The Day That Never Was

Sadly, there will be no River Gods racing today – unlike Boat Race Day 1926 when this cartoon of an apparently very camp Cambridge crew was published.

29 March 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch marks a Boat Race Day that is historic for the wrong reasons.

Today, 29 March 2020, the Putney to Mortlake course on the River Thames should have seen the 75th Women’s Boat Race and the 166th Men’s Boat Race. The latter began in 1829 and has been held annually (apart from the two World Wars) since 1856.

Rowing historian Chris Dodd tells me that the two Boat Races of 1849, and the races of 1854 and 1866 all took place during cholera outbreaks in London. Further, I think that the Spanish Flu pandemic that started in 1918 was still active during the 1920 race. Chris and I are not suggesting that the decision to cancel Boat Race Day was wrong, it is simply an observation that, in the past, people were far more fatalistic about such things than they are today; in modern times, we expect to be able to prevent or cure any ill.

The 1866 Boat Race passes the Crabtree pub, cheered on by the usual crowds. In London in that year, a cholera epidemic claimed 5,600 lives. Epidemics or not, at the time UK male life expectancy was about 41.

While accepting that there are currently a lot worse things happening to a lot more people, today HTBS Types may wish to give a brief thought to all those who worked hard and sacrificed much in an attempt to compete on Boat Race Day 2020.

The workload for those aspiring to be in a Blue Boat is traditionally visualised as an hour’s training for each of the 600 strokes in the race. The mantra is row, eat, sleep, repeat. The race’s official website says:

The squads will train two or three times a day, usually with a morning session in the gym on rowing machines or using weights, followed after a day at college by an afternoon or evening session on the water.

These days, cruising towards a so-called ‘oarsman’s third’ degree is not tolerated, and training time cannot be taken out of academic commitments:

Contrary to sometimes-quoted belief, neither university allows trialling rowers to forsake the academic commitments of their course. This makes training especially tough for those with a heavy lecture schedule and spare time is always at a premium. This applies particularly for those rowers whose courses include a lot of laboratory sessions such as research scientists or undergraduate engineers.

Thus, training must be done in social time, sacrificing much of an important part of the university experience.

Even during the 1930s, when the demands of both rowing coaches and academic tutors were far less than they are today, Oxford oarsman Richard Hillary noted the cost of training for a rowing Blue:

I felt the need sometimes to eat, drink, and think something else than rowing. I had a number of intelligent and witty friends; but a permanent oarsman’s residence at either Putney or Henley gave me small opportunity to enjoy their company. Further, the more my training helped my mechanical perfection as an oarsman, the more it deadened my mind to an appreciation of anything but red meat and a comfortable bed…

Some of this year’s Cambridge squad on ergos at the Goldie Boathouse. Picture: theboatrace.org

The race’s official website names those who were in the 2020 Boat Race squads: the Oxford men and women, and the Cambridge men and women. From these squads, it is those who were picked for the February and March fixtures against other top crews that probably would have been given a place in a Blue Boat on 29 March.

The OUBC crew that raced Brookes.

On 22 February, the Oxford men had a fixture against Oxford Brookes University. The Dark Blues boated:

Bow. Achim Harzheim
2. Hal Frigaard
3. Caspar Jopling
4. Augustin Wambersie
5. Tobias Schroder
6. Jean-Philipe Dufour
7. Charlie Buchanan
Stroke. Felix Drinkall
Cox. Olly Perry

The OUWBC crew on the day that they raced Nereus.

The Oxford women raced Nereus on 8 March and the University of London on 15 March. The Oxford crew for both was:

Bow. Renée Koolschjin
2. Kaitlyn Dennis
3. Isobel Dodds
4. Georgina Grant
5. Martha Birtles
6. Amelia Standing
7. Tina Christmann
Stroke. Katherine Maitland
Cox. Costi Levi

The Cambridge men’s crew that took on Brookes.

On 1 March, it was CUBC v Oxford Brookes. The Light Blues were:

Bow. Andrew Goff
2. Phil Horton
3. Ben Freeman
4. Jonty Page
5. Callum Sullivan
6. Arthur Doyle
7. James Bernard
Stroke. Freddie Davidson
Cox. Charlie Marcus

This picture of the Cambridge women was put on Twitter on 16 March, it is not the same crew that raced Nereus on 16 February.

Against Nereus, CUWBC put out:

Bow. Patricia Smith
2. Rebecca Dell
3. Bronya Sykes
4. Sophie Paine
5. Anouschka Fenley
6. Caoimhe Dempsey
7. Abba Parker
Stroke. Larkin Sayre
Cox. Dylan Whitaker

Joining the winners’ circle – Osiris 2015.

The question that will remain unanswered is, of course, who would have won? The results of the pre-Boat Race fixture races should provide the best indicators. Both men’s crews raced Oxford Brookes University while both women’s crews raced the Dutch students, Nereus.

The two Brookes – OUBC races on 22 February were run from the start (or near to it) to St Paul’s School in ‘challenging conditions’ that greatly favoured the Surrey station. Thus, Oxford on Surrey won the first piece by 1 1/4 lengths, Brookes on Surrey won the second piece by 2 lengths.

The two Brookes – CUBC races on 1 March over the first and second halves of the full course were a fairer test of abilities. Brookes won both but it would be reasonable to judge Cambridge by their best race, the second one, which they lost by 1/4 length. Brookes would probably be the victor in a fair race against either Blue Boat but both Oxford and Cambridge would quite possibly still be overlapping the boys in burgundy at the finish. It could be concluded from all this that the two Oxbridge men’s crews were fairly evenly matched.

As to the women, on 8 March OUWBC raced Nereus in three pieces. The final race had a confused, unfair start and the crews finished close but the first contest (three minutes from Chiswick Steps) was won by Oxford by 1 length and the second (Chiswick Steps to the Mile Post) was also won by the Dark Blues, this time by 1/4 length.

Three weeks earlier, on 16 February, the Cambridge women had also beaten the Dutch students, by 2 lengths from the start to the Mile Post and by 1/2 length from Harrods to Chiswick Eyot. Again, the conclusion seems to be that the race on 29 March would have been a close one with no obvious favourite.

Perhaps we should declare that they are all winners.

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