The 2018 Boat Races: Cambridge is the Big Dog in the Fight

The Newfoundland dog belonging to Toby Backhouse (CUBC 1989), complete with its own Light Blue cap, checks out a smaller breed wearing a Dark Blue coat, perhaps trying to decide whether to eat it now or save it for later.

26 March 2018

Chris Dodd and Tim Koch traverse the world’s most famous 4 miles and 374 yards.

Tim writes:

Warning – this story contains words and images that those of an Oxonian nature may find upsetting. As all HTBS Types will know, last Saturday, 24 March, was a Tabtastic day on the Putney to Mortlake course with Cambridge winning all four of the Oxford – Cambridge Tideway races, the first time that they have done this since 1997. The Cambridge men passed the finish line three lengths up, while the women were seven lengths ahead. In the reserve races, the boys of Goldie beat those of Isis by two-and-a-half lengths and, in the girls’ contest, Blondie came in nine lengths in front of Osiris.

Normally, HTBS does not produce race reports for the Boat Race on the grounds that its readers would have followed the day live, or at least caught up with the day’s events soon after. However, when the former rowing correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, Chris Dodd, offers some copy, we hold the front page – or whatever the website equivalent is. Both Chris and I were allocated launch space to follow the men’s race (we are not given a choice), hence the lack of coverage of the women’s and reserve’s races. However, good and concise official reports are on the Boat Race website.

Not long off the start and still along the Fulham Wall, the Cambridge women are three seats up on their Oxford counterparts. Their win puts the score at 43 – 30 in favour of the Light Blues.

As a preamble to Chris’s piece, there follows some of my pictures of Putney as it got ready for its big day. Apologies for the poor quality of my race photographs, the late start meant that there was exceptionally bad light. Further, while I was flattered to be asked to do the backup timing for the race, the downside of this was that I had to stop taking pictures as we approached the timing points (the Mile Post, Hammersmith Bridge, Chiswick Steps, Barnes Bridge, and the finish) so I could find the flagman on the bank who was to drop his flag as each boat crossed his line of sight. In poor light and with the signalman obscured by the crowd and by foliage, this was a difficult and nerve-racking task. Other hindrances to producing pleasing and informative images were the problems of picturing two crews that were far apart, and the fact that the boat that I was on had railings at just the right height to bisect views of the crews. It was, however, still a great thrill to be part of the following flotilla.

Austen Dorey, OUBC Boathouse and Equipment Manager, gives a final polish to the Blue Boat.
Chris Baillieu, Olympic silver medalist and four-time Boat Race winner with CUBC, one of Britain’s best scullers in the 1970s and early 1980s. The silhouettes of the two soldiers on the roof of Westminster School Boat Club are part of a project that he is involved in to remember oarsmen who have died as a result of war.
The participants in a reunion row of Oxford and Isis oarsmen from 2013.
Toby Backhouse and friend.
A face in the crowd. Until recently the occupant of Oxford’s ‘6’ seat, Josh Bugajski must have dragged himself from his sickbed to attend the race.
A retro rosette sported by a long time Cambridge supporter.
The trophy for the men’s race – with the Queen’s Rowbarge “Gloriana” in the background.
Christian from Fulham Reach Boat Club was given the honour of making the toss for stations for the men’s race. The club recently announced its ‘Future Blues’ scheme in partnership with The Boat Race Company, BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management to enable all the fifty-two schools that border the Boat Race Championship to row.
Oxford’s blades are drawn.
The Dark Blues go afloat.
Cox Thomas Johnson faces Drinkall, Mandale and Aldous.
Boat Race Day Putney from the wet side.
On their way to the start, left to right: CUBC coach Steve Trapmore, the men’s Boat Race reserve umpire Tony Reynolds (CUBC 1984) and Lance Trewell (CUBC 2016 and 2017).

Chris takes over the HTBS typewriter:

Cambridge Triumph in a Clean Sweep

As the good ship Tramontana trod water in the gloom below Putney Bridge on Boat Race Day, I reflected that the two pairs of shoes I wouldn’t want to be wearing right then were those of Sean Bowden or Steve Trapmore.

