Das Boot Race

By Philip Barker
Once upon a time, they played the FA Cup Final in the morning so as not to interfere with the University Boat Race, and if priorities have changed a bit since 1872, the crowds along the Thames towpath at teatime on Saturday will still compare very favourably with Cup Final day at Wembley. Not bad for a private affair between two old Universities in an event that has been slated for being anachronistic.

They do things differently in the run up to Boat Race day. For a start, last year’s losing crew has to issue a challenge for the right to race. Apparently, they nearly forgot to do so once in the early 1950s, so a telegram had to be hurriedly despatched. No such dramas this time. Oxford University Boat Club President Robin Esjmond-Frey accepted Cambridge’s challenge. “I’ve had my sights on this for some time, growing up along the river,” he said.

Olympic gold medallist Kieran West is studying World War One tactics for his doctorate and his strategy this year is on two fronts . He hopes to experience the unique thrill of winning the Boat Race for the third time, then try to secure his seat in Britain’s Olympic eight for a third appearance at the Games next year.

Despite the Boat race traditions, Britain has always prioritised the smaller boats at international level and West’s gold in Athens was part of the first gold medal-winning eight since 1912.

“We were lucky in that a group of us all came together at the same time but it was hard work,” he said.

Of course, Olympic and international rowing is contested by up to eigt teams over straight, 2,000-metre courses, while the Boat Race, which dates back to 1829, is a match between two teams over about 4½ miles around a winding course between Putney and Mortlake on the tidal River Thames.

As has been customary for many years, West is by no means the only international among the 18 competitors. Oxford’s Michal Plotkowiak is the first Pole to take part in the race, while Torsten Engelmann is a German international oarsman who, at yesterday’s official weigh-in, gave Cambridge one record: that of the heaviest competitor in the history of the event, at 17st 6lb 4oz.

“The idea is not just to be heavier,” Engelmann was keen to point out, “you need to be stronger and more powerful as well. I’m not just fat.”

The Boat Race wouldn’t be the Boat Race without at least one dramatic late change. Cambridge brought in Rebecca Dowbiggin as cox as a replacement for the American, Russ Glenn, less than a fortnight before the big day. Glenn at least had the consolation he’d already won his Blue in boxing.

There’s something about Cambridge coxes. In 1984, the incumbent of that seat managed to prang a barge on the way to the start. The most recent sinking in the actual race happened in 1978, bizarrely at the very point where the Cambridge crew had suffered a similar watery fate in 1859.

Dowbiggin had her work cut out at the Head of the River race on Sunday, when the choppy conditions saw many crews ship a lot of water, but Cambridge, it should be said, did successfully negotiate the course in the fastest time. Unfortunately, the race itself was subsequently abandoned because of the conditions.

The media were welcomed to the delightful Winchester House for the various build-up events, sponsors made sure the the two crews posed for photographs in a giant cross, a case of Xchanging marks the spot.

The rowers themselves could teach their counterparts in certain other sports a thing or two. They spent the best part of an hour and a half patiently answering questions from the assembled reporters. True, as Cambridge’s Canadian bowman Kip McDaniel said, “Most rowers would kill for this kind of exposure.” Even so, it still made a pleasant change.

For more information on the Boat Race, click here.

Cambridge University Boat Club

Oxford University Boat Club

For more on rowing in Britain, click here