Hoards of people will line the River Thames along the 4.25 mile course from Putney to Mortlake on 11th April 2015 to watch sporting history in the making.
The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is one of the staples of the watery British sporting calendar along with the Henley Regatta in June, and Cowes Week in August. It is steeped in tradition and although it usually lasts less than half an hour, the whole day is enthusiastically celebrated. The riverside teems with spectators and the rowers are the toast of the day from morning until well after the race has ended.
Until now, it has been an exclusively male event. This year however, we will be treated to additional rowing action as the female teams will also be taking part. They’ll be hitting the water an hour before the men’s race, finally triumphant in their struggle for equality. So this will be a landmark event… one to watch for sure!
Modesty must prevail!
Sponsorship, support and coverage of the women’s race has been limited over the years and many people are unaware that it has taken place fairly regularly since 1927 – on a different, calmer, stretch of water at Henley.
The first female boat race took place only after a great deal of discussion about what the athletes could be permitted to wear: one of the Cambridge rowers had to sit on a stool in front of university staff, simulating the action of rowing, so it could be decided which clothes best preserved her modesty. And during the race, the teams were marked on their style and grace…
An eventful 20+ minutes
The race, which features two teams of eight rowers, one from Oxford University and one from Cambridge University, usually only lasts about 20 minutes but a lot can happen in that time.
In 2012, the race was brought to an abrupt halt because of a rogue swimmer on the course. The race was stopped, he was removed (and subsequently found guilty of causing a public nuisance), but then one of the Oxford Eight broke an oar because the boats steered too closely to one another just after the restart…so Cambridge won a controversial victory.
And in 1987, there was mutiny! As the day of the race approached, five Americans in the Oxford squad refused to row following disputes about selection and training methods. So the eventual Oxford crew included several oarsmen from the reserve team, and they surprised everyone by winning the race! The story has been made into a film ‘True Blue’ which successfully depicts the dramas and passions that the sport evokes.
And the course isn’t easy; the spring weather conditions can be a challenge due to the high spring tides and strong southwesterly wind.
There have been six sinkings. Cambridge went down twice in 1859 and 1978, and Oxford once in 1925. In 1912, both boats sank and the race was rescheduled for the following day. In 1951, Oxford sank and the race was rescheduled.
Who usually wins?
Back to the first boat race, Charles Wordsworth (nephew of the poet William Wordsworth), of Christ Church College Oxford, and Charles Merrivale of St. John’s, Cambridge, met during a holiday in Cambridge and decided to set up a challenge.
In 1829, the first race took place at Henley and was easily won by Oxford.
The tally is currently 78 wins to Oxford and 81 wins to Cambridge for the men’s race, and 40 wins to Cambridge, and 29 to Oxford for the women’s race.
There has been one dead heat, in 1877. The time was 24 minutes and 8 seconds but there is controversy about this: the weather was bad and the judge is said to have been blind in one eye and in his seventies – rumours that were apparently perpetuated by Oxford who believed themselves to be the winners.
One to watch but where to watch?
If you’re setting out to London to watch, Putney embankment is a popular location as you have a good view of the river in both directions. There are also a few watering holes that you can race back to once the rowers have passed.
BUT be warned: get too close to the water and you could end up wetter than you’d planned: the rowers are followed by a veritable army of boats: the umpires, port authority boats, camera crews… all creating an impressive wash. The ‘beach’ at Putney is an ideal vantage point but can make for a very wet one!
Good luck to all rowers: who will you support?