Dennis Menaces Boat Race Fixtures

Oxford’s Sean Bowden demonstrates that, ultimately, all a coach can do is pick up a crew’s boots and walk away while hoping that all the training comes together when it matters most.

28 February 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch finds challenging conditions on the Thames Tideway.

The Pre-Boat Race Fixtures, when top British and foreign crews race potential Oxford and Cambridge Blue and reserve crews over the Putney to Mortlake course, are key dates in the Boat Race training period. They are both a selection test and a provider of important race practice. The Fixtures provide the valuable experience of competing against top-class opposition and they also give opportunities for the rowers to simulate race day as much as possible and allow coaches to see how their charges react under pressure. Further, coxes and crews get to know the Championship Course better by practising routines, racing the Surrey and Middlesex stations and being officially umpired.

When Sarah Winckless takes charge of the 166th Boat Race on 29 March, it will be the first time that a woman has umpired this event.

British readers will not need telling that, in the last few weeks, Storm Ciara followed by Storm Dennis have caused havoc throughout the country. Storm Dennis is one of the deepest low-pressure centres to have formed in recent years. Ciara brought the stronger winds while Dennis produced more rain –  though rivers were already full and the ground saturated before Dennis’s arrival. As far as rowing is concerned, many events have been cancelled and, with the men’s and women’s Eights Heads only a short time away, much training has been disrupted. While London and the South have not been the worst affected, the Port of London Authority has, at times, put the tidal Thames on a ‘red flag’ status for ‘small recreational vessels’ advising them not to go afloat, particularly on an ebb tide. Historically, this has been rare for the Tideway.

Ross Rowing Club, sited on the English side near to the border with Wales, Tweeted this picture on 23 February with the message: ‘We are in trouble. Boats damaged, no clubhouse for months and no income stream to stay afloat’. Picture: @rossrowing

Ciara caused the cancellation of the first of the Fixtures planned for 2020, that between the Oxford men’s reserves, Isis, and the University of London on 9 February. The races between the Cambridge women and the Dutch student club, Nerus, on 16 February went ahead after careful consideration of the conditions (which eventually turned out to be rather mild).

Nerus and CUWBC at Hammersmith Bridge. Picture: theboatrace.org

The plan was to do three pieces in total: the start to mile post, Harrods to Chiswick Eyot and finally Chiswick Pier to the Finish. I was not there but the official race report said:

Cambridge received several warnings during the early stages of the first piece but had taken a ¼ length lead by the Town Buoy (aka The Black Buoy). Shortly after (this), both crews seemed to be impacted by a cross wind pushing them over to the Middlesex side of the river. Cambridge extended their lead to ¾ length by Fulham Football Club and then continued to row away, reaching clear water and a lead of 2 lengths by the end of the first piece. 

The crews paddled to Harrods Depository where the second piece began with a rolling start. Cambridge received several warnings to hold their station and not to turn in too early, as they tried to minimise Nereus’s advantage on the long Hammersmith bend. Despite the long advantage, Nereus only very briefly had their bow in front, with Cambridge holding on to them all of the way. As the advantage began to run out, Cambridge made their move and eked out a ½ length lead by the top of Chiswick Eyot where the second piece finished. 

Unfortunately, an injury flaring up in the Nereus crew meant that they withdrew from the third and final piece. Cambridge raced the piece against the clock from Chiswick Pier to The Boat Race finish under the watchful eye of Umpire Phelps who kept them on course with warnings where necessary.

The Cambridge crew is listed here.

Before the men of Brookes and OUBC raced on 22 February, the Brookes’ bowman, Jamie Axon, revealed his Taurus tattoo, showing perhaps that his allegiance to OBUBC is more than skin deep.