Oxford coach Bowden has an excellent record of peaking his crews on the day, but he had started the week by dropping one of his proven men for obscure reasons and reshuffling his crew, a process that is seldom a helpful move at the very end of six months’ preparation and refinement.

Nervous for different reasons as the rival boats crept up the Middlesex bank under the lifeless dusky treeline along Hurlingham club’s grounds on their way to the stake boats was Trapmore. The Cambridge coach bid farewell after the race and eight years with the Light Blues to take up a post with the British national team. He has won two of his seven races (2012 and 2016) to Bowden’s five, and would much prefer to leave on a high.

Waiting for the start is anticipation tinged with anxiety. The sky is brooding slate-grey, the flags are limp – including the university boat clubs’ colours indicating stations on towers of the Putney and Fulham churches at either end of the bridge. The chopper noise is deafening, the crowd on bridge, banks and balconies immense, while cranes hover over cliffs of luxury apartments on the Wandsworth shore downstream. Red buses on the bridge and glittering lamps add a bit of colour as the flotilla waits.

Suddenly both coxes lower their arms indicating that they are straight and umpire John Garrett seizes his moment. ‘Attention, Go!’ he barks, whipping his red flag from perpendicular to horizontal, and the shells leap away. Perhaps Oxford, who lost the toss and were granted Middlesex, put their bow ball in front for a stroke or three, but the powerful and drilled Cambridge crew were leading as they passed the Duke’s Head public-house. They struck a fine rhythm and were soon half a length more in front.

Although parallax error exaggerates their lead, Cambridge were in a good position long before the end of the Fulham Wall.

This was the beginning of an old-style Boat Race. Remember the years when one crew would reach Hammersmith Bridge – one-third of the 4.25 miles – ahead by two or three lengths and then sit on it, leading a procession to Mortlake, never threatened? The Light Blues made this race one of those, though not before some dodgy moments on the elbow round Fulham football ground.

Passing Fulham football ground.

Garrett warned Cambridge two or three times as Hugo Ramambason cut towards Oxford when the boats were still just overlapping. A dangerous manoeuvre, which the cox interpreted afterwards as ‘Oxford responding to the umpire warning us’! But whatever he means by this, he got away with moving towards the strong tide to send dirty water under the Dark Blue stroke side blades. He reached the Mile Post a comfortable 5 seconds ahead and from then on there was no more incident.

Past the Mile Post and in Fulham Reach.

Cambridge rowed hard, rhythmically and beautifully into the obscurity of the darkening sky in the West, extending their lead slightly at each marker. Fine rowing, and a joy to watch if the evening had been clearer as the swaying deck of the Tramontana rode the wash from other launches.

Through Hammersmith Bridge, the following flotilla pass Auriol Kensington RC.
Cambridge reach the halfway point, the famous blue window.
Approaching Barnes Bridge.
Heading for the finish in front of Chiswick Bridge.

Oxford weren’t bad. Comparatively, though, they lacked power, precision, and Bowden’s peak. The glorious barge Gloriana graced the finish to brighten up the gloom, having led a procession of traditional boats up the course earlier in the afternoon. The news conveyed by the hoard of yelling Light Blue athletes on the shore was that Cambridge had completed a clean sweep, having previously won the women’s race and both men’s and women’s reserve contests.

Cambridge in the light, Oxford in the shadows.

By now, I would have liked to be in Steve Tramore’s shoes. ‘It was a fantastic day for CUBC,’ he said. ‘We had something to prove after losing last year. Hugo as president and cox faced a huge challenge, and he drove the guys from the first day. It is going to be hard for me to walk away, but once you join CUBC you never really leave.’

A very happy Steve Trapmore talks to the “Daily Telegraph”’s Rachel Quarrell.
A seemingly stunned Oxford stroke, Felix Drinkall, is alone with his thoughts.

President Ramambason said that Trapmore is a mentor as well as a coach. ‘His advice is, “work harder than anyone else.” He’s a very positive guy.’

