21 February 2018
Tim Koch follows in the wake of some spirited rowing.
There is a joke that comes out every Boat Race Day that could have started around the time of the second Oxford – Cambridge Race in 1836: Why are the same crews in the final every year? It was not a great gag then, and the intervening 182 years have not increased its comedic effect. However, crews from the Oxford and Cambridge men’s and women’s squads do actually compete in ‘heats’ against non-Oxbridge opposition between mid-February and early March. The twist is that, whoever wins these races, the contests on The Big Day will always be between the Light and the Dark Blues.
The Boat Race Fixtures are races in which top domestic (and, in some years, foreign) crews race potential Oxford and Cambridge crews over the Putney to Mortlake course. They are both a selection test and a provider of key race practice. Not only is the experience of competing against top-class opposition vital, but the fixtures also provide opportunities for the coxes and rowers to simulate race day as much as possible and get to know the Championship Course better: practising routines, racing the Surrey and Middlesex stations, and being officially umpired. As the crews providing opposition are not in training for a 4 1/4 mile event, fixture races are usually in two parts, breaking somewhere between Hammersmith Bridge and Chiswick Eyot.
Over the weekend of 17/18 February, the University of London Boat Club (UL) put out its best to race crews from the Cambridge squad, the women on the Saturday, and the men on the Sunday. As usual, I was too busy trying not to drop my cameras in the Thames to make notes, so the text below comes for the excellent official website.
Facing up against a strong crew from the University of London, who they had beaten convincingly at Quintin Head a few weeks ago, Cambridge started out on the Middlesex side. Off the start, it was clear that the Light Blues had a significant power advantage as they strode out to half a length within twenty-five strokes. From that point on, their lead never looked in danger as the continued to pull away from a dispirited UL boat.
Passing Harrods Depository, the lead was four lengths and, as the fixture concluded underneath the green struts of Hammersmith Bridge, the margin was closer to five.
For the second piece, the crews began at the Chiswick steps under the guidance of Umpire Judith Packer. On this occasion, Cambridge began half a length down, but on Surrey, meaning they would have the advantage as the crews swung around the first bend. Within twenty strokes, the UL deficit was overturned and the crews were level. The strategy for the Light Blues was to break clear as quickly as possible, but UL clung on, holding Cambridge to a lead of no more than 3/4 of a length around the outside of the Surrey bend. Packer was repeatedly called into action to warn both crews, as they strayed across untraceable lines and into mutual water.
Eventually, the power and poise of Cambridge took its toll on UL and the former moved out to a clear water lead passing Barnes Bridge.
The remainder of the piece was something of a formality, as Cambridge ran out clear winners. However, the margin failed to tell the story of UL bravery in the opening exchanges of an intriguing fixture.
Interestingly, on 4 February, a UL women’s crew beat an Oxford women’s crew in three five-minute pieces over the Boat Race course (a report on this is on WEROW Life. However, because of changes in the three and four seats, the crew that UL put out against Oxford was stronger than the one that took on Cambridge.
For the men, Sunday was not a day of rest. Race reports from the Boat Race website together with my pictures tell the story:
On a calm Tideway, Cambridge took to the water having claimed the fastest time of the day at Quintin Head in January. The first piece began at Putney Bridge, and it was UL who got the better start after the crews clashed in the initial strokes.
Umpire, Rob Clegg, continually warned both boats as they veered into unmarked water, but the disruption allowed Cambridge to regain their composure and draw level. Passing Fulham, the Light Blues had taken the lead and were straining to break clear.
Their mid-race rhythm was impressive, as they grabbed hold of the contest and began to control it by utilising the power of their middle four and dynamism of their stroke pair. As the crews passed Harrods Depository, the race was all but decided, with Cambridge commanding a three-length lead.
The second piece began at Harrods, with UL on the Surrey station. Cambridge immediately took half a length but was warned for aggressive steering by the Umpire.
Although UL had the advantage of the inside bend, it was Cambridge who continued to do all the heavy lifting as they attempted to break clear once again. Despite impressive purple resistance, the chunkier rhythm displayed by Cambridge eventually told its own tale as they stretched away to lead by two lengths. The piece finished at the bandstand with the Light Blues several lengths clear.
The third and final piece began at Chiswick Eyot and ran until the finish of the official course. The almost obligatory opening clash occurred again, as both crews struggled starting on a bend.
Cambridge, having perhaps gained some insight into the mechanics of a clash, emerged the steadier of the two and began to draw away from UL.
Despite a considerable effort on the inside of the Surrey bend, UL was unable to reel in a machine-like Cambridge, whose superior power and balance in rougher water paid dividends. They went from a length to two lengths fairly quickly and controlled the remainder of the race to complete the set and claim victory across all three pieces.