On 22 February, I was in the stern of the umpire’s launch following the fixture between the Brookes and Oxford men’s first boats. The advantage of photographing from such a position is that it is easier to judge which boat is in the lead as there are none of the problems of ‘parallax error’ that occur when taking pictures of two boats from one side. The disadvantage is that the umpire may sometimes unavoidably block the view of those seated behind them, especially when the racing crews are close together and are almost dead ahead of the launch. As usual, I cannot photograph and take notes at the same time so the italicised bold text below is taken from the official race report on theboatrace.org

The first Brookes – Oxford piece.

Oxford Brookes won the coin toss (and) elected to take the Middlesex station for the first of two pieces, both scheduled to take place between the Start and St Paul’s School Boat Club, utilising a limited section of the Championship Course due to the high winds and resulting challenging conditions beyond Hammersmith Bridge.

Umpire Winckless starts the first piece. The Middlesex station (right here) has an advantage of about two-thirds of a length until the Mile Post. After this, the bends favour Surrey but perhaps not enough to fully level things out for the next 3/4 mile to St Paul’s.

Ten strokes into the first piece, the boats were level; however, Brookes then encountered some rough water as the crews became exposed to the wind. This allowed OUBC to pull out to a ¾ of a length lead over Brookes by the Town Buoy. However, a big effort from Brookes allowed them to get back almost level with OUBC before opening out to ¼ of a length by Barn Elms, albeit due to the Fulham corner being to their favour.

Approaching the Town Buoy, Oxford lead.
Brookes in action.
At the mile Post with Brookes in front.

To the milepost, this ¼ of a length margin was constant, however Umpire Sarah Winckless warned OUBC repeatedly for their line, although no incident ensued.

Oxford at the Mile Post.
A warning for both crews in Fulham Reach.

By Harrods, OUBC had managed to draw level, which put Brookes under pressure from Umpire Winckless, and although there was no significant contact, if any, this was the closest these two crews came in this piece.

At Harrods, the crews get close and Oxford draws level.

Just before Hammersmith Bridge, OUBC put in a push, and this was just as their advantage, due to the shelter of the Surrey station, allowed them to pull out to a 6-seat lead by Hammersmith Bridge.

Approaching Hammersmith Bridge, Oxford pull away from Brookes who are not coping as well with the rough water.

Between Hammersmith and St Paul’s, OUBC pulled out to a 1.25 length lead to seal the victory in the first piece, marking the first time Brookes have been defeated on British Water in 3 years. It appeared that Brookes struggled in the rough water, and the early push they put in meant they had no card to play after OUBC’s trump move.

Through Hammersmith Bridge and approaching the finish at St Paul’s, Oxford lead by over a length producing a rare defeat for Brookes.

The second Brookes – Oxford piece.

Approaching the start point of the second piece, Brookes finds the conditions worsening….
As does Oxford.

Between the finish of the first piece and the start of the second, the wind had picked up considerably, which moved the start to in front of London Rowing Club, where the boats would be considerably more sheltered….

The boats having switched stations after the first piece, umpire Winckless sets them off. The Surrey station (on the left here) had more shelter.

With the crews switching stations, it was all at stake. Again, the crews were level off the start, with Brookes sneaking a canvas lead by the Town Buoy.

Oxford hoping to repeat the last result.
Brookes slightly in front at the Town Buoy.

By Barn Elms, Brookes had managed to increase this lead to about 3 seats, but with incredibly choppy water…. OUBC (moved) back around Fulham. To maximise (his advantage there was) some aggressive steering from OUBC cox, Perry, attracting warnings from Umpire Winckless.

Passing Barn Elms.
Oxford’s ‘2’ and ‘3’ sneak a look at the opposition.

Just before the Mile Post, OUBC were warned, then as the crews pulled level, both crews were warned. Neither crew reacted with enough vigour which resulted in a clash of blades but with no major repercussions. 

A clash just before the Mile Post.

Post clash, Brookes carried forward their momentum, and continued to move on OUBC, advancing this lead to half a length by Harrods. The conditions by this point had become significantly more challenging than during the first piece with a big wave knocking OUBC back at Harrods before a subsequent wave swamped the boat. The Surrey station (had) a clear advantage, which allowed Brookes to pull out to clear water by Hammersmith, which prompted OUBC to move over and gain shelter from the Surrey station. 

