Blues, Brown, Boris, Bruce and Buccaneers in the Boat Race, Part II

On the basis that “no publicity is bad publicity”, Beefeater Gin, the new sponsors of the Boat Race in 1987, must have been delighted with the extensive media coverage of the run-up to that year’s race.

3 December 2022

By Chris Dodd

Yesterday, Chris Dodd noted that, “In retrospect, the 1980s was a decade of tidal change for the fixture originating in 1829 that has played an important role in shaping rowing into a sport, namely the Boat Race.” He listed many of the “Boat Race capers” of the 1980s that helped shape today’s more professional event. Today, he remembers the most cataclysmic of the Boat Race events of that decade – the 1987 Oxford Mutiny.

The Oxford Mutiny of 1987 was a drawn-out, complex conundrum that was to fill many column inches in the national press for several weeks. Rowing correspondents, reporters and ‘picnicker and parachutist’ feature writers, the sort of ‘colour’ writers who only appear on the last day of an Olympic regatta, spent morning, noon and night chasing Blues, college captains, mutineers, coaches and anybody quotable abroad in the city of dreaming spires. 

Their task was made no easier by a long-running industrial dispute by telephone engineers which meant that once the coin box in a public telephone was full of pennies, nobody came to empty it. This was an age enjoying paucity of payphones in student accommodation and before universal mobile phones. There were payphones in junior common rooms, but only President Macdonald had a landline of his own, installed in his house up on Box Hill. Thus, communications between rowers, pressmen and newspaper offices gradually seized up.  

For me there was an added irony. Some months before the real mutiny broke, I was planning to write a thriller involving mutiny and murder in the Boat Race. I was due to begin a four-week sabbatical from the Guardian and aimed to spend it sorting out my characters into heroes and villains (I had gotten as far as forming pairs, and for easy recall, all of coach Gamage’s men sounding like big stores for easy memory – Kendal & Milne, Arding & Hobbs, Marshall & Snelgrove, Debenham & Freebody, Marks & Spencer…). I was about to move to a friend’s cottage in Burford, eighteen miles west of Oxford, at about the same time as troubles at OUBC became public. 

Chris Dodd has covered about fifty Oxford – Cambridge Boat Races as a journalist, a fact that well-qualifies him to pen both fact and fiction about the event.

Instead of writing fiction, however, I spent most of my sabbatical unravelling a script that was far better than mine. For days on end, I was door-stopping coaches’ meetings, tracking down informants, chasing boat trailers to rowing water at Henley, Marlow, Wallingford or Putney, attending sub-judice briefings in college rooms, cafés in Oxford market and pubs – particularly the Turf and the Eagle and Child.

There follows an account of the revolt compiled from my memory – to paraphrase the comedian Eric Morecambe playing the piano with André Previn (aka Preview): I recall most of the incidents, but not necessarily in the right order. 

After the race in which Cambridge gave their opponents the quivers, I had a ticket for the black-tie Boat Race Ball at the Savoy to do some research for my thriller. The first person I ran into was Chris Clark, an American from the Oxford crew. I mumbled something about commiserations and Clark said, somewhat bitterly, ‘I’m gonna come back next year with some American oarsmen…’ 

And he did, sort of. American internationals Chris Penny, Dan Lyons and Chris Huntington presented themselves in October to try out for seats, plus the experienced coxswain Jonathan Fish. 

Chris Clark returned several days after the start of training, and soon made himself unpopular with coach and squad. There were incidents of soup-throwing and bad blood, possibly because Dan Topolski asked him to change sides, for the coach’s problem was too many men on one side and too few on the other. His other problem was that the president who had invited him to take charge, Donald Macdonald, was among the weakest of a strong squad. Clark soon did the decent thing and resigned from OUBC and settled down to his social administration studies. He confined himself to his college and refused press interviews except with the Guardian (Clark has been head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers men’s crew at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1996).

Coach Topolski in action.

