Battles of Blues from the Couch

The Cambridge Women demonstrate that they think winning by eleven lengths in 2017 is better than losing by twenty-four lengths in 2016.

3 April 2017

Chris Dodd, HTBS’s special Boat Race Couch Potato, reports:

Don’t say you weren’t warned. As my G&T was raised to my lips at the moment when umpire Sarah Winckless’s ‘Go’ released the 72nd women’s Boat Race from the stake boats, Rebecca Esselstein scored a Boat Race first by digging her oar so deep that she lost her grip and brought Oxford to a shuddering four-stroke halt. Almost before cox Eleanor Shearer got her crew going again, an email from the eminent historian and collector Thomas E. Weil landed, asking:

‘Has there ever been an Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race – men’s, women’s, first or second boats, lightweights – or any other major race – Sprints, IRAs, Worlds, Olympics – that was so utterly decided at the first stroke – or non-stroke – as the OxCam women’s race?’

Spare a thought for Beccy having to live with that one. Oxford made a courageous attempt to catch Cambridge, whose first stroke was right on the button and ignited a stomping Surrey-station course to burn a record time of 18.33. It was good to see such a stylish foregone conclusion and a timely wrestle of the title by the Light Blues, whose verdict was 11 lengths – sweet compensation for the previous year when they lost by 24 after becoming waterlogged at Barnes Bridge.

My hero of the hour is Andrew Cotter, the BBC’s television commentator, who had to find something to say for 600 strokes or so, stringing on for once about good rowing while his sidekicks wracked their brains for a new snippet.

The winners and the losers of the 163rd Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race since 1829.

The men’s race, the 163rd in the series, was a different kettle of fish. Oxford had the Surrey station and put in a first stroke that contained everything that their women lacked. It was almost as decisive, for what followed was a hum-dinging race by two superb crews. Cambridge always trailed but never allowed any comfort to the Dark Blues. There were several moments when I was roused to sit on the edge of my couch, including one when Cambridge’s 2 blade touched Oxford’s 7 blade and caused a little Light Blue hiccup. Matt Pinsent, the umpire, was flapping his flag a lot at Sam Collier in the leading boat and Hugo Ramambason in the chase boat, trying to keep them apart.

In the end, it was probably the quantity of steam required by Cambridge to try and arrive on close terms at Hammersmith that did for them. But this was not the end. Cambridge continued to harass round the long outside of the bend, seen from my couch from the sunny air above Barnes, and kept up the pressure until the last stroke on the finish line. The verdict was a trifling 1 and a quarter lengths, in 16.59. Two first-rate crews in a four-and-a-quarter mile race that ran for 4 ¼ miles.

The cheery Cook brothers, who helped Oxford win, were offset by William Warr, who ever since changing sides (he lost the 2015 race with Cambridge), seemed surprised that some of his former crew mates are no longer buddies. Yes, there is still some Corinthian spirit left in the Boat Race, but jumping ship challenges bonding loyalties even in rowing.

Light Blue and Dark Blue celebrations at Mortlake.

The television showed footage of the celebrity Boat Race between Redgrave and Cracknell crews, all in the cause of UK Cancer Research, but paid scant attention to the reserves’ races, so I don’t know what happened. I think I heard that Blondie (Cambridge) beat Osiris and Isis (Oxford) beat Goldie. There is a good case to be put to the BBC for televising the Masters Boat Race, from what I hear. Old Blues race from Putney to Hammersmith, and this year the close encounter ended with umpire Pinsent, the semaphore expert, disqualifying Oxford because cox Zoe de Toledo did not move over when directed. Like I said, the ‘needle’ for the 2018 Boat Races is under full swing.

Photos and captions by Tim Koch.


  1. From what I have read, in today’s London Times, Rebecca Esselstein only took up rowing when she arrived at Oxford University last September. Not surprising then, that a comparative novice catches a crab off a stake-boat start.

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