Giving It Some Welly*: The 2014 Oxford Trial Eights

A Study In Blue: Oxford’s ‘Wellies’.

Chris Dodd has written about rowing and rowing history for forty years including twenty-five years as the rowing correspondent of the Guardian. Many of Chris’s articles for that esteemed newspaper can be read here. He now reaches the pinnacle of his writing career (possibly) with this exclusive report for Hear The Boat Sing on the 2014 Oxford Boat Race Trials which took place on Sunday, 19 January. Pictures, captions and sub-editing by Tim Koch.

The crews, courtesy of The Boat Race Company. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

Chris writes:

Unprecedented events took place at the Oxford trials at Putney – delayed for a month because of pre-Christmas illness amongst the squad. On a sumptuous winter watercolour afternoon, with a handful of cotton wool clouds hanging low on the horizon of a Cambridge blue heaven, the tide had great difficulty in turning.

Since the beginning of January the Thames Valley has been a lake district. Millions of gallons have nowhere to go but plunge ever eastward towards the estuary, and at Putney the moored boats struggled to turn for nearly an hour as the ebb was supposed to be giving way to the flow.

Facing the camera, Race Umpire Richard Phelps (CUBC, 1993-1995) talks tides to Boat Race legend, Professor Boris Rankov (OUBC, 1978-1983). In the background are two other sporting icons. The white arch on the left marks the home of British soccer, Wembley Stadium, approximately 7 miles / 11 kilometres away. On the right, the white building is the ground of Fulham Football Club, better known as ‘Craven Cottage. Fulham are a much loved (if not always successful) London team.

The umpires panel debated the problem and decided that if the going got tough up at Barnes, the crews could hug the Middlesex bank and take the inside arch of the bridge, with official Tony Reynolds posted on the railway bridge to warn crews progressing downstream on what they supposed was the ebb that there may be boats racing upstream steering where they didn’t ought to be.

In the event, Oxford coach Sean Bowden delayed the start, waiting for the tide in vain, and then moved the course downstream to run from Wandsworth Pier to Chiswick Steps. And a damn fine race it was. Persistent, with president Malcolm Howard at 5, stroked by Chris Fairweather and coxed by Lawrence Harvey, was on Surrey, while Stubborn, with Olympian Constantine Louloudis stroking and Sophie Shawdon coxing, was on Middlesex.

It was a good start on flat water, nothing in it at Putney Railway Bridge, both crews neat and strong, with Persistent showing by scarcely two seats at Putney Bridge. Umpire Richard Phelps warned both crews early on, and the boats were close together as they duelled past the boathouses.

By Newens Marine, Stubborn had their bow ball in front and eked their lead to half a length at Barn Elms. The flotilla carved its way through a fleet of dinghies to the Mile, where Stubborn, led by Constantine’s fluent stroking, were a length in front.

Passing Harrods. Stubborn on the left, Persistent on the right.

Harvey was having none of this, though. Persistent clawed back the gap between Harrods and Hammersmith, both crews being warned as the blades were a cigarette paper from knitting.

Oxford supporter Sophie Behan finds a good viewing point on Hammersmith Bridge, next to the famous ‘second lamppost from the Surrey buttress’, which is said to mark the fastest water.

At Hammersmith Bridge, Persistent leads Stubborn by a canvas.

Persistent passed the bridge perhaps a canvas ahead, Stubborn classically under the second lamppost, and Persistent pushed out to half a length advantage by St Paul’s School, where another fleet of sails diced over the available water. Miraculously nobody hit anyone, and as Chiswick Eyot approached, Stubborn closed the gap once more, reducing the lead to little more than a length at the Steps.

Viewed through the metalwork of the upstream side of Hammersmith Bridge, the crews pass, on Middlesex, Sons of the Thames Rowing Club and, out of shot on Surrey, St Paul’s School.

Stubborn showed a hint of a wilt before the race stopped, but this was a mere blip. Bowden has sixteen good men and true, racers to a man. The unofficial time – Wandsworth Pier to Chiswick Steps – was 16 minutes 10 seconds to 16.14. A record!

Many thanks to Chris for his report. More pictures can be viewed on Twitter. Martin Cross, ‘The Blogging Oarsman’ shot a short little video of the boats approaching Hammersmith Bridge. HTBS reported on the trials held in December for both universities’ women and the Cambridge men here  and here.

*A common British idiom which means to apply great physical effort to something. Its origins are not old but they are obscure. A ‘welly’ is a long rubber boot, more formally known as a ‘Wellington Boot’ in the UK but as a ‘gumboot’ or simply ‘rain boot’ in other countries. It is named after the 1st Duke of Wellington who popularised them (he also popularised defeating the French). The most iconic British Wellington Boots are made by Hunter Boot Ltd, founded in Edinburgh in 1856. They are one of the sponsors of the Boat Race, but have cleverly got themselves some wonderful publicity in the last four years by supplying the crews with special Cambridge Blue or Oxford Blue boots, 
with the respective boat club’s crest. They are not available to the public but a pair of size 15/50 Oxford boots recently sold for £95/$130 on eBay. This may seem to be a lot of money but an ‘ordinary’ pair costs £85 new.

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