Rough conditions at Hammersmith but Brookes take advantage of better shelter and an Oxford swamping to pull ahead.
Brookes through Hammersmith Bridge.

By St Paul’s, Brookes had two lengths of clear water winning the second piece.

A few strokes from the end, the two boats are in line as Brookes continues to move away from Oxford.

Commenting on the fixture, Sean Bowden, OUBC Head Coach said: ‘In tough conditions I was pleased that we put together some sections of competitive rowing against a very good Brookes crew. Mistakes by both boats at different times were costly but contributed to some intense racing with plenty of cut and thrust. The conditions in the second piece were awful and with a swamped boat we were not able to hold on to a fast moving Brookes who no doubt had problems of their own in the big rolling waves that crashed over the bows on a number of occasions.’

Both crews are listed here.

The Brookes 2nd Eight raced Isis. In this first piece, the Boys in Burgundy won.
In this, the second race between the second boats, the Dark Blues were victorious.
Shortly after the finish of the final Brookes – Oxford race, this Sons of the Thames crew was spotted just upstream of Hammersmith Bridge, apparently not dealing with the conditions as well as the two Oxanian boats had just done.
Sons under the Thames. The umpire’s launch stayed with Sons and their coach until the crew were safely ashore.

The day after the Brookes men took on Oxford, the women raced CUWBC. Again, the report comes from theboatrace.org.

The Cambridge Women’s Blue Boat in training. Picture: @CUWBC

The first piece took place from the Boat Race finish to Chiswick Steps, which represented excellent preparation for both crews ahead of the upcoming Women’s Head of the River on 7th March…. 

(Brookes) made the most of the advantage from the Middlesex bend and took an early one length lead in the first few minutes. Both crews were warned coming into Barnes Bridge, after which the Brookes crew pushed on to take clear water over the Light Blues. By the bandstand there was significant wash from passing river traffic, which created challenging conditions for both crews. However, Brookes’ rhythm proved resilient and the crew from Oxford continued to press ahead. The final verdict at Chiswick steps was 4 lengths to Brookes.

In the second piece, Brookes once again took an early lead on Middlesex and by the end of the Eyot had a one length advantage, which stretched to two lengths by St Paul’s. Despite having the benefit of the Surrey bend, CUWBC continued to succumb to the Brookes charge which resulted in a three length lead by Harrods wall. This stretched out to a decisive five-length victory to Brookes by the Town Buoy (aka The Black Buoy).

The Brookes women’s 2nd VIII beat the Cambridge women’s reserves, Blondie, but their 3rd VIII lost to the CUWBC Lightweights.

Weather and river conditions allowing, the remaining fixtures for 2020 are:

1 March – Goldie v Brookes and CUBC v Brookes
8 March – OUWBC v Nerus
15 March – OUWBC v University of London

The Brookes – Cambridge fixture on 1 March will allow comparisons between it and the Brookes – Oxford races. Similarly, the OUWBC – Nerus fixture on the 8 March will be held up against how CUWBC performed against the Dutch students.

On 13 February there was another private fixture on the Tideway, albeit a non-Oxbridge one. Eton College raced Westminster School in the second year of an intended annual contest that has been rowed sporadically in the past. Famously, the two schools first raced each other in 1829.

I do not have a picture of the 2020 race, but here is Eton Beating Westminster at Staines on 12 May 1836. Eton won this year’s contest – as they tend to do when they meet the boys in pink. Westminster won in 1845 but they had the advantage of using the first out-rigger eight.

In the late 18th century, schoolboys from Eton and Westminster were almost certainly among the first ‘gentlemen’ who rowed for pleasure and sport, using the boats and skills of the working men whose trade was to row goods and people on the river. Perhaps this is proof that teenagers do not always lack good ideas.

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