Oxford’s Trial By Tideway: The Men’s Race

Choose your weapons……
Choose your weapons……

6 December 2016

Chris Dodd and Tim Koch have been watching Oxford’s attempts to find two crews with ‘The X Factor’.

Tim writes:

For most of the rowing media, the first indication that April’s ‘Boat Race Day’ is approaching are the ‘Trial Eights’ races held over the full course, Putney to Mortlake, sometime in December. These are not contests of Light Blue v Dark Blue, they are intra-university races for the men’s and women’s crews, Oxford racing Oxford and Cambridge racing Cambridge. Here, the last 16 rowers and last two coxswains who are candidates for each of the men’s and women’s Blue Boats battle it out, usually in theoretically matched crews, all hoping to impress the coach who has to make the final selection. To plagiarise myself writing last year:

Side-by-side, one-on-one racing for 4 1/4 miles on the Thames Tideway in December can be a very testing experience – and it is exactly for this reason that the ‘Trial Eights’ are usually held at this time…. While the contenders for the Blue Boats are thoroughly tested in the gym, on the ergo, and on the water at Ely for Cambridge and at Wallingford for Oxford, it is only on the Thames Tideway itself that the coaches can see what their rowers and coxswains are really made of, how they cope with nerves and mistakes and also how they react to whatever the most famous and possibly the most unpredictable rowing course in the world throws at them. Old Father Thames may have been playing host to rowing crews for hundreds of years – but he can still take them by surprise.

Both men’s boats had an early outing before the women’s race (which went off first). Here “Daniel”, coxed by Victoria Warner and stroked by Vassilis Ragoussis, finds the Tideway at its most beguine. Full crew lists are on the official website, http://theboatraces.org/news-article/288/crews-announced-for-oxford-trial-eights as are the OUBC Squad biographies. http://theboatraces.org/oubc
Both men’s boats had an early outing before the women’s race (which went off first). Here “Daniel”, coxed by Victoria Warner and stroked by Vassilis Ragoussis, finds the Tideway at its most beguine. Full crew lists are on the official website, as are the OUBC Squad biographies.
Also on an early practice, the other men’s boat, “Acer”, coxed by Sam Collier and stroked by Jamie Cook.
Also on an early practice, the other men’s boat, “Acer”, coxed by Sam Collier and stroked by Jamie Cook.

The two Oxford races, one between the last 18 women and one between the last 18 men, were held on 30 November. Veteran Guardian rowing journalist Chris Dodd (who has seen more than 40 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races from the press launch) had transport problems which resulted in him missing the women’s trial, but here is his report on the men’s race, with photographs and captions by me. My report on the women’s contest will be posted tomorrow.

The 164rd Boat Race will be umpired by Sir Matthew Pinsent. He rowed for Oxford in 1990, 1991 and 1993, winning the first two Races before losing as President in 1993. He previously umpired The Boat Race in 2013.
The 163rd Boat Race will be umpired by Sir Matthew Pinsent. He rowed for Oxford in 1990, 1991 and 1993, winning the first two Races before losing as President in 1993. He previously umpired The Boat Race in 2013.
“Acer”’s bow five at Putney Rail Bridge, just before the start – which is upstream of Putney Road Bridge. For those unfamiliar with the course, a map is here.
“Acer”’s bow five at Putney Rail Bridge, just before the start – which is upstream of Putney Road Bridge. For those unfamiliar with the course, a map is here.

Chris writes:

Oxford held Boat Race trial eights on a beautiful crisp day in Putney, and the men’s crews chalked up another first. At least, I assume it is a first. When Daniel lead Acer across the finish line at Mortlake, the crews continued racing until they passed the handsome University of London boathouse in Chiswick. No chance of giving away any speed secrets over the Championship course, then.

Just off the start and half-way along Putney Embankment, “Daniel” (left) on Surrey and “Acer” (right) on Middlesex. “Acer” had a two seat lead after the first 30 strokes. I must give my usual caution about the parallax error inherent in picturing a side-by-side race from behind and from an angle, whereby the boat nearest the camera appears to be more ‘up’ than was the actual case.
Just off the start and half-way along Putney Embankment, “Daniel” (left) on Surrey and “Acer” (right) on Middlesex. “Acer” had a two seat lead after the first 30 strokes. I must give my usual caution about the parallax error inherent in picturing a side-by-side race from behind and from an angle, whereby the boat nearest the camera appears to be more ‘up’ than was the actual case.

The crews, named after coach and Dark Blue mentor Daniel Topolski, who died in 2015, and Oxford and GB cox Acer Nethercott who died in 2013, started near the university stone at Putney. Daniel on the Surrey station went away niftily but Acer soon put its bow in front and, stroked on bow side by James Cook, had a slight lead at the mile.

