Athena and Beetle Pass Oxford’s Tideway Test

James Forward, “7” in “Wedge”, seems to be exchanging knowing glances with Johnny Davidson, “4” in “Beetle”, as the Oxford men’s trail eights fight it out in Chiswick’s Corney Reach.

17 December 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch is Dark Blue with cold.

With a little over 100 days before Boat Race Day 2023, Sunday 11 December saw the probable last eighteen rowers in consideration for the final nine seats in both the Oxford men’s and Oxford women’s Blue Boats trying to impress the coaches with their performance competing over the Putney to Mortlake course. Tomorrow’s report will cover the Cambridge Trials held on the following day.

Sunday was a cold day – as evidenced by the frost that had formed on these flowers left at the Mile Post, the monument to the great interwar coach, Steve Fairbairn, sited exactly one mile from the Boat Race start.

I was lucky enough to be able to photograph the races from the following press launch but this gave rise to the usual difficulty of taking pictures and making notes at the same time. Thus, for the Oxford men’s race and for both Cambridge races I have taken the liberty of using the three uncredited reports that are on the British Rowing website, slightly edited and reproduced in italics here (the italicised captions are mine).

A map from Richard Burnell’s One Hundred and Fifty Years of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1979). The course is largely straight in the first 500 metres along Putney Embankment. Past the football ground, the crews steer to the deeper water on Surrey. Here, the bend favours the Middlesex station. From Hammersmith Bridge to Chiswick Crossing, the bends favour Surrey. The final bend at Barnes again favours Middlesex.

The Oxford Women’s Trial Eights

A busy scene on Putney Embankment as the Oxford women boat. Several Tideway clubs were holding their Christmas “Plum Pudding” races at the same time.

The Oxford women chose the names Athena and Artemis for the two crews. The two Greek goddesses were sometimes in conflict and would support different sides in battles between mortals.

When umpire Matt Smith dropped his flag at the start, Artemis on Middlesex took a slight lead despite immediately steering over to Surrey and were a canvas up after the first minute. As the bend began to work to their advantage, Artemis extended their lead to perhaps half-a-length. However, at around three-and-a-half minutes in, Athena struck 34.5 strokes-per-minute while their opponents remained at 30, even though their bend advantage was running out. By four minutes, Athena had settled well into race pace, had taken the lead and were moving away, even before they really hit their bend advantage. 

By Hammersmith Bridge, there was clear water between the boats, Artemis was rowing in Athena’s puddles, having lost contact and unable to respond. At Hammersmith Pier, Athena was clocked at 33.5, Artemis at 34, but Athena with fine bladework and a lively rhythm, were getting more run per stroke. Just past the half-way point, the Artemis cox switched stations but this could not save the situation. With both at 33 strokes-per-minute, there was a procession to the finish where there was about a twenty-second gap between the two crews.

Athena were in blue tops on the south bank/Surrey side/left as viewed here. Artemis were in white tops on the north bank/Middlesex side/right as viewed here. This photo shows Artemis in the lead along Putney Embankment though, as with all such pictures taken from the side and slightly back, parallax error gives an apparent advantage to the crew closest to the camera.
Off the start, Athena were down but stayed sharp.
Artemis led as they approached the new luxury apartments that now front Fulham Football Ground.
By the Crabtree, Athena had taken the lead.
As with many men’s Boat Races in the days when the crews were less highly trained, the race was over by Hammersmith Bridge.
Passing Chiswick Eyot.
Approaching Chiswick Steps.
For most of the race, Artemis had to row in Athena’s dirty water.
Downstream of Barnes Bridge.
OUWBC Head Coach, Andy Nelder, following his crews
At the finish, Athena were about twenty seconds ahead of Artemis.
Win or lose, there was still the long row back against the tide to Putney to deal with.
The final Blue Boat will include members of both the winning and the losing trial crews.

The Oxford Men’s Trial Eights

The two men’s crews were named Beetle (right) and Wedge (left) after a restaurant on the Wallingford stretch of the Thames where they train. It serves as a marker from which pieces are often timed.

Wedge established a small lead soon off the start, which they extended when the crews had a substantial clash near the Mile Post, from which Beetle lost about half a length. By Hammersmith Bridge, Wedge had three quarters of a length lead but Beetle fought back around the outside of the long Surrey bend, suggesting that they were actually the faster crew. They moved ahead to a lead of about three quarters of a length by the crossing point before the bandstand but despite Umpire Tony Reynolds constantly warning both coxes, the crews had another major clash, which caused Wedge’s bowman Andrew Wakefield to catch an over the head crab. Beetle rowed away with what was now a clear water lead, which they maintained to the end.

Wedge in white on Surrey (left here) was slightly up on Beetle in blue on Middlesex (right here) off the start. Umpire Tony Reynolds was kept busy through most of the race.
A clash near the Mile Post.
Wedge came off best out of the clash.
Wedge were three-quarters-of-a-length up at Hammersmith.
By Chiswick Pier, the positions had been reversed and Beetle had a three-quarter lead.
Beetle (in blue) seemed happy with their performance.
Near the bandstand in Corney Reach, a clash caused Wedge’s bowman to crab.
By the time Wedge’s bow had recovered his oar, Beetle were already moving away.
Downstream of Barnes Bridge, the race effectively over.
Approaching Mortlake.
At the finish.
Despite the result, the two crews were well matched and should give head coach Sean Bowden a lot of options.

The 2023 Gemini Boat Race is on Sunday, 26th March. The 77th Women’s Race is at 4pm and the 168th Men’s Race is at 5pm.

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