A Silver Lining for a Blue Cloud?

In 1883, Punch magazine had the hilarious idea that the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race ought to be moved to some remote fenced-off location, away from the gaze of the general public.

7 April 2021

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd muses on the future facing the Boat Race. Tim Koch found some pictures and wrote the captions.

A dark cloud hovered over the horizon of the empty Fenland sky on Easter Sunday. Would the Boat Races on the Great Ouse be a tragedy or a farce? 

How would the famous fixture’s character fare without the landmarks and mystic of the Tideway from Putney to Mortlake, with its curves and stream and winds and currents, its black buoy and blue window, its Beverley Brook and Craven Cottage, its Mile Post, Steps and Crossing, its bridges and Doves?

In the event the races were neither tragedy nor farce. They were dramatically close men’s and women’s contests, full of guts, sports-person-ship and brinkmanship by coxes, aided by the BBC’s drone and heavyweight commentary crew. The latter – Andrew Cotter, Zoe de Toledo and Matthew Holland – speculated and interpreted the races admirably after Cotter and his dogs Olive and Mabel introduced the course by running the bank in competition with Cambridge Blue James Cracknell sculling on lumpy water. 

The 2021 Boat Race – full of guts. Pictures: BBC broadcast.

Anchor Claire Balding set the scene, including an interview with Jack Waterfall who was instrumental in organising the 60th anniversary re-enactment of the wartime Boat Race at Ely in 2004, an event that spawned Isle of Ely Rowing Club. Cracknell and fellow Olympic champions Katherine Grainger and Matthew Pinsent provided rowing insight. 

Pinsent drew the short straw when he and his mic were on the pontoon when Oxford’s losing men made the mistake of docking before they had gotten over weeping and gnashing of teeth. Pinsent, the four-time Olympic gold medallist, knows about losing, having ploughed the Boat Race in his presidential year at Oxford. But beside the Ouse at Littleport there was no escape. He mumbled insightful questions such as ‘how are you feeling?’ and ‘when did you realise it was over?’ to a crew who bumbled nothing. Matt wished he were dead; so did the Oxford crew. 

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

But – and we have been working round to a ‘but’ – the dark cloud remains in the fenland sky. There was a hint of its presence during the TV chatter doubting if Hammersmith Bridge would be open by Boat Race day in 2022. For even if COVID is vaccined away by this time next year, the chances are that the bridge will still be closed to road and river traffic while its stakeholders look for several million quid. Oxford appeared un-phased by having to row this year’s race from their rival’s HQ, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Ely has been light blue training grounds ever since the colleges on the Cam had boat clubs. Before the Fens were drained you could row to King’s Lynn, through osier (willow) beds and sedge (rushes) crops, peat digs and eel traps and disturb wildfowl. Or travel between Cambridge and Ely on the twice-weekly boat for passengers and goods, 20 miles in 6 hours in the 1750s.

If that is the case, the future of the match, one of whose founders in 1829 became Dean of Ely’s Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity (known as the Ship of the Fens because of its proud position on the highest point of the highest mound in Cambridgeshire), remains in jeopardy.   

But hark! The acquisition of a new sponsor, Gemini, presents an opportunity to secure the future. Gemini – pay attention at the back, there – is ‘an exchange for blockchain currencies’, blockchain technology being ‘engineered into a system of monetary exchange intended to bypass the existing banking system’. Gemini was set up by the Oxford Blue identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and is sponsoring the unidentical twins known as OUBC and CUBC, surely a chance to seek water suitable for the greatest race in the world if Putney to Mortlake and Adelaide to Littleport are ruled out? 

The 2020 Wingfield Sculls had to abandon its traditional Putney – Mortlake course but instead raced the three miles between St Paul’s School and the University of London Boathouse. Afterwards, no one felt that it had been any less a Wingfields than any of those held over the traditional course in the previous 190 years. This shows the women’s race nearing the finish below Kew Rail Bridge.

So here are some arenas for the Great Boat Race Exhibition Tour. Let the trumpets sound and the flames light the gladiators’ way to the boats (pace Ely)!

Spectacular straight courses (warning – squalls may interrupt steering of long narrow boats and deposit them on banks or skew them across the course).

Suez Canal (first ship to sail through when it opened in 1869 was John MacGregor in his Rob Roy canoe);
Boston Marathon (Lincoln to Boston on River Witham);
Anton’s Gowt on River Witham (former trials course for GB rowing, impossible to find and impossible to find your way back);
Caledonian Canal; 
Kiel Canal;
Panama Canal (comes with locks to portage round);
Henley Reach (water of the first Oxford-Cambridge race in 1829);
Stannstad to Kussnacht on Lake Lucerne (not the Rotsee but the Vierwaldstättsee, prone to squalls); 
The Meres – Windermere, Buttermere, Ullswater, Coniston Water (beware speed merchants).

England has two traditional ‘Championship Courses’ for boat racing. One is the 4-mile, 374-yard Putney to Mortlake course on the Thames and the other is the 3-mile, 570-yard High Level Bridge to the Scotswood Suspension Bridge course on the Tyne. The illustration shows Hanlan racing Elliott on the Tyne in 1879 before a crowd of 10,000.

Spectacular bendy courses

Cumberland Basin to Avonmouth through the tidal Avon Gorge (plenty of room under Clifton Suspension Bridge);
Up the River Severn to Gloucester (surfing on the Severn bore);
Lake Geneva (24-hour round the lake race, mostly in the dark);
The loopy River Weir at Durham;
The tidal Tyne from Tynemouth to Newburn or on to Hexham;
Hammersmith to Kew (into University of London waters);
Westminster to Putney (where the Boat Race has been before until rowers moved to Putney because of heavy traffic and the Big Stink).  

The Times of 4 April posted this graphic of a “proposed” Boat Race course, Westminster to Putney. It does not say who suggested this highly unsuitable stretch or this unlikely distance but perhaps accuracy in such Times reports is unlikely as the paper got rid of its rowing correspondent long ago. This non-story was written by the Thunderer’s Transport Editor.

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