23 March 2020
By Tim Koch & William O’Chee
On Sunday, 15 March, just before all life as we know it was put on indefinite hold, the Oxford and Cambridge lightweight men and women raced over the ‘Championship Course’, 4 1/4 miles from Putney to Mortlake. The Oxbridge lightweight men first raced each other in 1975 over 2000m on the Henley Reach. Nine years later, they were joined by the lightweight women. In 2019, the men moved to the Tideway and this year the women raced ‘P to M’ for the first time. Strangely, the 45th men’s race and the 37th women’s lightweight race turned out to be 2020’s only Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races over the famous course when the open weight contests scheduled for 29 March were cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Tim Koch was in the umpire’s launch for the women’s race while the cox of Oxford’s 1987 Lightweights Men, William O’ Chee, was 10,000 miles away in Australia following the live feed of the men’s race.
2020 Oxford – Cambridge Lightweight Women’s Boat Race – Report by Tim Koch:
The start of the first Oxford – Cambridge Lightweight Women’s Boat Race over the Putney to Mortlake course saw the Thames in a far more benign mood than it has often been of late. However, the coxswains were not so placid and, less than 10 seconds in, the crews started to converge, Cambridge getting the first of many warnings that Umpire Clare Briegal would give to both crews.
With Oxford going off at 42 and Cambridge at 41, the Light Blues took an initial slight lead, naturally hoping to use the 1/3 length advantage given by having the Middlesex Station at the start. However, just past the Town Buoy (aka The Black Buoy) at the end of Putney Embankment, Oxford, with better length and rhythm, drew ahead.
At Barn Elms, the crews converged again, this time the blades overlapping. Cambridge came out worse from this, oversteering and taking the slower water. For the next three minutes, the crews stayed apart with Oxford probably in the better position and reaching the Mile Post in about five minutes.
With the boats still overlapping, Cambridge put in a push just before the Harrod’s downstream buoy. There was a lot of steering from both coxes and the result was a major clash, the Cambridge ‘2’ and Oxford ‘7’ blades making contact several times. Cambridge veered to Middlesex while Oxford kept its course, again coming out best.
Approaching the point before Hammersmith Bridge where the bend would change to Oxford’s favour, Cambridge were only just maintaining overlap. The bridge time was about 8 minutes 20 seconds.
Through Hammersmith Bridge and passing St Paul’s School, there may have been a little clear water between the two. By now, many crews in Cambridge’s position (a length down after several failed pushes and having come out of a couple of clashes worse off) would have given up and limped to the finish in the wake of their opponents. However, approaching the ‘blue window’ half-way point, the Tabs took the rate up and regained overlap. At this point, Old Father Thames decided to see what the crews were really made of and threw a head wind and rough water at them.
While both crews dropped their rate, Cambridge coped with the worsening conditions far better than did Oxford and at Chiswick Eyot they started to claw their way back. At Chiswick Steps, the Light Blues were only half-a-length down, their excited chatter and their ‘eyes out of the boat’ seeming not to disadvantage them.
By Chiswick Pier (15 minutes and 2/3 way in), the boats were level and Cambridge took the lead going into Corney Reach, slowly moving away from a demoralised Oxford and reaching Barnes Bridge in about 19 minutes.
After Barnes, a reinvigorated Cambridge, a crew that would not give up and which pushed like heavyweights, continued to move ahead, finishing downstream of Chiswick Bridge 6 lengths up in a time of about 23 minutes 24 seconds.
While both crews of these sub-59kg women were superbly fit and trained, perhaps the Cambridge victory was due more to minds than bodies. Interview after the race, Florence Alexander, ‘7’ in the Cambridge boat, said:
(Oxford) had a great start but we visualised it, we knew no matter how far ahead they got, we knew we could come back through – and we did.
Stroke, Catherine Walker, also talked of the psychological. When asked about the point where Cambridge took the lead she said:
That’s a visualisation that we’ve done so many times…. So, when our cox (Emily Insanally) told us that were going to row through them, we knew what to do. It’s a testament to the hard work that we have done visualising specifically for this course…
Going from down a length down under Hammersmith to a 6-length victory demonstrates the grit and determination of the lightweight women. We’d like to thank OUWLRC for an exhilarating race which has set up an exciting future for the race on the Tideway.
Both races are available to view on YouTube. Those cynics who hold the view that lightweight rowing, particularly perhaps women’s lightweight rowing, is akin to midget basketball should click on the link now.
2020 Oxford – Cambridge Lightweight Men’s Boat Race – Report by William O’Chee:
The Men’s Lightweight Boat Race was conducted in glorious conditions on the Tideway, which were in complete contrast to the blustery and choppy scenes in the second half of the Women’s Race three-quarters of an hour prior.
Cambridge won the toss and chose the Surrey station, but Oxford, with five returning blues, got slightly the better start, striding at 37 strokes per minute to 36 in the Cambridge boat.
Spectators were left confounded as the two crews went around the Fulham bend. This naturally favours the crew on the Middlesex station, but Oxford’s coxswain, Chloe Tubman, seemed somewhat too enthusiastic in taking the corner, and for some time the two crews were widely separated across the river. While they may not have had the optimal line, Oxford enjoyed a sharp and aggressive stroke which powered them along at 37, and at Craven Cottage were almost a length ahead.
Cambridge’s line benefitted them better as the crews began the draw to Harrod’s Repository (now converted to flats), with Oxford having to move back towards their opponents to get into the fast part of the river. First Cambridge, and then Oxford executed pushes to try to gain an advantage as the crews passed the well-known landmark, but it was still Oxford ahead by approximately three-quarters of a length.
The course at this point favoured Cambridge as the crews began the approach to the long Surrey bend. Oxford, however, threw another push at their opponents, with powerful finishes propelling them to first a length lead, and then clear water, within the space of fifteen or so strokes. Cambridge seemed taken by surprise, and trailed Oxford as the crews shot Hammersmith Bridge, but the tightening bend allowed them to stay in contact.
As the crews emerged from the bridge the umpire warned Oxford, but rather than steering away, the Oxford crew raised the rate to 36, and at St Paul’s boathouse stole clear water from their light blue rivals, who were at this point rating 34.
With Oxford now free to choose their water, Cambridge were forced to row in Oxford’s puddles. Passing Chiswick Eyot, Cambridge made an effort to close the gap and force Oxford out of their water, but this came to nought, and the light blues were still trailing as the crews left the island behind them.
To Cambridge’s credit, their blade work did not falter in spite of the deficit, and they continued to row a long, looping stroke 12 minutes into the race. Oxford, however, looked completely settled as they crossed over towards the Duke’s Meadows with a lead of some two and a half lengths.
Between the Bandstand and Barnes Bridge, Oxford found an additional wellspring of power, with their blades clipping them along powerfully to open a considerable lead over Cambridge. With Barnes Bridge behind them, Oxford rowed away imperiously to win as they pleased in a time of 18 minutes 50 seconds.
After the race the Oxford President, Arthur Arnould, complimented the Cambridge crew. “We knew never to get comfortable. We just had to trust, and right the way through Chloe kept calling us, giving us the distances, and did a fantastic job, and kept us on it and kept us honest as well.”
Sponsors, Interactive Investor, can be pleased with the quality of racing, as well as the strong support the event has received. Both universities have produced exceptional crews, and the lightweight format has produced thrilling races over the last two years on the Tideway.