Post-Clark, the roots of the mutiny lay in dissatisfaction with timekeeping of training sessions, logistics and selection. The presence of three US internationals including an Olympic silver medallist added great strength to his group, but Topolski had to marry up power on bow side and stroke side. The suspicion was that he bent over backwards to include the president at someone else’s expense, namely Tony Ward, a British oarsman who had been dropped from the Blue Boat in the previous year. Macdonald, a mature student aged 30 with a wife and young family, was suspected to be not among the strongest candidates. 

When Topolski organised seat races (whereby fours are pitched against each other for a series of runs over a set distance and oarsmen told to swap seats and/or boats between runs, while stroke men are under instruction to keep to specified ratings). Both strokes – Americans if I recall correctly – swore that they kept to Topolski’s instructions, and therefore they suspected that their boat’s figures were tampered with.  

On the first afternoon of Mike Spracklen’s two-week stint with the crew at Marlow Scout Camp, the coach who had recently made Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes into Olympic champions was unaware that President Macdonald’s seat was occupied by a substitute. Macdonald had apparently been told that some crew members would not row if he was in the boat. The key of the OUBC minibus that drove boats and crews to training venues was no longer in his possession, and he was thought to be at home that afternoon. This situation seems to me to represent the kernel of the ‘mutiny’. Displacement of the elected President of OUBC, a club whose sole purpose is to form a crew to meet Cambridge once a year, was a step over the line. Years later, some of those who didn’t earn their Blues in the Boat Race expressed regret at their involvement in this move.

But, at the end of the first day of Spracklen’s coaching, the American crew members refused to row further and, along with sympathisers among the Brits, attempted to negotiate for a prominent American coach to take charge. Spracklen later opined that the line-up on the water that day was the best crew never to row in the Boat Race. There follows a flavour of events that followed the dark deed. It is not a definitive account because I am writing some 35 years later.  

This may have been the Oxford line-up that Mike Spracklen, called “the best crew never to row in the Boat Race.” On Boat Race Day 1987, Oxford raced without five of the people here: Clark (2), Lyons (5), Penny (6), Huntington (Str) and, out of shot, Fish (Cox).

After high octane meetings between coaches (at least two out of eight Oxford coaches entertained some sympathy for the mutineers’ case and thought that it deserved a hearing), and after at least one hob-knob with college captains who, along with Oxford’s student publications Cherwell and Isis were beginning to take an interest, the mutineers returned to the boat a few weeks before the race for an outing under coach Hugh Matheson.

It was a difficult day for Matheson because he was covering the story for the Independent newspaper as well as coaching a crew under strain. It involved Matheson, with myself in his passenger seat, driving round Oxford in an attempt to throw the rest of the press off the scent of our undisclosed destination that turned out to be Henley-on-Thames. The Independent and Guardian correspondents failed to lose the BBC TV crew who arrived at Henley tailing Oxford’s minibus and boat trailer, while yours truly managed to get word to Guardian photographer Ken Saunders where he could take his exclusive picture. 

The two correspondents escaped from the fray at Leander and ordered afternoon tea in the Red Lion Hotel and wrote their accounts of the day after telephoning Kris Korzeniowski, a Polish-American coach with the US national team, to ask the low-down on Americans in Oxford. We learnt nothing of consequence as far as I remember, but we beat the Times and the Telegraph into a cocked hat!

This was the last occasion that the best crew who never rowed in the Boat Race rowed together. There were tears and recriminations when the crew stowed their boat on the trailer at Leander Club, and the stroke, Gavin Stewart, announced in tears to a journalist that he had resigned as vice-president. 

At some point in this saga the ins and outs were aired in a packed debate at the Oxford Union. Macdonald defended his case before Chris Penny, the American Olympic oarsman, held the attention of the assembled company when in his softest of soft voice he throttled Macdonald’s case. Penny ended his succinct, short speech with the assertion ‘We are rocket fuel’. The vote, predictably, heavily favoured the American’s argument.  

The 1987 Cambridge Blue Boat.

