Facing the Dark Blue Music

Oxford Head Coach Sean Bowden (left) and the crew that he has chosen (by desire or by default) to race Cambridge on Saturday.

Chris Dodd writes from Putney. Pictures and captions by Tim Koch.

22 March 2018

In 1867, the editor of St Paul’s Magazine, Anthony Trollope, ran a piece by the Revd Leslie Stephen, rower, writer, alpinist and academic, on the skill a captain requires in composing a crew. It is, he said, comparable with forming a cabinet. Last minute crew formation is the situation that Oxford coach Sean Bowden found himself in this week with the indisposition of one of his star oarsmen, Josh Bugajski.

If you substitute ‘coach’ for ‘captain’, Stephen’s tips remain relevant. It is not so long ago that powers of selection in the Oxford and Cambridge boat clubs rested on the shoulders of the captains or presidents. Ironically, the adoption of professional coaches in the Boat Race, and therefore the switch of selection powers from presidents to coaches, was an outcome of the Oxford mutiny of 1987, which Tim Koch wrote about on Hear The Boat Sing recently.

Each man chosen, wrote Stephen, is apt to create one grumbler at his selection and half a dozen grumblers at their exclusion. Bow is unpopular, having been chosen out of favouritism. ‘2’ is a hypochondriac. ‘3’ is clumsy and less fit than he should be. ‘4’ is a giant, who loses his head, becoming as dangerous as a startled elephant in a caravan. About ‘5’, there are dark hints that he has a dark score at an unknown public house. ‘6’ carries a huge chip about the work, lack of, contributed by others. ‘7’ is delicate and conceals his ailments. Stroke considers himself the one man in the university to understand fully the art of rowing, and therefore must be subordinated. Cox is the superfluous weight in the stern, who will be blamed in the event of defeat.

Then there is the boat and food and a hundred other matters, and the tricky business of keeping eight men and a coxswain in good temper through feverish hard work plus passing their vacant hours in each other’s company. Stephen concludes: ‘Many races have been lost through the weakness of the crew, from the badness of the ship, from ill-luck in the start, and from a hundred other causes; but the one great and irremediable defect is want of brains.’

Facing the press is Oxford cox Zachary Thomas Johnson, Head Coach Sean Bowden and President of OUBC Iain Mandale.

The current Oxford crew is certainly not short of brain power. Bowden was grim-faced through his press conference in Putney on Thursday, but he managed a smile or two as he fended questions about Bugajski’s state of health. Is it true, he was asked, that Bugajski pulled a terrific erg at the GB Caversham training centre yesterday?

‘He’s obviously made a good recovery,’ said the coach, implying that it is true. Why, then, is he not preparing to return or standing by for the Isis reserve crew?

‘There was uncertainty about his recovery,’ said Bowden. ‘The condition he was in on Friday was pretty bad. We’ve had people with gastro-enteritis already this winter and it’s taken a long time to recover, so we felt that [leaving him out] was the right thing to do to give the crews the best opportunity and stability going forward. We made our decision, and the boat is on track.’

Sean Bowden (left) at the Oxford Trials in December, accompanied by physiologist Filipe Salbany.

Quizzed about other issues, Bowden said: ‘I’ve never been in a Boat race season without disagreement. A healthy discussion is essential to bring a crew together. Josh is a strong character and there have been certain times when we have found ourselves disagreeing.’

No light was thrown on the wilder rumours flying about the river of physical contact between crew members, mutinous moves, record erg scores, or visits to dark places such as licensed premises.

The irony of Bugajski’s abrupt exit from this year’s Cancer Research UK Boat Race is that the Blue from Stockport’s research work is in oncology, inspired by his own mother’s successful battle with cancer.

Cambridge Chief Coach Steve Trapmore and CUBC cox and President Hugo Ramambason.

Meanwhile, in the Light Blue corner, coach Steve Trapmore is in his eighth and last season. On 5 April he begins a new job as a full-time national coach at Caversham. Leaving Cambridge causes him a lot of sadness after eight seasons of incredible people and high achievers. When he arrived on the Cam, he says, the club operated on a year-by-year basis. When he leaves, it is bigger than a boat club, with a rolling programme and close links with the academic experience.

He also said that the best and worst of being the coach is the opposite of his experience as an athlete (gold medallist stroke of GB eight at Sydney 2000). ‘The best moment about being an athlete is putting your hands on the oar handle before your last race. The worst moment about being a coach is pushing the boat off for the last time, having been in control of everything up to that point.’

Hugo Ramambason and a reminder of why he is in Putney.

Saturday 24 March – Cancer Research UK Oxford v Cambridge Boat Races (Putney to Mortlake)

Racing Schedule:
16.31 Women’s Boat Race
16.46 Osiris v Blondie (women’s reserves)
17.01 Isis v Goldie (men’s reserves)
17.32 Men’s Boat Race

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