27 March 2018
Tim Koch follows his favourite Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race.
Any boat race that has the gentlemanly rule that ‘any verdict within six feet shall be declared a dead heat’ gets the HTBS mark of approval. For several years, I have had the pleasure of following the Oxford – Cambridge Veteran’s Race, run over 2 km from the Boat Race start to the steps between upstream of Hammersmith Bridge and St Paul’s School ramp ‘being the line where the two bends equal out’. Friday, 23 March was the 23rd time that the Oxbridge veterans (or ‘masters’) had met, the score before the race standing at Oxford 7, Cambridge 15. The minimum age for the alumni is 35 and the crew average must not be less than 42. The race is usually run on the day before four other Oxford – Cambridge clashes when some young people race from Putney to Mortlake.
I claim that this is my favourite of the all the Oxford – Cambridge Races. It is the right mix of professionalism and informality, of competitiveness and friendliness – with the added attractions of a usually unpredictable result and often great racing from mostly highly experienced oarsmen, who have seen and done it all and who are still capable of delivering a surprise or two.
This year’s programme tells us:
After losing a close race in 2016 and disqualification in 2017, we see Oxford once again as Challengers bringing youth, weight and international representation to their side. Newcomer former Internationals to the Race, American, Andrew Brennan, and Ian Weighell, support returning Olympians Tom Solesbury and Robin Bourne-Taylor… Not to be outdone, the defending Champions, Cambridge, include returning Olympians Tom Middleton and Matthew Parish who are joined by newcomer, Nicholas English, who, since the Athens Games, has won national honours on the boards of the velodrome…
Due to the problems of taking pictures and making notes at the same time, I often reproduce the official race report from theboatraces.com. I am particularly keen to do the same this year as The Telegraph’s Rachel Quarrell has produced a particularly fine piece, even by her own high standards. It shows the sort of in-depth knowledge that is often lost in modern sports journalism when one person has to cover many minority sports:
Oxford’s alumni oarsmen staged a classic recovery to win the 23rd Veteran Boat Race by just under a length in one of the most fascinating editions of the event, twelve months on from being disqualified for fouling Cambridge last year.
It was a tightly fought and strategic contest, umpired for the second year running by Sir Matthew Pinsent, who (took) charge of the Women’s Boat Race on Saturday, 24 March. The race was rowed on a low rising tide, allowing the coxes to cut the corners more than usual. Winning the toss, the Dark Blues promptly chose Surrey, stating that they intended to make full use of the short but very tight bend in their favour between Hammersmith Bridge and the finish line marked by a large dead tree stump at Furnivall Steps.
At first this looked like a foolish choice. Starting a little behind the University Stone, the two crews set off with blade-tips very near to each other, and Cambridge immediately took hold of the race. Rating 45 off the start and settling to an initial 37, they kept a cadence higher than Oxford’s for the first minute, and simultaneously maintained the pressure on the Dark Blues’ steering, Cambridge cox, Ed Bosson, pressing Oxford further to stroke side. Pinsent’s white flag was in operation within the first 30 seconds, the first few times warning the Light Blues.
Before the race reached London Rowing Club Cambridge stroke and Olympian Matthew Parish had taken his men nearly a length ahead of Oxford, but there they stuck. By now both at 35 strokes a minute, the two crews battled down the moored boats, Pinsent at times warning them both. As they took the corner at Craven Cottage wide to the Surrey bank, he warned both again, repeatedly, with Oxford putting in a strong push at Barn Elms to stop Cambridge taking clear water and desperate to cling to contact.
For the next four minutes, it was hammer and tongs, Oxford pushing to gain ground, Cambridge fending them off and again squeezing them towards the Surrey bank, but the margin unchanging. Passing the Milepost, the Light Blues had 2.45 seconds advantage, but as they had to let Oxford come back into the faster water to pass the navigation buoys, and as the first corner ran out, the challengers scented blood.
Second by second, the Oxford stroke, Olympian and world medallist Tom Solesbury, inched his crew back into contention as Pinsent continued to warn both crews. Passing Harrods Depository, they were only a few seats behind, and by Hammersmith Bridge, tucked well in towards the southern buttress, they had gone fractionally ahead. But then came the slam-dunk. As Oxford cox Peter Hackworth steered to take the stroke-side corner, his crew had all the momentum and raced ahead to win with an official verdict of three-quarters of a length.
This was Oxford’s eighth win in the event and their first since 2015.
After the race, I spoke to one of Oxford’s conveners, Jonny Searle:
I was a bit surprised by how fast (Cambridge) moved on the Oxford Crew…. three-quarters of a length in a minute or so… It became apparent that Cambridge had front-loaded this race quite a lot… but then Oxford got into a rhythm and once they consolidated… they moved through quite quick… It was still close with a minute to go… Oxford probably held something in reserve after the last couple of years, now we realise that the races go all way, there is no point in running out of gas with thirty seconds to go, they had that last push onto the bridge and that seemed to make the difference. It was a really exciting race.
Stephen Fowler, Cambridge’s ‘7’:
It’s never good to lose, but it was a real race, (Oxford) were really good. We had a good start… got out to three quarters at most but we didn’t break them, we sat on them for ages and I thought that if we are here long enough we may just burn them out – but we were probably just enough on edge that we did not have enough extra ’oomph’ to break them properly. I think they were biding their time well, underrating us, and when it came for the chance for the line (they took it)… This is no criticism of (Oxford) but… the inside of the Surrey bend is quite helpful, it helped us last year… But, it’s great, it’s a gentleman’s race – but raced hard…
The BBC filmed the race, not for broadcast but as a practice for Boat Race Day proper. The result is on YouTube.
Times (rounded to the nearest half-second):
Milepost – Cambridge 4min 40sec*, Oxford 4min 42.5sec
Hammersmith (approximate) – Oxford 8-14.5, Cambridge 8-15
Finish – Oxford 8-53, Cambridge 8-55.5
* = loser leading at this point