Tabs On Trial

The women’s race umpire, Richard Phelps, waits for the crews to get onto the start.

12 December 2018

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch witnesses trials and errors.

As reported on HTBS, on 7 December, the last 18 contenders from the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club raced each other in two eights over the full Putney to Mortlake course. Shortly afterwards, Oxford’s men did the same. Three days later, it was the turn of the Cambridge hopefuls. To quote myself from last year:

Side-by-side, one-on-one racing for 4 1/4 miles on the Thames Tideway in December can be a very testing experience – and it is exactly for this reason that the ‘Trial Eights’ are usually held at this time. While the contenders for the Blue Boats are thoroughly tested in the gym, on the ergo, and on the water at Ely for Cambridge and at Wallingford for Oxford, it is only on the Thames Tideway itself that the coaches can see what their rowers and coxswains are really made of, how they cope with nerves and mistakes, and how they react to whatever the famous and unpredictable ‘Championship Course’ throws at them. Old Father Thames may have been playing host to rowing crews for hundreds of years – but he can still take them by surprise.

A map for those unfamiliar with the Putney – Mortlake ‘Championship Course’. It is most famously used by the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race, but it is also the course for the main head of the river races (though usually in the opposite direction).

The Cambridge women named their crews after Marie Curie and Bertha von Suttner. Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, the first woman to win any Nobel Prize. Two years later, Suttner became the first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The official race report is reproduced below, illustrated by my photographs.

Suttner won the toss and chose the Surrey station. Curie took the early lead which they held on to until the approach to Hammersmith Bridge where Suttner put in a big push to draw level to take advantage of the Surrey bend. 

Shortly off the start, along the Putney Embankment. Curie (yellow boat) leads Suttner (white boat). As with all such pictures, taken from the side and slightly back, the parallax error gives an apparent advantage to the crew closest to the camera.
At Barn Elms.
Passing Harrods.
Suttner close the gap at Hammersmith.

As the raced past St Paul’s the crews were virtually level and there was a period of very tight racing with both crews keeping Umpire Richard Phelps busy with warnings and instructions for both crews to move apart.

Between St Paul’s and Chiswick Eyot.

The crews were still level at Chiswick Eyot, but unfortunately, a blade clash half way along the Eyot caused Suttner’s bow, Sally O’Brien, to lose her blade and come off her seat. Curie took advantage of the clash and rowed away. After consulting with the coaches, Umpire Phelps stopped the race and, after checking that both the rowers and the equipment were OK, the race was restarted just before Chiswick Pier.

The unlucky O’Brien desperately attempts to regain control of her blade after coming off worst in a clash with Curie.
The race stopped, O’Brien’s broken backstay is clear.

The race stayed close, but with the crews keeping well apart and with Curie leading by a ¼ length at Barnes Bridge. 

Shortly after the race was restarted.
Barnes Bridge.
Passing Mortlake Brewery.

Curie then took advantage of the Middlesex bend and rowed away from Suttner to open up clear water and cross the line first. 

At the finish.

Catriona Bourne, the cox of Suttner raised her hand at the end of the race to raise a protest, but Phelps declared the result would stand.

Umpire Phelps (right of picture) in discussion with the new CUWBC Coach, Robert Weber, (left of picture) before he ruled that Curie’s winning result should stand.

As to the men, CUBC commemorated two Blues killed in the First World War, Lieutenant Colonel Roger Kerrison and Lieutenant Lancelot Ridley, by naming their Trial Eight crews “Roger” and “Lancelot”. Kerrison rowed in the 1893 and 1894 Boat Races and Ridley coxed both the 1913 and 1914 CUBC crews.

Off the start. Lancelot (white tops) in the foreground, Roger (black tops) in the background.

I feel that the official report should have given a little more credit to Roger’s early efforts, but I nonetheless reproduce it below, together with my pictures.

The CUBC Trial Eights saw testing conditions at the start of the race. Roger won the coin toss and chose Middlesex. Roger took the early lead but, after warnings from the Umpire Rob Clegg, had to use the rudder to change course. Lancelot took advantage of the situation and got in front, setting the racing line. The crews came very close with overlap between the blades, narrowly avoiding a clash.

Less than half-a-minute into the race – held in ‘testing conditions’.
Passing Barn Elms, Lancelot is in front. Parallax error makes it appear that Roger is leading.
At the Mile Post, Lancelot still leads, the boats often in danger of clashing.
By Harrods.

By the time the crews reached Hammersmith Bridge, Lancelot had established a lead of over a length.

Opposite St Paul’s School.

As they passed Chiswick Eyot, Lancelot continued in a steady rhythm and gradually extended its lead.

Passing Chiswick Eyot, approaching Chiswick Steps.
Barnes Bridge.
At Mortlake.

Lancelot dominated the remainder of the race, crossing the finish line several lengths ahead of Roger.

The finish.
Roger’s crew demonstrates that losing hurts.
Lancelot’s stroke, Reggie Mitchell, shows that winning is painless.

Boat Race Day 2019 is on Sunday, 7 April. The 74 Women’s Boat Race will start at 2.15pm and the 165th Men’s Boat Race at 3.15pm.

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