Oxford’s Boat Race Trials: Flea Bites, Comet Soars

The final 18 contenders for the 2019 Oxford Men’s Crew. “Reggie” is in the foreground, “Flea” is in the background.

10 December 2018

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch follows in some Dark Blue wakes.

For those of us who are active on the water for most of the year, the cold, wet, and dark winter can seem never-ending. For me, however, the December Boat Race Trials are the events that, to paraphrase Churchill, are not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but are the end of the beginning.

The Trials are not contests of Light Blue v Dark Blue, they are men’s and women’s intra-university races, Oxford v Oxford and Cambridge v Cambridge, where the last 16 rowers and last two coxswains from each squad in battle it out, usually in theoretically matched boats, all hoping to impress the coach who has to pick their final crew. The Trials are an important learning experience for rowers and coxes as well as an intense selection test, held, as they usually are, over the full 4 ¼-mile course. Historically, a proportion of those in the losing boats will still be selected to race in a Blue Boat on the big day itself.

This year, Oxford’s men and women had their Trials on a wet and windy Friday, 7 December (the Cambridge equivalent will be today, Monday, 10 December). As usual, taking notes and pictures at the same time is problematic, so I have used my photographs to illustrate the official reports (italicised in the main text below) that were published on the Boat Race website. The Oxford University Boat Club President, Felix Drinkall, was absent due to injury.

This year, Oxford’s Men chose to name their Trial crews, Reggie and Flea. These are the nicknames of the first, Second Lieutenant Reginald Fletcher, and the last, Lieutenant Colonel William Fletcher DSO, Blues to die in the First World War.

In a closely fought race, both crews were level as they reached the end of the Putney Embankment. It was Flea, racing in white, who had the early advantage around the first bend. However, Reggie, who were warned for their steering, never allowed Flea to move out by more than ⅓ of a length. 

“Reggie” (in blue) and “Flea” (in white) are level at the end of Putney Embankment. As usual, parallax error makes the boat nearest to the camera seem to be further up than it actually is.
Approaching Barn Elms.

Fighting through the wind and rain, the Umpire repeatedly warned both crews for their steering as both boats moved to within inches of each other, close to clashing. As the Hammersmith Bend started to take effect, Reggie took advantage of this and, despite aggressive steering from both coxes, they moved out to half a length. 

In Fulham Reach, having passed the Mile Post.
Approaching Hammersmith Bridge.

Reggie maintained this advantage past St Paul’s School and tried to see off the challenges from Flea as they tried to dominate through the choppy water.

Passing St Paul’s School.

Passing the Chiswick Eyot, Flea began to move back, eating into the lead of Reggie. Spurred on by Cox Anna Carbery, they attacked around the outside of the bend and consequently, at the end of Reggie’s long advantage, the crews were level. Passing the bandstand and entering the final third of the race, it was Flea, who once again had the corner advantage. By this point, the water had calmed down thus allowing the crews to regain composure. As Flea capitalised on this, the crew moved out to a lead of one length as they left the shadows of Barnes Bridge behind. 

Past Chiswick Eyot and in Corney Reach, “Flea” moves ahead.
Passing Mortlake on the approach to Barnes Bridge.
Through Barnes Bridge, “Flea” is in control.

This decisive move from Flea left Reggie trailing and unable to come back into contention. 

Passing the former Mortlake Brewery.
Approaching the finish downstream of Barnes Bridge.

In a closely fought race, where neither crew backed down from the challenge, it was Flea who were victorious by 1 and ⅔ of a length.

The Oxford Women’s Trialists off the start. “Blitzen” (in white) is on the far side, “Comet” (in blue) is nearest to the camera.

With Christmas fast approaching, Oxford’s Women aptly named their two crews Comet and Blitzen. It was Comet, racing in blue, who seized the early advantage, leading Blitzen, in white, by ¾ of a length by the end of the Putney Embankment. This dominant start in the preliminary stages of the race defined what would unfold over the rest of the course. 

At the end of Putney Embankment, “Comet” leads “Blitzen”.

With the first bend round Craven Cottage in favour of Comet, they moved out to a length over Blitzen and had clear water by Fulham Reach. By the time the crews had raced under Hammersmith Bridge, Comet, now out to a two-length lead, could move in front of their opponents and take full control of the river.

Approaching Barn Elms.

At the Mile Post.

Passing Harrods.
Through Hammersmith Bridge.

As both boats rowed past St Paul’s and onto Chiswick Eyot, conditions deteriorated and the bladework of the Dark Blue women was tested. It was clear both of the crews felt the impact of the poor water, but they maintained their strong rhythms passing the bandstand as the water flattened out once more.

Passing St Paul’s School, heading towards Chiswick Eyot.
At Chiswick crossing.

Despite Blitzen’s attempts to stage a comeback, they were not able to reduce Comet’s two-length lead. Comet appeared to stay on top of the conditions better than their club mates, able to see off any challenge from Blitzen. After Barnes Bridge, victory was never in doubt as Comet moved out to three lengths and they held this margin until the finish.

Barnes Bridge.
The former Mortlake Brewery.
At the finish, “Comet” leads “Blitzen” by three lengths.

A recent press release confirmed the umpires for the 2019 Races:

Richard Phelps has been announced as the Umpire for The Women’s Boat Race. He rowed for Cambridge three times from 1993 to 1995, winning all three Races and was Cambridge President for his final Race in 1995. In 2014, Phelps umpired The Men’s Boat Race and was Assistant Umpire in 2004, 2009 and 2011.

Rob Clegg will umpire the 165th Men’s Boat Race. He has previously umpired the Race in 2011, the Isis-Goldie Race in 2015, and The Women’s Boat Race in 2016. Clegg rowed in the 1994, 1995 and 1996 Boat Races for Oxford.

The Umpires. Richard Phelps (left) will take charge of the women’s race, Rob Clegg (right) will do the same for the men. Clegg picture: theboatrace.org

As to the reserves, in the Osiris – Blondie Race, the umpire will be Tony Reynolds, and in the Isis – Goldie Race, Sir Matthew Pinsent will be in charge.

Sir Matt umpires the 2017 men’s race. A Boat Race Umpire plays a crucial role not only on Race Day but also in the weeks and months leading up to the Race.

The 2019 Boat Race will take place on Sunday, 7 April. The Women’s Boat Race will start at 2.15pm and The Men’s Boat Race at 3.15pm.

One comment

  1. Thanks for a great report for those of us not able to follow in person this year, but knowing g how challenging the conditions can be out there!

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