It is also worth mentioning that Cambridge behaved exemplarily throughout. Early in the proceedings their president stated that they would only race an official Oxford President’s crew in the Boat Race. And when I raised the question of mutinies with J S Pew, an American oarsman in the Light Blue 1986 crew, he said that Cambridge should not go near the dispute. He had been involved in a messy mutiny at Stanford University over a professional coach, a really tricky situation.  

As time went on, there were several attempts to settle the dispute. When race day neared, an offer came in one evening from Reed Rubin, an attorney in Manhattan, who succeeded in contacting me on the only working, primitive mobile phone in Burford. Rubin was an acquaintance who rowed for Oxford in 1958 and was involved in a similar mutiny that occurred then. His offer was to fly to London on Concord the next day if the president and the captains would agree to his chairing an arbitration panel and to accept its verdict. I managed to contact the captains and president and put the proposal to them before the deadline of midnight. The mutineers’ captain-spokesperson said Yes, but the President said No. 

During the week before the race, the press were invited to the Oxford house in Barnes to join the crew for dinner. This was a regular fixture at that time, its informality much enjoyed by oarsmen and journalists. But on this occasion, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. Neither correspondents nor the rowers nor coach Topolski nor his helpers wished to speak aloud of the elephant in the room, and for once it was a relief to leave. 

The official programme could not keep up with the last-minute changes. The final seating positions are marked in red.

The day of the race was Wagnerian at start and finish. Oxford had drafted in some men from the Isis reserve crew and were on the Middlesex station. There was delay while the boats attached to their stakeboats, and while they were doing so, a thunderous thunderstorm broke out above. My press launch was sheltering under Putney Bridge, although we thought that the bridge was about to fall down and crush us. 

When the race started, Andy Lobbenberg, Oxford’s cox, headed straight for the Fulham Wall where there was calm water, while the much-fancied Cambridge crew were forced to stay out in the rough on the Surrey station. Incidentally, at the time this tactic was attributed to Lobbenberg and/or Topolski, but it was actually Tom Cadoux-Hudson in the seven seat who signalled it, having experienced a similar situation in a London University crew before. 

At the end of Fulham Wall, Oxford had their nose in front and Cambridge crabbed. Oxford never lost the lead, and the Light Blues lost the race honourably to their opponents’ successful tactics in stormy weather. President Donald Macdonald, in seat six, stood up in his boat at the finish and could hardly believe the result after his weeks of turmoil. He wouldn’t know it at the time, but this was the first of a new Dark Blue run of victories (1987-1992).

Victory for Oxford – and particularly for Macdonald (standing). 

And the verdict on the mutiny?

The way I see it, President Macdonald and Coach Topolski won a battle and a boat race, but lost a war. Theirs’ was a Pyrrhic victory. Penny and Cadoux-Hudson stood for president for 1988 and pledged to each other before the vote that the loser would serve as the winner’s vice-president. Mutineer Penny won the election, and according to my calculation he obtained a majority of votes from both electorates – Blues in residence and the college boat club captains.

Topolski’s outstanding era of reviving the fortunes and performances of OUBC came to an end. Before the election, OUBC had appointed Steve Royle as boathouse manager, the Boat Race’s first professional coach (Cambridge followed a year or two later). Penny asked Mike Spracklen, the most sympathetic coach to the mutineers, to be Oxford’s finishing coach. And Beefeater Gin became the second sponsor of the race, following the bookmakers, Ladbrokes.  

In 1988 Oxford won with rebels at the oars, and it wasn’t until 1993 that a superb Light Blue boat ended Oxford’s consecutive run at six. Cambridge’s victory in 1993 began a run of seven of their own, inspired by a rotation of professional coaches and training programmes from Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association. Mark Lees, John Wilson, Harry Mahon and Sean Bowden are names that spring to mind, the last named eventually jumping from County to OUBC where he still resides after years of success on the tideway from P to M.

As for me, my wonderful plot of murder in the Boat Race never took another stroke, dismissed and discredited by reality. You couldn’t make the story of the 1987 mutiny up. Fact is, indeed, stranger than fiction. 

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