UK Rowing Stops

Not this year.

London, 21.45, 16 March

By Tim Koch

Readers may feel that the world is currently going to hell in a handcart. Or, it would be if all the handcarts have not been bought up in a frenzy of panic buying. Hell, on the other hand, is prospering. The so-called ‘first world’ is not used to situations that it cannot control or at least ignore – though people from places such as Syria or Yemen would probably swap life with coronavirus for what they have now.

It is no doubt crass to write about the effect that the worldwide virus is having on rowing; the situation is rather more serious than the fact that some long, thin boats with outmoded propulsion systems are prevented from proving they are a bit faster than another such craft. However, it is difficult for anyone who regularly logs onto Hear The Boat Sing – and also the wider ‘rowing family’ – not to be effected by the fact that at 17.15 GMT today, 16 March, the Boat Race Company tweeted that it was cancelling the 2020 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races due to be held on 29 March. Earlier in the day, the Prime Minister, in the first of a series of daily briefings, said that everyone should avoid gatherings and crowded places.

First run in 1829 and continuously held – barring two world wars – since 1839, 2020 was to be the 166th Men’s Race and the 75th Women’s Race. The symbolism of the cancellation is important as the Boat Race is a British national institution followed by millions of people with no allegiance to rowing or to Oxford or Cambridge, the first such UK event to fall victim to coronavirus.

Not long after the Boat Race Company’s announcement, the Head of the River Race stated that the 82nd edition of the race for eights over the Mortlake to Putney course that was established in 1926 would not take place. The Schools Head of the River, due to be held on 18 March, has inevitably followed suit.

Andy Parkinson, CEO of British Rowing put out a statement on the BR Website at 17.00. Notably it says:

We have reviewed all British Rowing-run events until 30 April and taken the decision that none will go ahead as planned.  Some events will be postponed, some will be cancelled and, for some, we will seek alternative arrangements to minimise risk.…

At this time, the Olympics and Paralympics are going ahead as planned… We want to ensure the GB Rowing Team goes into the Games in the best possible shape and so we have put in place a number of protocols to manage the risk around the Team’s activities and coronavirus….

We’ve considered all the information available to us in order to make the decisions above. The factors that apply to our affiliated clubs and events may differ and, for that reason, it may still be possible for them to safely deliver rowing activities. All decisions should be made based on current information and guidance from the Government and Public Health England and applied appropriately to your specific situation. We don’t know the scenario at each and every club so it’s impossible for us to provide specific advice.

Despite the last paragraph, my club, Auriol Kensington based in Hammersmith, West London, has reacted in a way that will probably be typical. Its Welfare Officer has stated:

Squad rowing is now suspended for all crews through Wednesday, April 1. On this date we will reassess our plans going forward.

Henley Royal Regatta is 15 weeks away, due to start at the time presently predicted to be when the virus peaks in the UK. There is nothing on the HRR website or social media at the moment, but it seems unlikely that Henley 2020 will take place.

Henley’s River and Rowing Museum has just announced:

Following careful consideration of the current course of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Museum Trustees have decided that the River and Rowing Museum will be temporarily closed to visitors as of 5pm Monday, 16 March. The Museum will then remain closed until further notice. We are not aware of any imminent health risk to staff, volunteers or visitors.

On 29 March, the day intended for the 166th Boat Race, Putney could look very much like it does in this picture.

Returning to the Boat Race, I have a suggestion. During the Second World War, four unofficial Boat Races were held. These were at Henley, Sandford-on-Thames and Ely. Could the 2020 Boat Races be held somewhere ‘behind closed doors’ without spectators? Possibly at the 2012 Olympic course at Dorney or at the GB Squad’s training lake at Caversham or at Ely where Cambridge train? Excluding the wartime contests, the Boat Race has been run over three different courses since 1829, adding one more would not be out of place. It would not be over the 4 1/4 miles that we are accustomed to and for which the crews have sacrificed so much to be ready for, but ultimately history will only be interested in who passed the finish post first.

Finally, it is strange but true to report that 2020 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races over the Putney to Mortlake course have already taken place. On 15th March, the lightweight men and the lightweight women from the two ancient universities raced over the famous distance, the second time that the men had gone ‘P to M’, but the first time for the women; previously, lightweights had raced over the Henley reach. The result was two very good races and the victors were the Oxford men and the Cambridge women.

The Lightweight Women approaching Chiswick Steps, before Cambridge took the lead, going onto win by 6 lengths.
The Lightweight Men in Fulham Reach, Oxford won by 3 1/2 lengths.

HTBS intended to post rapidly and in detail on the lightweight races and this will still happen but our enthusiasm for producing such a report is now dampened. Indeed, I am not sure what form HTBS postings will take over the next few months. We are in unknown territory, but we will find a way of sticking to our mission statement – the aim of which seems particularly important at present:

This website covers all aspects of the rich history of rowing, as a sport, culture phenomena, a life style, and a necessary element to keep your wit and stay sane.

Keep your wit and stay sane everyone.


  1. This means the only rowing Blues to be handed out at Oxford this year will be to the Men’s and Women’s Lightweights. Very sad for OUBC, OUWBC, CUBC and CUWBC>

  2. Rowing historian, Chris Dodd, informs me that the Boat Race was annual from 1856, not 1839 as I originally stated. While not suggesting that the decision to cancel the Boat Race was wrong, he also tells me that the two Boat Races of 1849, and the races of 1854 and 1866 all took place during cholera outbreaks in London. I imagine that tuberculosis, scarlet fever, polio et al all did the rounds as well. In past and very different times, attitudes to potential death and disease were more stoical.

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