Tempted from office stools…..*

Toby Backhouse (centre) gets a bit peeved during the 22nd Oxford-Cambridge Veterans’ Boat Race.

5 April 2017

Tim Koch reports on a great race:

The 163rd Boat Race Day saw four races over the Putney to Mortlake course, those between the men’s and the women’s Blue Boats and also their reserve crews. However, those who watched the event on BBC1 television could be forgiven for thinking that there were only two races, as the second boats failed to get much of a mention. Further, those viewers not paying close attention may have thought that there was another aquatic contest taking place as a recording was broadcast of a ‘celebrity boat race’ that had been held earlier in the month. In this, people of varying talents took time off from dancing and making cakes in order to row badly. Sadly, the best boat race on the Thames Tideway that weekend was not televised and is known to but a few.

The Oxford Vets.

The day before the cream of the current Oxbridge rowers clashed, the 22nd Oxford-Cambridge Veterans’ (Masters’) Race was held on the 2km course from the traditional Putney start to just upstream of Hammersmith Bridge. The minimum age for the alumni is 35 and the crew average must not be less than 42. The score as of 2016 was Cambridge 14, Oxford 7. While both crews had four Olympians rowing, Oxford had a fifth onboard with cox, Zoe Toledo, fresh from winning a silver medal at Rio.

The Cambridge Masters.

The Veterans’ Race is the most informal of all the blue-on-blue rowing contests (the heavyweights now race on the Tideway, the lightweights fight it out at the Oxford-Cambridge Henley Boat Races). That said, they are getting more serious as each year passes. It may not be Blue Boat selection level, but Oxford picked a crew based on winter ergo scores while Cambridge trained separately but also had at least five outings over the course together. Further, especially commissioned kit is now worn by both sides, consigning random collections of mismatched strip endorsing former sponsors such as Ladbrokes, Beefeater Gin and Aberdeen Asset Management to history (or to eBay).

It was no surprise when both crews, Oxford on Middlesex and Cambridge on Surrey, went off at 38, but when the time to settle down to ‘race pace’ quickly came, the Cambridge veterans conventionally went down to 33 but Oxford old boys only dropped two or three pips. As a result of this and their terrific start, the Dark Blues had clear water by the end of Putney Embankment, had perhaps doubled this after the football ground and maintained it to the Mile Post. In a two boat race, particularly one between two middle-aged crews of unpredictable endurance, it is a legitimate tactic to go off at a rate and a pressure that will empty the collective tank before the finish line. The theory is that, before the fuel runs out, the other crew will have effectively given up. Unfortunately for Oxford, no one told Cambridge that they were supposed to lose power, precision and pace after rapidly going two lengths down.

Although parallax error makes Oxford look further ahead than they actually were, in the short time that it took to reach London Rowing Club from the start, they were pulling away convincingly.
Cambridge however, were unfazed and maintained a steady and strong rhythm.
At Barn Elms, and an Oxford victory seems almost inevitable.

Perhaps ‘witness statements’ from some who followed the race best capture the scene:

Sean Gorvy (Cambridge):

Oxford were very, very aggressive and essentially paid for it. They went off very, very hard, they were overrating Cambridge off the start and on the settle were pretty much two pips higher for most of the race and I think they paid for that….. Cambridge had a very strong rhythm and were rowing with a nice, settled platform and they were able to build on (this) when the (Surrey) bend came in their favour.… (The boats) were almost level coming through Hammersmith and (Cambridge would) have certainly gone through to win. Unfortunately, Zoe, the Oxford cox, steered aggressively… and caused a clash (in which) the Cambridge ‘3’ man lost his blade….. The Oxford umpire, Sir Matthew Pinsent, rightly disqualified Oxford.

Downstream of Harrods, Oxford maintain form but are suffering for their ‘high and hard’ strategy. The colour coordinated sailboat is unconnected.
At Harrods, Cambridge are closing the gap and umpire Pinsent is constantly warning Oxford.

When a trailing boat starts to move closer to one in front, it is usually because the crew ahead has slowed, not because the chasing craft has gone faster. Aware of her fading crew and possibly feeling that she had nothing to lose, perhaps Oxford cox Zoe deliberately chose to risk semi-ignoring the umpire?

