1 April 2017
Boat Race correspondent Chris Dodd writes:
I have had the privilege of watching the last 45 or so Boat Races from the press launch, but this year I’m on the couch in front of the box, thanks to recovery time for a minor op. My incapacity, which I hope is temporary, is timely as a petrol firestorm reaches the Tideway and threatens to cause a shortage of escort boats. A rumour has it that the Port of London Authority, which lords it over the tidal waters, has decreed that, from 2018, petrol engines in small inshore passenger boats must not be housed ‘inboard’ but should be the ‘outboard’ type. The last I heard was that the boats based up-river are not motoring down this year for fear of getting caught up in dispute. But almost all the boats that carry Old Blues, reporters, photographers, radio commentators, tv cameras, timekeepers and umpires have inboard petrol engines, and they have had them since such engines began to contaminate the river.
Why, the Amaryllis, built by Hobbs of Goring in 1911, saw service on the Tigris in 1915 as the personal launch of General Townshend, commander of 6th Division charged with securing oil fields around Basra. Townshend’s campaign was a disaster (see Rowing & Regatta September 2008), but Amaryllis made it home from what was then called Mesopotamia and has served Cambridge, Henley Royal, the Boat Race and a heap of heads and regattas ever since. Graceful old Amaryllis is considered to have the best lines, and her hull is the model for Henley Regatta’s modern fleet of petrol-powered umpires’ launches, Ariadne, Argonaut, Ulysses and Herakles.
So it may not be only me on the couch for the 72nd women’s and the 163rd men’s races, collectively known these days as the Cancer Research UK Boat Races and sponsored respectively by Newton and BNY Mellon.
And thereby lies a tale. Back in the1970s, the Boat Race was a private affair on the bank as well as on the water. The rowing correspondents hung out in a cloud of smoke and old copies of Vanity Fair in the card room of the Putney Constitutional Club (now the Winchester Club, upstream of the Duke’s Head), fortified from the bar and operating a 10-minute rota whereby somebody would be sent out to the garden to see if there was any sign of a crew boating. The national dailies and Sundays held a share in the Newspaper Press Boat Fund to charter the fine petrol launch Majestic for three weeks each year in which to follow practise outings and race. There was no such thing as a sponsor, a press office, a press conference or a briefing. Correspondents made their own news and rooted out their own stories.
Arguing about style while waiting for action afforded plenty of time to collect stories of the race’s past which I compiled into The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (Stanley Paul 1983), not to mention the role that the tidal Thames has played in rowing history, sport history, London and British history, even broadcasting history where the ability to move microphones, cameras and signals over four miles was pioneered.
The legendary Cambridge waterman Alf Twinn used to call the Tideway ‘men’s water’. The book describes it as a place where tide and time stay for no man, as the legend on Putney church puts it:
It is a place where a ship is a living thing, particularly a thin-skinned, open boat which can pick up any tremor on the water and easily fracture its skin on floating debris… In the spring [the river] spills over Putney embankment until the railings and trees are freestanding moorings and the riverside buildings floating homes for the boat people. The tide deposits its driftwood in a ragged line along the banks, and on the broad sweep of Hammersmith one feels balanced on the very curvature of the earth as the setting sun burnishes the Mall fronts in copper and gold, their image cascading from a thousand windowpanes into bottle-glass water which, but for the embankment battlements, would link their first floors to the dark shadows of Castelnau on the Surrey side.
I hope that this Turneresque canvas turns out to describe this Sunday in the late afternoon, but as we know, the Boat Race course has a thesaurus of moods. It can lose its beat, displaying contrapuntal anger in a cauldron of white caps and bitter gusts that batter the reaches. It can expose rowers to snow, sleet, hail, horizontal rain like flying bolts, and winds which sear the face or the back. It can produce a different Turner vision entirely, roughing up Chiswick, reducing the Chiswick Eyot to an unkempt verge, white-horsing the Crossing and pushing angrily through Barnes Bridge to the Finish and Teddington before turning again to pomp and circumstance toward the sea. This is a million bites from the cradles of the Blues – far removed from an Isis sonnet or supping bubbly in a punt on the Cam. This is, as Alf said, men’s water.
The popularity of the Boat Race has always been a bit of a conundrum. The answer for participants is easy. The rivalry born at Henley in 1829 has never died. The needle surrounding the 2018 races will start in the hour that the 2017 races finish. It is quite likely, too, that something new to the fixture will have occurred before Monday dawns. The men’s race in particular has clocked an impressive list of firsts over its long history – on the P to M course since 1845 – whether in trying new equipment, winning on the outside of bends, being first to finish under 20 minutes, 19, 18, 17. Who will be first to get under 16?
Whichever Turner sky roofs the river from Putney to Mortlake, I shall be glued to the box with a stiff drink while wishing I was among the Putney throng to smell the coffee. The day will be very different from the 1970s where correspondents gathered in anticipation in the Duke’s Head (an easy stroll from Joe Coral’s betting shop near the bridge). The Boat Race has undergone a big change during my half century of launch riding. For a start the fixture, although remaining an exclusive, private match, has recognised itself as a wonderful public spectacle for London. The universities and their vice-chancellors have realised the free publicity given to their names by their student body, watched worldwide by a few hundred million. In this day and age, what university chancellery would not grasp at the chance joining the Boat Race?
The price of these developments is the requirement to find sponsors to fund the boat clubs and the seven-digit sum required to stage four races (men, women and reserves for each). Sponsors these days are looking for gender equality, hence the move of the women’s race to Putney two years ago, and for graduate recruitment. So don’t be surprised if other Russell Group institutions are hooked up with the Oxbridge match sometime in the future.
The presence of sponsors means public relations and homogenisation of Boat Race coverage. Interviews are organised into press conferences, trials are decreed on the same day, announcements are corralled. Not all this is bad, but the interpretative exclusive is more or less a thing of the past. Like it or not, and being a print journalist I don’t, the pendulum has swung hugely in favour of moving pictures, aided by the catastrophic decline of interest by newspapers and their football-obsessed sports editors.
Some things will never change, like Old Blues platting their legs with ‘needle’ all afternoon, and oarsmen and women who may never have rowed in front of an audience goose-pimpling their way down to the Putney waterside under a Turner sky. A south-westerly will waft the scent of hops from Mortlake brewery towards boats approaching the Finish.
Except that the petrol-diesel storm may develop into a horrendous Brexit (come to think of it, will the mess that is Brexit exile foreign intellects from Little England and the boats?). The PLA’s argument is that inboard petrol engines carry a fire risk. Chas Newens of Newens Marine, who supplies many of the launches, points out that there has never been a fire on a launch, and estimates that installing diesel engines will cost £30,000 per boat. I hear that the Parliamentary Rowing Group is pricking up its ears. HRR is keeping its craft above high tide. There are copious safety regulations on the Tideway, especially since the 1989 Bowbelle-Marchioness disaster after which life jackets were required to be worn on launches.
What we need is a grown-up debate (and the avoidance of a May-be or May-be-not Brexit imbroglio). A role here, surely for some heavy hitters, such as the chairman of the British Council, the chairman of Visit Britain, the chairman of the British Bobsleigh & Skeleton Association and perhaps a Henley Steward for good measure? For these luminaries are one and the same, rejoicing in the name Christopher Rodrigues. Chris won the Boat Race with Cambridge in 1970 and 1971. As if the Old Blue hasn’t enough chairs to sit on, he is also chairman of the Port of London Authority. Olé!
May the best crews win.
Images and captions provided by Tim Koch.