No Humbug: The Spirit of The Boat Race Yet to Come

2020 has been a year that has seen more than its fair share of ‘humbug’, but in 2021 the organisers of the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races hope to give us all a lovely fat goose in the form of races held at Ely. At the top is the view from Sandhill Bridge at Littleport, the start of the 166th Men’s and 75th Women’s Boat Race, while the picture below it shows the finish point, 5k away at the Queen Adelaide Road Bridge, Ely.

26 December 2020

By Tim Koch

Tiny Tim says ‘God bless the Boat Race Company, one and all’.

A Christmas Carol begins with the famous line, ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’. Had Charles Dickens lived to the age of 208, he may have also written that, ‘The 2021 Boat Race was dead: to begin with’. The pandemic threatened an event that, in the case of the men, before 2020 had only been stopped by the two World Wars and the cholera outbreak of 1830 (the problems with Hammersmith Bridge were surmountable and I hold that, on their own, they would not have driven the race off the Tideway).

The overriding concern was not so much the safety of the competitors, which was controllable, but the fact that the event would inevitably attract crowds of spectators, something unacceptable in the present situation. The spirit of the event is to race over a long distance on a ‘living river’, but most courses that are suitable for this cannot reasonably be ‘shut off’ from gathering crowds – apart from Ely.

In 1883, “Punch” magazine’s view was that Oxford and Cambridge had lost control of their boat race and that it should be made a ‘private party’ only for members of the two universities with ‘hoi polloi’ excluded. The 2021 Boat Race will have a metaphorical or literal fence around it, but for reasons of safety, not snobbery.

Although Ely was the only choice, the Boat Race Company has just released a wonderfully illustrated and well-written free 198-page online magazine showing that it is making the move to the Fens a positive and exciting thing. As its high production values show, the publication was produced by The Boat Race Company’s Media Partner, Row 360 magazine. It says that it is ‘a first edition’ so we should be able to look forward to more issues as the race day, 4 April, approaches.

A view of the articles featured in the 2021 Boat Race e-magazine. The remaining pages are taken up with comprehensive biographies of the members of the men’s and women’s dark and light blue squads.

An example of looking at the positives comes from CUBC Chief Coach, Rob Baker, interviewed by Tom Ransley for his article “Back in Blue”. Ranslay says that Baker was initially unsure of the Ely proposition but has now come around to the idea:

The stark contrast between our normal Putney to Mortlake race and Ely will be interesting. The Fens landscape is so flat that when the BBC get their aerial footage it will look really cool. Whenever we have photographers visit, they get incredible shots. The high sided riverbanks will give drama to the television coverage because the crews will be racing down a bit of a tunnel. It will be intense, like a long drag race… As a contrast for one year, I think it is going to be beautiful and, if the crews are evenly matched, it will be an incredible spectacle. 

Ransley got a competitor’s view from OUWBC’s Katherine Maitland:

Like a lot of returners, I’m… even hungrier for a Boat Race win after not being able to race last year…  

In the article “The Season So Far: An update from the Presidents”OUWBC President, Kaitlyn Dennis said:

During these times, I’ve become closer to my teammates than I would in normal years. It’s been really rewarding. I would recommend in future that squads get to know each other at that level, not least because it will translate to speed on the water.

The Cambridge women training at Ely in October. Picture: @CUBCsquad.

CUWBC 2020 President, Larkin Sayre, reflected on the cancelation of the 2020 races and on her ‘Boat Race that never was’ in the piece, “No Regrets”:

A lot of people ask if we could have done the race in secret, to avoid the crowds, at least to have a result, but ultimately it wouldn’t have been right. The profile this race has means that it would always attract a crowd, however much we keep it under wraps. We wouldn’t want to risk the health of anybody. With so many events being cancelled, it would have been reckless to stubbornly carry on regardless. We are content in the fact that there is no other way it could have really gone.

The Daily Telegraph rowing correspondent Rachel Quarrell goes further into the complex mechanics of postponing or moving or cancelling the event in “Boat Race In Extremis: Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off”. She notes that:

…with the weight of history on their shoulders, the clubs and their athletes want any contest to reflect what they trained for.

Matt Holland is the only cox to win both the men’s and women’s Boat Races on the Tideway. In “A Change of Scene”, he muses on the new course. On the question of whether a race at Ely is a ‘real’ Boat Race or not, he says:

(It) is the historic rivalry… and the extraordinary determination of the crews… that makes the Boat Race special… (It has) had several different locations… yet each of these is recognised as a true varsity race, so there is no question that the 2021 Boat Races will be remembered as true equals to their Tideway predecessors. 

The four official Boat Race courses: Henley’s lock to bridge, Westminster to Putney, the Tideway Championship Course and Ely’s Adelaide Course.

As to the course, Holland writes that it is:

… certainly less exciting than in London (but) it does present its own unique challenges. The crews will be racing far closer to the banks with reed beds and moored vessels to contend with. Side-by-side at full pelt, a lapse of concentration from a cox could see a blade clip a reed, with potentially disastrous consequences… Coxes and coaches will have to make judgements… as to the best play off  between the potential wind shelter of the bank and the benefit of sitting in the faster water… Much like in London, the possibility for the elements to wreak havoc remains a very real one.

Holland interviewed OUBC cox, Oliver Perry, who thinks that 2021 could be one of the most exciting races in recent history:

When you take out the differences caused by the bends, this is going to become a very tactical race, I think it’s going to be very hard for any crew to break clear… (The) extreme distance that the crews are racing next to each other will make this an exceptional test of mental toughness.

In “A Word From The Coaches”, OUWBC Coach, Andy Nelder, believes that:

The race won’t be fatally wounded by not being in London. The world has changed a lot recently. We should be grateful for being able to do it at all. 

Last word comes from Tom Ransley’s “Back in Blue” where CUBC President Callum Sullivan gets the HTBS nod of approval for looking to the past to learn about the future:

The Boat Race is one of those weird races that have many twists and turns, like the swimming protester in 2012, Wayne Pommen’s broken wrist in 2003, or the Oxford mutiny in 1987, so this is another twist and another chapter in Boat Race history.

Click here to view Issue 1 of the 2021 Boat Race e-magazine.

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