eights each spring on the Thames in London.  It takes place generally on the last Saturday of March or the first Saturday of April.  The formal title of the event is the Xchanging Boat Race, and it is also known as the University Boat Race and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.
   In 2010 an estimated quarter of a million people watched the race live from the banks of the river and millions on television.

   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.  The race was in 1829 and it has been held annually since 1856, with the exception of the two world wars.  The most recent race was on Saturday, March 26th 2011, with Oxford winning.  The 2012 event is to be confirmed.
   The race is governed by a Joint Understanding between Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs.


   The tradition was started in 1829 by Charles Merivale, a student at St. John's College, Cambridge, and his schoolfriend Charles Wordsworth, who was at Oxford.  Cambridge challenged Oxford to a race at Henly-on-Thames.  The second race occurred in 1836, with the venue moved to be from Westminster to Putney.  Over the next couple of years, there was a disagreement over where the race should be held, with Oxford preferring Henly and Cambridge preferring London.  Cambridge therefore raced the Leander Club in 1837 and 1838.  Following the formation of the Oxford University Boat Club, racing between the two universities resumed and the tradition continues to the present day, with the loser challenging the winner to a re-match annually.

   The race in 1877, was declared a dead heat.  Legend in Oxford has is that the judge, "Honest John" Phelps, was asleep under a bush when the race finished, leading him to announce the result as a "dead heat to Oxford by four feet". 
   Cambridge produced one of the legends of the Boat Race and of rowing worldwide.  Stanley Muttlebury, whose crew won the race in the first four of the five years he was a member, 1886-1890.  He was viewed as "the finest oarsman to have ever sat in a boat".

1959 Oxford Mutiny

   Oxford in the Autumn of 1958, had a large and talented squad.  It included eleven returning Blues plus Yale oarsmen Reed Rubin and Charlie Grimes, a gold medallist at the 1956 Olympics.  Ronnie Howard was elected OUBB President by the College Captains, beating Rubin.  In 1958, Howard had rowed in the Isis crew coach by H.R.A. "Jumbo" Edwards, which had frequently beaten the Blue Boat in training. 
   Howard's first act was to appoint Edwards as coach.  Edwards was a coach with a strong record, but he also imposed strict standards of obedience, behavior and dress on the trialists which many of them found childish.  As an example, Grimes withdrew from the squad after Edwards insisted he remove his "locomotive driver's hat" in training.

The Prize

   With selection for the crew highly competitive, the squad split along the lines of the presidential election.  A group of dissidents called a press conference, announcing that they wanted to form a separate crew, led by Rubin and with a different coach.  They then wished to race off with Howard's crew to decide who would face Cambridge.
  Faced with this challenge, Ronnie Howard returned to the College Captains for a vote of confidence in his selected crew and the decision not to race off with the Rubin crew.  He won the vote decisively and the Cambridge president also declared that his crew would only race the Howard eight.
   Three of the dissidents returned and Oxford went on to wind by six lengths.

1987 Oxford Mutiny

   In 1987, another disagreement arose amongst the Oxford team.  A number of top class American oarsmen refused to row when a fellow American was dropped in preference for the Scottish President, Donald Macdonald.  They became embroiled in a conflict with Macdonald and with coach Dan Topolski over his training and selection methods.  This eventually led most of the Americans to protest what they perceived to be the president's abuse of power, by withdrawing six weeks before the race was due to start. 

   To the surprise of many, Oxford, with a crew partially composed of oarsmen from the reserve team, went on to win the race.  One aspect of the race was Topolski's tactic , communicated tot he cox while the crews were on the start, for Oxford to take shelter from the rough water in the middle of the river at the start of the race, ignoring conventional wisdom that center steam is fastest even if rowing conditions are poor.


The course is four miles and 374 yards from Putney to Mortlake, passing Hammersmith and Barnes; it is sometimes referred to as the Championship course, and follows ans 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 favor their crew's pace.  The north station has the advantage of the first and last bends, and the south station the longer middle bend.

   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 form 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 internationals regatta would be cancelled, but the Boat Race has a tradition of proceeding even in potential sinking conditions.  Several races have featured one, or both of the crews sinking.  This
happened to Cambridge in 1859 and 1978, and to Oxford in 1925 and 1951.  Both boats sank in 1912, and the race was re-run, and in 1984 Cambridge sank after crashing into a stationary barge while warming up before the race. 

   The race is for heavyweight eights (for eight rowers with a cox steering, and no restrictions on weight).  Female coxes are permitted, the first to appear in the Boat Race being Sue Brown for Oxford in 1981.  In fact female rowers would be permitted in the men's boat race, thought the reverse is not true.