Ouse-ing with Talent: The 2021 Boat Race Trials

Welcome to Ely – twinned with Siberia. In this picture posted on @CUBCSquad on 18 December, the Cambridge boat stroked by Oliver Parish puts in time on the Ouse before their trial race against the Cambridge boat stroked by Drew Taylor on 19 December.

29 December 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on an important milestone on the journey to Boat Race Day.

Before the world was turned upside down, a pre-Christmas treat for me would be to follow the Boat Race Trials over the Putney to Mortlake course. This year, of course, things were different, and the trials were held on the River Great Ouse at Ely and spectators were actively discouraged.

The Trial Eights are not contests of Light Blue v Dark Blue, they are men’s and women’s intra-university races, Oxford v Oxford and Cambridge v Cambridge, where the last 16 rowers and last two coxswains from each squad in battle it out, usually in theoretically matched boats, all 72 hoping to impress the coach who has to pick their final crew.

The splendid online Boat Race magazine, which I wrote about on 26 December, reported on this year’s trials on pages 54 – 73. It noted that:

The event was carefully managed to ensure the utmost Covid-security. In order to discourage crowds, there was no pre-race social media or marketing. A handful of locals and the odd bubbled buddy did dot the riverbank and could be heard cheering the crews but, on the whole, it was the thumping rhythm of battling eights that punctuated an otherwise serene Fenland landscape.

Between Cambridge racing on 19 December and Oxford on 21 December, a deep clean of the boathouse was carried out. It was Oxford’s first time on the course.

In my piece, I said that the course start was Sandhill Bridge, Littleport, and that the finish was Queen Adelaide Road Bridge, Ely. I now understand that the race will in fact be run the other way, Ely to Littleport.

The front page of the 2021 Boat Race magazine’s report on the December trials. Pictures: Benedict Tufnell.

Oxford Men: The boat stroked by Augustin Wambersie and coxed by Jack Tottern beat the boat stroked by Jean-Philippe Dufour and coxed by Oliver Perry by 2 lengths.

Oxford Women: The boat stroked by Amelia Standing and coxed by Costi Levy beat the boat stroked by Katherine Maitland and coxed by Joe Gellett by 3 lengths.

Cambridge Men: The boat stroked by Oliver Parish and coxed by Charlie Marcus beat the boat stroked by Drew Taylor and coxed by Oliver Boyne by 1/2 a length.

Cambridge Women: The boat stroked by Sarah Portsmouth and coxed by Angela Harper beat the boat stroked by Sarah Tisdall and coxed by Dylan Whittaker by 2 lengths.

The Cambridge Men’s trial. Stroke Parish’s winning crew is nearest to the camera. Picture: The Boat Race/Facebook
The Cambridge Women’s trial. Stroke Portsmouth’s winning crew is on the left. Picture: The Boat Race/Facebook

Published times would have been interesting as they would be more comparable taken on the Ouse than on the tidal Thames (though the weather conditions were very different on Oxford’s trial day compared to Cambridge’s trial day). It is difficult to draw any conclusions from this scant information though it could be argued that a close result indicates strength in depth – good news for the Cambridge men perhaps.

Although pictures from the Ely trials of 2021 are hard to come by (particularly of Oxford), photographs taken around 100 years ago are not. As the scene has not changed very much, I will post some of these historic images. Click to enlarge.

Cambridge in practice at Ely in 1905.

The coach pictured above, FJ Escombe, is today little-known but he is one of the Boat Race’s most successful and long-serving finishing coaches. A quiet man, he was overshadowed by his more high-profile colleague, Peter Haig Thomas. Francis Escombe was a 1902 Cambridge winning Blue and a multiple Henley winner. He coached the Light Blues 15 times, 1904 – 1909, 1924 – 1930 and 1933 – 1934. After a dispute over rowing styles and equipment, he went over to Oxford in 1935 and only stopped coaching in 1936 when his health failed. Just three of the 16 Boat Race crews that Escombe coached in his career lost. The Times said that he ‘obtained excellent results by subtle methods, without apparently going too deeply into minute details of correct action’.

The 1907 Cambridge Trial Eights at Ely. Historically, the course was Littleport to Ely, the 2020 trials and the 2021 races were/will be in the opposite direction.

The first picture in the above montage shows three giants of late-Victorian and Edwardian British rowing. On the left is Guy Nickalls, the most successful oarsman of his age with 23 Henley wins between 1885 and 1907 and who won an Olympic Gold Medal at the age of 42. He was an Oxford man at a Cambridge event but, in the ‘Corinthian Spirit’, it was common for coaches from the opposing university to be invited to attend their rival’s training and trial sessions.

In the centre is Stanley Duff Muttlebury, ‘the greatest oar ever produced by Cambridge’. He won four of his five Boat Races and had eight Henley wins. His Times obituary claimed ‘Muttlebury had a natural aptitude which amounted to a genius for rowing… he was not only massively large and full of courage but herculean in muscular strength…’

On the right is the above-mentioned Francis Escombe.

The 1911 Trial Eights, Cambridge at Ely and Oxford at Goring.

The stroke of the ‘unexpected’ winning trial boat, Sidney Swann, was eventually in four Cambridge crews, 1911–1914 (though only winning in his final effort). He had only learned to row on going up to university in late 1909 but he still won both the Visitors and the Wyfolds at Henley in 1910. In September 1911, Swann set the record for rowing across the English Channel in an adapted single scull in a time of 3 hours and 50 minutes. He won both the Grand and the Silver Goblets at the 1913 Henley Regatta and the Goblets again the next year. At the Olympic Games, he won Gold in the eight in 1912 and Silver in the eight in 1920. Swann helped coach Cambridge in 1920, 1921 and 1922 and he was President of the National Amateur Rowing Association, 1942 – 1956.

The stroke of the losing Oxford trial boat in 1911 and 1912, Bevil Brian Quiller-Couch, was the son of the poet and author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. BB Quiller-Couch won the University Pairs in 1912 and 1913 and rowed in the final of the Goblets at Henley. He survived service on the Western Front from the very start of hostilities in August 1914 until the Armistice in 1918 and was awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. However, he died of pneumonia in February 1919 aged 29 during the Spanish Flu pandemic while serving in the British army of occupation in Germany.

In 1928, Cambridge covered a 2.5 mile/4023m course in a then record time of 13 mins 28 secs. The stroke, Tom Brocklebank, stroked Cambridge to three successive victories, 1929 – 1931, and Leander to win the Grand at Henley in 1929.
An Oxford Trial Eight at work on the Isis in 1934. AV Suitcliffe, ‘6’ here, eventually stroked the Blue Boat.

The film above shows Cambridge in practice at Ely in 1970, having just moved away from training on the Cam. The Old Blue interviewed was James Crowden, CUBC 1951 and 1952, who had been on the Cambridge coaching team many times since 1953. Presumably, the oarsman talking about ‘wine, women and song’ was the Light Blue’s President, David Cruttenden. The coach on the water was Ron Needs who, along with Lou Barry, was one of the two outside coaches brought in for the final stages of training, Needs being in charge for the last two weeks in February.

All the historic crews mentioned above would, no doubt, be rather surprised by the changes of 2020 and 2021. However, when each umpire drops their flag and gives the command ‘go’ on 4 April next year, it could be 1829, 1929 or 2021, it does not matter, the passion in each crew will be exactly the same as it has been in every Boat Race that has been fought out during the previous 192 years.

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