The Boat Race of ’21: Two Days to go, a Hundred Years Gone

The Oxford – Cambridge Men’s and Women’s Blue Boat Races of 2021 will take place on 4 April. One hundred years ago, the Boat Race of 1921 took place on 30 March.

2 April 2021

By Tim Koch 

Tim Koch looks forwards and backwards.

As I say every year, even with a 50 per cent chance of success simply by guessing, predicting the results of the (usually) annual clash between the relevant boat clubs of Oxford and Cambridge is often a very difficult task. This year, the problems are multiplied as there is no “form” from last year (when the race was cancelled) and few impartial observers have been able to watch the crews in training. Further, no one can say how each crew will react to the very different sort of race 2021 will be: there will be no bends giving an inside advantage, the course will be 1,800 metres shorter than the Tideway and the opposing blades should be a maximum of six metres apart all the way. Cambridge will have a slight advantage as they will have been over the course many more times than Oxford. Whoever wins the coin toss will almost certainly eschew the eastern/road side and choose the western/railway side as this has more shelter from the predominantly westerly winds. Ultimately however, each crew needs to remember that their opponents have suffered the same lockdown as they have.

Having no Oxbridge connections, I do not support one university against the other. However, if I did, this year I would be happier if the shade of blue that I favoured lost in good races than if they won in poor races. Like many people both inside and outside the Boat Race, my overriding wish is simply that the event takes place and that the racing is good. In truth, my preferred option would be for two dead heats (though less disputed than the one in 1877). 

This year’s umpires pictured in November 2019, then in preparation for the ultimately cancelled 2020 Boat Race. Judith Packer (left, women’s race) and Sarah Winckless (right, men’s race). 2021 will be the first time that a men’s Blue Boat race has been umpired by a woman. 2020 would have been the first time that a Tideway Blue Boat race had been umpired by a non-Blue as Judith did not row for Oxford when she studied there. Post-university, she became an international umpire.

Perhaps the closest we can get to some sort of “preview” of the races are the 3-minute videos from each of the four crews currently on YouTube. Filmed in Ely at Trial Eights in December, following COVID guidelines and before national lockdown, they are not exclusively the “everything is going well and we are going to win” productions that you may expect, there are a few doubts voiced and some weaknesses admitted. Perhaps lockdown has made even Boat Race crews and coaches more open about their feelings? Click on the name of each crew to connect to their video. Also shown are their predecessors of one hundred years ago, people who had recently come out of a worldwide pandemic and the 1914 – 18 War and who, no doubt, were looking forward to better times ahead.

The Cambridge Men, 2021. Picture: The Boat Race Facebook/Row360
The Cambridge Men, 1921.
The Oxford Men, 2021. Picture: The Boat Race Facebook/Row360
The Oxford Men, 1921.

There was no women’s boat race in 1921, the first was in 1927 between Oxford University Women’s Boat Club (which had been started a year earlier) and Newnham College, Cambridge (Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club was not formed until 1941). In 1921, there was probably only one women’s eight oared boat on the Isis, the one belonging to St Hilda’s College, and certainly only one on the Cam – Newnham’s.

The Cambridge Women, 2021. Picture: The Boat Race Facebook/Row360 
Newnham College, Cambridge, 1921.
The Oxford Women, 2021. Picture: The Boat Race Facebook/Row360
St Hilda’s College, Oxford, 1921.
The Cambridge Daily News of 8 November 1918 decided to take Oxford – Cambridge rivalry to a strange place and ran this piece declaring that their town recently had fewer deaths from the Spanish Flu pandemic than had Oxford. This report actually covered the most deadly second wave – there was a third wave from January to June 1919 and some countries suffered a fourth wave in early 1920.
To aid race day viewing, some updates, guides and facts are below. Graphic: @theboatrace


A nice film from 1949 about the first televising of the whole Boat Race (pictured above) is on BBC Archive.

The day will be broadcast live on BBC One from 15:00-17:30 BST. The Women’s Race is at 15:50 and the Men’s Race at 16:50. For those unable to access the BBC, the Boat Race YouTube channel will be streaming the programme. 

The Race and the Course

Where’s Ely?
The Ely to Littleport course.
The recently released Media Pack gave these race facts. For anyone who does not understand the concept of The Boat Race, or indeed any sort of race, it includes the explanation that “Each race has two crews (8 rowers and 1 cox in each boat) racing alongside each other from the start to the finish line”. Should this arrangement change, I will let everyone know. 
The start near the Prickwillow aka Queen Adelaide Road Bridge.
The finish. A picture taken from the Sandhill aka Victoria Street Bridge.
After the finish, the crews will go under the Sandhill Bridge and disembark at the pontoon outside the “Swan on the River” pub on the right here. Picture: gorpo59

The Rules

Pictured in 2018, that year’s men’s race umpire, John Garrett, holds a copy of the ten historic rules by which the Boat Race is governed. They will be in force this year but with two changes: there is no requirement to pass through the centre arches of Barnes and Hammersmith Bridges and the reference to the end of (Fulham) wall in rule nine is replaced by a point 500 metres from the start.

Rewriting History

The Oxford Men’s official pictures show them wearing tops that suggest that Oxford University Boat Club was established in 1829, the year of the first Boat Race and also the year that Cambridge University Boat Club came into being. At the risk of being pedantic, OUBC was actually founded in 1839 (23 April to be precise).

The Boat Race Digital Magazine and Programme – Second Edition

The second issue of the free to download Boat Race Digital Magazine and Programme is now available. It is designed and produced by Row360, the print and online magazine and the Gemini Boat Race media partner. Anyone familiar with Row360 will know of its high production values – which it has maintained in its work for the Boat Race. I particularly enjoyed Matthew Holland’s piece on page 38 discussing the tactics that may be employed racing at Ely.

The publishers tell us:

The magazine provides an insight into the training regimes and schedules of the scholar athletes as they prepare for The Gemini Boat Race 2021 in the most challenging environment. Meet the crews and their coaches, hear from former competitors who share their Boat Race memories, and read about the last time the Boat Race was held in Ely, in 1944.

I must declare an interest here as I wrote the page 56 article on the 1944 Race. I devoted most of the piece to the context in which that wartime race was held and I surprised myself when my research revealed how relevant that race of 77 years ago is to the situation that Britain and the world is in at present. To quote myself:

[The wartime government supported] those annual events in the nation’s sporting calendar around which the country traditionally united and which were thought of as important parts of British culture. The holding of wartime versions of the FA Cup, the Derby, cricket at Lord’s and the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race provided a reassuring sense of familiarity during a time of national danger and widespread anxiety…

Click here to download the magazine.

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