Rebels on the River – Part I

Oxford President Donal Macdonald celebrating his crew’s victory in 1987.

10 April 2018

Göran R Buckhorn takes a look at mutinies on the River Thames.

A week before the 164th men’s Boat Race on 24 March, rumours were spread on social media about a ‘mutiny’ in coach Sean Bowden’s Oxford crew. For Oxford’s outing on 20 March, Joshua Bugajski, who was a three-time Boat Race veteran and the strongest oar in the boat, was replaced by Benedict Aldous, who came from Oxford’s ‘B’ boat, Isis. In a press release, the Dark Blues explained that Bugajski had taken ill and he would not race on Boat Race Day, neither in the Blue boat, nor in the Isis boat. Rumours had it that Bowden and Bugajski did not see eye to eye on certain matters. There was also some gossip that the Oxford oarsman had had too many high-proof beverages during an evening out, and also had been involved in a tussle with members of the crew.

At a later press conference, nothing was said about this tittle-tattle, but Bowden revealed that he and Bugajski, who seemed to have made a speedy recovery as the previous day he had pulled an incredible erg result at GB Caversham training centre, had had disagreements, so it was not solely due to illness that the oarsman disappeared from the crew. Of course, it is never good to lose one of the senior members in a boat only a few days before a big race, but there it was, Bugajski was out.

However, one man, call him a rebel, jumping ship – or being forced out – hardly makes it a crew mutiny.

Dan Topolski

Tim Koch wrote an article on HTBS suggesting that Bowden might do a ‘Topolski’, which is to turn a mutiny-torn crew into a victory crew as Oxford Coach Dan Topolski managed to do at the 1987 Boat Race. Leading up to the race in 1987, five Americans, led by Chris Clark, were in disagreement over the way Topolski was training the crew. They also wanted Oxford President Donald Macdonald to leave the crew, as they did not see him as being as good an oar as Clark. Macdonald decided otherwise which led to all the Americans being dropped from the crew by Macdonald and Topolski. Their seats were taken over by members of Isis. The British press had a feast and were all over the ‘Mutiny at Oxford’ and wrote, for example, ‘When you recruit mercenaries, you can expect some pirates.’

To everyone’s surprise, the Dark Blues won the 1987 Boat Race. Topolski later claimed that it was the British media which had hyped up the controversy between him and the American oarsmen, and it had merely been ‘a selection dispute’.

Two years later, Topolski (and his co-writer Patrick Robinson) came out with an account of the rebellion, True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny (1989). Seeing his crew cross the finish line ahead of Cambridge, Topolski wrote in the book:

I just stood there and watched, laughing with relief at the sheer exhilarating fantasy of it, tears uncontrollably streaming down my face. The tensions and heartbreak of the last weeks were draining away, but the relief was tinged with sadness. In spite of everything, I wished somehow that the Americans could have been there.

Although some rowers and rowing journalists have praised the book, voices have also been raised that the events described in True Blue are not truthful. About the Topolski/Robinson book, in the article “Unnatural Selection” published in the July 2007 issue of Rowing News, rowing historian and journalist Chris Dodd wrote:

The book True Blue, Patrick Robinson’s account of the mutiny through Topolski and Macdonald’s eyes, is particularly offensive. They see it as more fiction than fact. The portrayals have done nothing to heal the differences between a bunch of guys – oarsmen and coaches alike – whose only goal was to beat Cambridge.

In 1996, the book was adapted into the film True Blue (in the USA called Miracle at Oxford), a film that is shamefully bad.

In 1991, Alison Gill, president of the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club in 1987, came out with The Yanks at Oxford: The 1987 Boat Race Controversy where she is trying to set some records straight. Today, it is hard to come by a copy of her book.

Back to the 164th Boat Race on 24 March: no, Bowden did not manage to do a Topolski, the Light Blues led from start to finish.

The 1987 Boat Race mutiny is not the only revolt in an Oxford Blue boat. There was also one at the end of the 1950s.

In 1957, Oxford coach Hugh Robert Arthur ‘Jumbo’ Edwards left in despair after some disagreements with the crew’s president, the Australian Roderick Howard Carnegie. Edwards was known for his tough rules, everything from how the oarsmen should be dressed during practise to their table manners. For the 1958 Boat Race, the Dark Blues were trained by Colin Porter, who was known to drive his crews hard. After the Dark Blue lost the 1958 Boat Race, Jumbo Edwards was back as one of Oxford’s coaches. In the crew was the American oarsman Reed Rubin, who suggested, together with some other crew members (including Jumbo’s son, David) that Jumbo Edwards should go to Rubin’s old university, Yale, which had had a successful string of races, including Olympic gold in the eight in 1956, to get some pointers how to coach his British crew for the 1959 Boat Race. Jumbo was not interested.

Jumbo Edwards

Rubin stood against Ronnie Howard for boat club presidency. Howard had rowed in the Blue boat in 1957 and for Isis in 1958. The position as president gave the person absolute power to select both oarsmen and coaches. Howard won with one vote. Later in 1958, Rubin approached Howard trying to persuade him to select a Yale coach and drop Edwards. Howard said no. Then Rubin decided to set up his own ‘pirate’ crew to train independently and to later challenge Howard’s crew for the right to race against Cambridge. At a meeting with the captains of the Oxford boat clubs it stood clear that Howard, as president of the boat club, had their full support. Howard also got assistance from an unexpected place when Mike Maltby, president of Cambridge University Boat Club, told the student newspaper Varsity that his crew were only going to race against President Howard’s crew. Rubin dropped out from the Dark Blue boat, while some of the rebels decided to row in Howard’s crew. On Boat Race Day, Oxford won by six lengths in a time of 18 minutes 52 seconds – a triumph for Howard and Edwards.

Oxford President Ronnie Howard (left) and Oxford Rebel Reed Rubin.

While the 1959 and 1987 mutinies at Oxford are the famous ones, there is actually one that is lesser known – not at Oxford, but at Cambridge. The Cambridge mutiny happened roughly 60 years before the first one at Oxford, for the 1898 Boat Race. It had all the ingredients of a Boat Race mutiny: a Yankee rebel, a dispute over the presidency and the crew’s coach – and covered by newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, the quarrel was made under the full glare of the public eye.

Part II will be published tomorrow.

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