9 April 2022
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd enjoys a day out.
Cambridge oarsmen were downing champagne straight from the bottle in Quintin Boat Club’s parking lot an hour after losing the 167th Boat Race to Oxford. ‘Where are you dining tonight?’ I inquired as the group of scrubbed up Adonises, decked out in blazers and dickey bows, boarded their minibus. I congratulated myself on not referring to their evening as a ‘celebration’.
The answer from the mouth of a whiffy Blue was ‘somewhere in Westminster, Church House, I think.’ It occurred that this little knot of brilliant academics, who had devoted half an academic year pulling for the honour of their university, spotted an old hack limping away from the river, and put him off the scent.
But I think not, for our meeting was a chance one. Perhaps these talented oarsmen are intent on atoning for their sins before clubbing the night away. Or perhaps they intend to resurrect the Cambridge prayer that escaped the Almighty’s attention this year.
Authored by James Crowden, an Old Light Blue of the 1950s (but could well have been from the 1850s), it goes: ‘Grant, Oh Lord, that Oxford shall win the Boat Race, but not this year.’
To witness the Boat Race crews down on the Thames again – ‘neath cloudy heavens and sky – was a joy to behold. 2020 was written off by COVID, in common with the Olympics, and 2021 was staged on the Great Ouse with hardly a witness to the Light Blues’ clean sweep on their home water. This year promised great cheer, and so it fulfilled, particularly if you are a supporter of Cambridge’s women and Oxford’s men. The former chalked up their 46th win in 75 races, and set a fastest time of 18 minutes 22 seconds. The latter scored their 81sy win in 167 races and flew from Putney to Mortlake in 16 minutes 42 seconds. The verdict was 2.5 lengths.
I drove through South London in a slight tingle, because there has been something about Boat Race Day ever since the university clubs moved their fixture to the Championship course, Putney to Mortlake, in 1845. Historically, Boat Race Day has been as much about East versus West London as about Oxford versus Cambridge. Once upon a miraculous time, the whole country grasped the race as their own. Whole families adopted one boat or the other and supported them for generations, without knowing why. Nowadays, sporting a rosette of your favourite colour Blue is rare. But the present sponsors, Gemini crypto currency exchange, (child of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twin Oxford Blues), managed to decorate the course with both colours (although understandably came in a poor second to the yellow and blue of Ukraine).
As I crawled along the streets of Clapham, Wandsworth, Putney and Barnes towards the finish, expectancy was in the air among thousands jaywalking to the riverside with their burgers, beers, Thai boxes and cocktails of Light or Dark hue. I reflected on the magnetism of this simple race – two crews racing side-to-side for four-plus miles on the cusp of an incoming tide on a river closed to all other users. Everything points to a routine day, a day free of incident.
This is the thing about the Boat Race. Just when you think it cannot possibly throw up anything new after 166 years, something unexpected happens. Its risk assessment comprises a long list. The 1829 sovereigns tossed for stations sets somebody’s fate; racing shells may suffer equipment failure; weather can change dramatically. The 4-mile 374-yard track is a huge S-bend, so a headwind at Putney may be a tailwind at Chiswick. The umpire may lose the confidence of the coxes, for once he/she has dipped the starting flag he/she can do nowt but holler at the steerspersons.
Then there are rules to worry about. The elusive centre of the tide is the centre of the course. One boat can take another’s water legally if far enough ahead, illegally if not. Precedent dictates that the umpire may order a re-row if equipment fails before the end of the Fulham Wall. But Matt Pinsent, umpire of the men’s race in 2022, argues that this should no longer hold. Watching the crews clear the wall on the telly shows why. A dozen launches are in hot pursuit behind them. Their wash is a maelstrom, and stopping them is so dodgy that doing so is rehearsed each year. It is a difficult and dangerous – ask umpire Rupert Obholzer when oars tangled opposite Thames RC in Putney and he was forced to pull the race up. Launch driver Chas Newens glanced behind and re-started it instantly, accompanied by a suggestion that the umpire couldn’t refuse.
Then there are the dramas of the crews clashing blades or waterlogging, launches breaking down, and in one case a lunatic swimmer disrupting the race near Chiswick Steps. Ah, the endless possibilities of the unexpected! The excitement of the unscheduled!
The best 2022 could offer, however, was an outburst of f’ing from Jasper Parish, the cox of Cambridge’s women, who ran out of adjectives with which to spur his crew on. His opposite number, Joe Gellett, raised an arm at the end of the race to appeal on the grounds that Parish had veered into Oxford’s water and pinched the race. Umpire John Garrett acknowledged that Parish was an aggressive steersman, but not aggressive enough to earn disqualification.
Apologies to those who are still with me for waffling on. My excuse is that nothing out of order save wired-up Jasper’s embarrassing language on the BBC – which belongs to us all – occurred. Four outstanding crews performed two excellent, hard fought races in front of superlatives and cliché.
The great and the good of rowing lined up before Claire Balding’s microphone to remind us that the Boat Race is ‘the epitome of amateur sport’, an Oxford or Cambridge crew ‘has a lot to be proud of’, the rowers have ‘100% commitment’. James Cracknell, an Olympian who has done a bit of rowing and coaching on the Cam, reminded us that ‘you have to bottle your emotion and keep that down.’ Live blogger Martin Cross concluded: ‘This Oxford crew is one of the greatest of all time, if not the greatest.’
In the women’s race, Cambridge chose the Surrey station after winning the toss and followed a course achieved by dozens of forebears. They rowed well in flat water on the outside of the bend to the Mile Post, went ahead and completed the race in the fastest time to date without being led. It was their fifth consecutive win.
The men’s race followed a similar pattern, except that Cambridge won the toss and chose Middlesex and thus presented the race to Oxford. Why Cambridge chose Middlesex I can’t image, on a day when there was no need to seek shelter along the Fulham Wall or risk being pushed off the tide into shallower water. The Light Blues were known to be hot starters, and trust in a crisp getaway must have been an ingredient in the choice of station.
But Oxford performed a belter off the stake-boat and cruised impressively onwards, harnessing their four kilograms per man weight advantage, riding high on the outside of the bend to the Mile Post, and positioned perfectly to take advantage of the long Surrey bend that begins under the second lamppost of Hammersmith Bridge (a bridge closed to spectators and traffic this year). Umpire Pinsent was hopping around in the early stages, warning both crews to stay apart on at least two occasions.
The races reminded me of the exclusive advantage that radio commentators used to possess. A view of one crew leading another by two lengths relayed from a chopper or drone leaves the viewer in no doubt that an act of god is required for the trailing boat to catch up. Cotter did well to keep going, telling viewers they are watching a ‘good Cambridge crew, but a stunning Oxford crew’, and ‘Oxford are doing handstands. Cambridge need a torpedo from here’.
When John Snagge had commentary on the radio to himself, he made it sound as if a three-length lead at Barnes Bridge was eminently beatable, and thousands of listeners believed him.
At the finish the Queen’s jubilee barge, Gloriana, was among the lifeboats, police and press launches, though she looked slightly incongruous with a cabin full of sponsors, but no Queen’s watermen to row her. Engines do when engines must. I departed the jubilant scenes at the Finish and drove back through Putney, where waterfront stalls were still selling Thai boxes and crowds of revellers were supping libations. I wondered if, as used to happen, the statue of Eros was boarded up in Piccadilly Circus. I remembered to go nowhere near Church House – and rejoiced that there is no doubt that, on Sunday 3 April 2022, the Boat Race came home.