James Letten, the American in the ‘3’ seat who is the tallest Blue to date at 6ft 10ins, said simply: ‘We gave Steve the result he deserves. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had in any sport. He’s changed my life.’

Four ecstatic Cambridge crews.
Down in one!
Cambridge cox and President, Hugo Ramambason, gets the traditional ducking….
…as does Goldie cox, Harry Ellison-Wright.
Meeks and Fisher, having shown their mettle, show their metal.

Cambridge beat Oxford by 3 lengths in 17 mins 51 secs.
Intermediate times (Cambridge first):
Mile Post: 3.52, 3.57.
Hammersmith Bridge: 6.58, 7.07.
Chiswick Steps: 11.00, 11.12.
Barnes Bridge: 14.50, 15.01

Cambridge 83, Oxford 80, one dead heat (1877).

Bow Charles Fisher (KCS Wimbledon and St John’s)
2 Patrick Elwood (Dame Alice Owen’s and Magdalene)
3 James Letten (Deerfield HS, USA, and Hughes Hall)
4 Dara Alizadeh (Belmont Hill and Hughes Hall)
5 Spencer Furey (Delbarton School, USA, and Jesus)
6 Finn Meeks (Phillips Exeter Academy, USA, and Hughes Hall)
7 Rob Hurn (Churchie, Brisbane, Australia, and St Edmund’s)
Stroke Freddie Davidson (St Paul’s and Emmanuel)
Cox Hugo Ramambason (Westminster and Trinity, President)

Bow Claas Mertens (Walddoefer-Gymnasium Hamburg, Germany, and Christ Church)
2 Vassilis Ragousis (Abingdon and Linacre)
3 Will Cahill (St Andrew’s Coll Grahamstown, South Africa, and Christ Church)
4 Anders Weiss (Barrington Public HS, USA, and St Hugh’s)
5 Will Geffen (Eton and Keble)
6 Benedict Aldous (Eton and Christ Church)
7 Iain Mandale (Kingston GS and St Edmund Hall, President)
Stroke Felix Drinkall (Eton and Lady Margaret Hall)
Cox – Zachary Thomas Johnson (Marling and Lady Margaret Hall)


  1. Excellent coverage, Tim and Chris. Interesting that, had Oxford won, they would have been within one victory of tying Cambridge for overall supremacy. I’m curious as to why the individual histories identify secondary schools but not, for those with pre-Oxbridge collegiate affiliations, those connections. If space considerations are determinative, then the standard disclosure should be the Oxbridge college and the educational institution – whether a secondary school or another university – that preceded it.

    • Thomas Weil- that makes more sense, and is the standard practice in various contexts in Cambridge- college matriculation lists give the previous institution attended regardless of its level, as have some old Blues photos I’ve seen.

      What I would like to see, though, is the club at which each athlete learned to row or cox.

      • Tom,

        It is interesting that the lead in the total number of Boat Race wins has changed very little. Oxford won the first race, Cambridge the second. Cambridge led 1839 – 1862. Level 10 – 10 in 1863. Oxford led 1864 – 1928. Pleasingly, they drew 40 – 40 level in 1929, the 100th anniversary. Since 1929, Cambridge has led.
        I think the biggest lead was 16 to Cambridge in 1973 and 1975. See this:

        I suspect that the practice of identifying secondary schools but usually not previous higher educational establishments is a custom dating from when most participants in the Boat Race were undergraduates (or, if they were what the British call ‘postgraduates’, they did both degrees at the same university). Nowadays, the secondary school is often omitted, perhaps so not to draw attention to the number of privately educated people in the event, or perhaps because no one cares.


  2. Singleminded –
    Indeed, knowing an individual’s cradle of rowing would be interesting, and, for many, especially European oarsmen, the only relevant predecessor institution is their boat club, unless they had also spent time on a national team, in which case … In the US, where club rowing tends to be the domain of post-collegiate enthusiasts, the cradle is usually, but not always, the secondary school.

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