Light Blue and Purple – A Colour Clash

Some of the Cambridge men’s squad passing Harrods.

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.

Sunrise at Putney. Picture: @CUWBCPresident.

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.

Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club President, Daphne Martschenko, was not in the crew picked from the squad to take on the University of London.

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.

Cambridge had established a good lead before the end of the Putney boathouses.

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 Barn Elms.

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.

At Harrods.
The end of the first piece at Hammersmith.

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.

A warning from Umpire Packer in Corney Reach.

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.

Approaching Mortlake.
Cambridge in control: Sophie Shapter (Cox), Olivia Coffey (Str.), Myriam Goudet-Boukhatmi (7), Alice White (6), Paula Wesselmann (5), Thea Zabell (4), Anne Beenken (3), Imogen Grant (2), Tricia Smith (Bow).
Shooting Barnes Bridge.
UL cling on.

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.

Victory for Cambridge at Chiswick Bridge.

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.

A clash of blades a few seconds off the start.

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.

A warning for both crews to move apart as they approach Fulham Football Ground.

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.

Cambridge hit their ‘impressive mid-race rhythm’.
three-length lead for Cambridge at Hammersmith Bridge.
CUBC Chief Coach, Steve Trapmore (right), is in his final Boat Race season with the club before he takes on the role of High-Performance Coach within the GB Olympic Rowing program. With him is Henry Fieldman, who coxed Cambridge in 2013 and who now runs ‘Coxing Consultancy’.

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.

The second race passes the former Harrods Furniture Depository. A Grade II listed building converted to luxury apartments in 2000, the Depository was built in 1894 on the site of an old soap factory.
Passing St Paul’s School, just upstream of Hammersmith Bridge.

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 red-haired American at four, James Letten, is a giant among giants, measuring 6 foot 10 inches/2.08 metres. He is the 19-29-year-old world record holder for 10K on the indoor rower with a time of 31:43.1.
Cambridge sail away along Corney Reach.
Resting alongside the bandstand, a famous marker on the Boat Race course, coach Trapmore debriefs the crew after their second race.

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.

UL gamely took on the third piece knowing that a different result to the other two was unlikely. The most common place to encounter rough water on the Boat Race course is at the Chiswick crossing point – as demonstrated here.

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.

Cambridge leads the way through Barnes Bridge.

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.

Where are they? UL’s five-man cannot resist a look.
The only consolation for UL was that it was not far from the finish downstream of Chiswick Bridge to their boathouse on the upstream side.
Going home: Patrick Elwood (Bow), Charlie Fisher* (2), Gerard Kuenning (3), James Letten* (4), Spencer Furey (5), Finn Meaks (6), Rob Hurn (7), Freddie Davidson* (Str), Hugo Ramambason* (Cox). Blues’ names with asterisks. The final men’s and women’s crews will be announced on 26 February.


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