Jonny Searle (Oxford) agreed with Sean – in parts:

It was and amazing race… Oxford looked really strong early on… but there was a good, brave rhythm by Cambridge (who) kept going and kept focus in their boat. The bend then came back (in their favour), they rowed really, really well (and) put Oxford under a lot of pressure. Clearly, Oxford were leaning over to get the most of the bend, (the umpire) was warning Oxford a lot. I thought that he had stopped warning Oxford, i.e. that they had moved back to their station and, at that point Cambridge were in the Oxford water when they clashed and the ‘3’ man lost his blade…. When it’s like that, it’s a marginal call….. Whatever the actual result, it’s an amazing achievement by both crew, a brilliant race.

Coming up to Hammersmith Bridge, the gap is closing but the umpire holds that Oxford are still not moving over sufficiently.
The inevitable clash of blades starts.

The man with the best view and whose opinion ultimately counts, the umpire, Sir Matthew Pinsent (Oxford but unbiased) had no doubts:

It was a Cambridge win by disqualification. Oxford got comfortably ahead by the Mile Post, I suppose about two lengths was the most that they ever had. Between the Mile Post and Harrods, Cambridge pegged them back, and between Harrods and (Hammersmith Bridge) they got overlap and I was consistently warning Zoe and Oxford (to move) over (but) they did not give enough and there was an enormous crash, bang, wallop  soon after the bridge and that was that. (TK: The clash happened while you were warning Zoe?) Oh yes, I had been warning her for a minute. (TK: And she had been responding?) Not really……’No’, I think is fair enough to say…. very clear cut and straightforward….. But it was a great race, a great race.

Just as the boats emerged from under Hammersmith Bridge, the blade of the Cambridge ‘3’, Toby Backhouse, came off worse in a clash with Oxford’s stroke side oars.
Backhouse angry.
Please Sir! Umpire Pinsent unhesitatingly accepted Cambridge’s appeal and immediately disqualified Oxford (who did not seem surprised).

I give the final word to someone who was actually in one of the boats (though not always with his oar handle in front of him), Toby Backhouse (CUBC 1989), in his time the heaviest man to row in the Boat Race:

We were dropped at the start, they were fabulous, I thought that I was in the wrong race, and that we were racing some youngsters….. By the Mile Post we were in their water, bobbling around, wondering what’s happened…..? Most of us in the Cambridge Crew have done a fair amount of training… separately but also maybe five outings here on the Tideway. So, we had some self-confidence and had agreed that, were we to be behind, we would just stick with it. I have rowed so little in my life that I have never come through from behind, I was just hoping that the others would keep it together but (it turned out that) there were some wise old heads in the boat. It was extraordinary, coming back from behind……  We were a length and a quarter, length and a third down between the Mile Post and Harrods (but) by the time we got to (Hammersmith Bridge) we were less than half a length down….. Then we get under the bridge and there was this almighty war zone…… from rowing in their puddles, we were rowing side by side and we felt we were going through…. I starting hearing whoops from bow pair behind me, that was transmitted down the boat and we came together as a crew and started to pull through.…. we knew that we had eighteen strokes to the finish after the bridge and we knew that we could go through…. but unfortunately we were not able to row it because we clashed……. (The Veterans’ Race) is so nice to do, it’s the most hilarious thing…… everybody in the boat is in so much pain, thinking, ‘why do I do it, why do I do it?’, but thank God we do.

Backhouse (and friends) happy.

* The first two lines of the final verse of the Eton Boating Song records veteran oarsmen lured back  to rowing by a fine day and by the memories of the achievements of their youth: Twenty years hence this weather, May tempt us from office stools…..

One comment

  1. Terrific reporting and wonderful photos of a remarkable event – especially the come-from-behind effort. There was, for at least a century (the issue had arisen by the 1860s, and my father interrogated me on the point in the 1960s) a question as to whether rowing was bad for heart and health. Dr. Morgan attempted to put it to rest with one of the first effects-over-time medical research studies ever undertaken – University Oars (1873), 397 pp. – but it is heart-warming, as it were, to see that, 10-30 years after the fact, veterans are able to return to the field and not only survive the contest, but excel. That no times were given should not be considered telling in any way …

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