Around the Mile Post, “Acer” (right) leads “Daniel” by 3/4 length (though parallax makes it appear the opposite). “Daniel” perhaps had a better rhythm, “Acer” may have been a little rushed.
Around the Mile Post, “Acer” (right) leads “Daniel” by 3/4 length (though parallax makes it appear the opposite). “Daniel” perhaps had a better rhythm, “Acer” may have been a little rushed.
Passing the Crabtree, “Acer” continues to lead. Another unintended trick of photography is that a long lens (i.e one that is ‘zoomed in’) compresses distances. Thus, the boats are not as close as this picture (or the umpire’s warning) suggests.
Passing the Crabtree, “Acer” continues to lead. Another unintended trick of photography is that a long lens (i.e one that is ‘zoomed in’) compresses distances. Thus, the boats are not as close as this picture (or the umpire’s warning) suggests.

Umpire Matt Pinsent was kept on his toes as far as Hammersmith with warnings to Daniel’s Victoria Warner and then to Acer’s Sam Collier. There was a bit of bashing and clashing before the bridge, and the crews were close as they shot it.

By Hammersmith Bridge, “Daniel” (left) had taken a small lead in a move that started just after Harrods. At the bridge there was a slight clash of blades and perhaps “Acer” came off worst from this.
By Hammersmith Bridge, “Daniel” (left) had taken a small lead in a move that started just after Harrods. At the bridge there was a slight clash of blades and perhaps “Acer” came off worst from this.
Passing The Dove Pier at Hammersmith, “Daniel” (left) now lead by over a length.
Passing The Dove Pier at Hammersmith, “Daniel” (left) now lead by over a length.

The bend favoured Daniel, and Warner took immediate advantage of the turn to gradually bore her way to advantage. She had control of the race from halfway, and for a while after the Chiswick Crossing, Daniel was closer to Middlesex than Acer – risking a bump but also washing down the opponents.

“Daniel” at Chiswick Eyot. As the race wore on, they looked the more powerful of the two crews and they continued to stretch their advantage.
“Daniel” at Chiswick Eyot. As the race wore on, they looked the more powerful of the two crews and they continued to stretch their advantage.
At Chiswick Steps.
At Chiswick Steps.
Approaching Barnes Bridge, “Acer” fights on, aware that, in the Trials, giving up is regarded as much worse than simply losing.
Approaching Barnes Bridge, “Acer” fights on, aware that, in the Trials, giving up is regarded as much worse than simply losing.
At Barnes Bridge, “Daniel” leads by three lengths.
At Barnes Bridge, “Daniel” leads by three lengths.
The light and dark blue post, downstream of Chiswick Bridge, marks The Boat Race finish – but not today.
The light and dark blue post, downstream of Chiswick Bridge, marks The Boat Race finish – but not today.
The last few strokes at the University of London Boathouse – where “Daniel” wins by around four lengths.
The last few strokes at the University of London Boathouse – where “Daniel” wins by around four lengths.

Daniel, stroked by Vassillis Agoutis, maintained clear water to Barnes Bridge and lead all the way to the University of London Boathouse at Chiswick.

Acer went a bit ragged in the later stages but basically, Oxford boated two neat crews who held their act together for five miles.

Matthew O’Leary, ‘7’ in “Acer”, contemplates his defeat. Of course, some members of losing trial boats still make it into the Blue Boat for the race that really counts.
Matthew O’Leary, ‘7’ in “Acer”, contemplates his defeat. Of course, some members of losing trial boats still make it into the Blue Boat for the race that really counts.

Chris concludes his report with a bit of nostalgia:

I’m afraid snappers outnumber scribes by about 11 to 1 on press launches these days, so no times were taken. Boat Race trials have become a media event as well as the key test for coaches in the early days of filling Blue Boat seats.

The press launch during Tideway Week, 24 March 2016, where Canon takes preference over copy. Sadly, most of the thousands of digital images taken on each outing will never be seen.
The press launch during Tideway Week, 24 March 2016, where Canon takes preference over copy. Sadly, most of the thousands of digital images taken on each outing will never be seen.

In days of yore, rowing correspondents used to record times of ‘brushes’ with pacing crews between the various markers of the Putney to Mortlake course. I have in my possession a booklet published by the Newspaper Press Boat Fund in 1971 that sets out records, rules and conventions of the great event. Times are listed for every possible passage between markers on both flood and ebb tides. Great faith was placed in the accuracy of running starts and finishes. Rule 6 says ‘All rows start with stern on the mark’ and Rule 7 ‘All rows finish with bows on the mark’. Record-breaking crews are underlined, while the word ‘race’ indicates a time taken during the actual Boat Race.

The novelty of this year’s Oxford trial may be gleaned from Rule 14 of this ripping yarn:

The Race and Practice Finish are alternative points at which to start, or end, a row, as also are Putney Bridge and the University Stone. Intermediate times are not taken to either the Practise Finish or the University Stone, when rowing to, or from, the Race Finish or Putney Bridge.

Clear as a bell note, is it not.

The Boat Race Press Launch of 1880, a time when pictures had to be made with words.
The Boat Race Press Launch of 1880, a time when pictures had to be made with words.

The 163rd Boat Race and The 72nd Women’s Boat Race will take place on Sunday, 2 April 2017. The Cancer Research UK Women’s Boat Race will start at 16:35, with The Cancer Research UK Boat Race an hour later at 17:35.

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