Following The Boat Races Through The Years

23 March 2023

By Robert Treharne Jones

There’s an old rowing joke that goes “How many Henley Stewards does it take to change a light bulb?”, to which the answer is “Change?” (Cue ribald laughter off-stage).

But, of course, change does occur in our sport, even in those events which are even older than Henley, such as the Boat Race (or the Gemini Boat Races as we are now supposed to call it) where the 168th Men’s Race and 77th Women’s Race take place in London this Sunday.

I’ve been following the race as a journalist, commentator, photographer and statistician (or geek, some would say) for almost forty years, and have therefore been able to follow the dramatic changes in organisation that have taken place, especially in the event’s relationship with the press.

Hugh Laurie featured at 6 for Cambridge during the early Ladbroke years.

It takes a person of very senior years to remember the time when there was no sponsor, and even when Ladbrokes came along to break that mould, nothing much changed in respect of the press. Which is why the late Richard Burnell got together the Newspaper Press Boat Fund, a pot of money into which each journo threw a few quid to pay for a launch which we could use to follow the outings for the two weeks (yes, TWO weeks) leading up to Race Day itself.

The British rowing press at that time consisted of all the big names – Desmond Hill of the Telegraph had just gone to the Great Enclosure in the Sky, so that left Burnell himself (Sunday Times) alongside Geoffrey Page (Telegraph), Jim Railton (Times) and of course Chris Dodd (Guardian). I stepped into this band of heavies as the new boy in 1985, when I was writing about the Westcountry regional interest in the race – my involvement in the national press would have to wait a while.

We would huddle around the gas fire in Thames RC clubhouse, where the elderly house steward could sometimes be persuaded to put on the kettle..

The press facilities, other than the launch we hired from Chas Newens, were non-existent, so we would huddle around the antiquated gas fire in Thames RC clubhouse, where ‘Ham’, the elderly house steward (and stalwart of his club’s Grand and Stewards’ crews in his prime), could sometimes be persuaded to put on the kettle for a cup of tea.

One of us would have to look out of the window periodically to check whether the crews were going afloat, as no training schedule was ever published, in which case we would don our waterproofs and summon our launch to set off in hot pursuit. Having scribbled our words, we would then queue up to use the club payphone to dictate our copy to the waiting typist at the other end of the line.

Cambridge always boat from Barclays Bank RC (now King’s College School, Wimbledon boathouse), on the left, next to Midland Bank RC (now HSBC boathouse).

This miserable state of affairs lasted until Beefeater took over the sponsorship, and things suddenly got rather better. Two new members of the press corps came on board, including Mike Rosewell (to replace Jim Railton at the Times) and Hugh Matheson, rowing correspondent of the recently formed Independent newspaper.  

A new press office opened at Midland Bank RC, next to Cambridge’s base at Barclays Bank RC. An exciting new PR agency was appointed to front up the operation, with Sam Burgess-Allan in charge on the ground. There were Beefeater Gin mixed doubles in the fridge, which for some reason turned the office into the social hub of the Embankment. The largesse didn’t stop there – a slap-up meal at the Hurlingham Club used to follow the Weigh-In on the Monday of Race Week, and there was even a stash of sponsor-branded waterproof jackets which were handed out to the chosen few.

The corner of the bar in the newly gentrified Dukes Head bears no resemblance to the old days of Bullshit Corner.

Of course, in this pre-digital age we still had to dictate our copy by phone, and when the day was done, we might repair to the Dukes Head, to catch the towpath buzz with all the boatmen, who would gather in corner of the bar that bore a small brass plaque labelled ‘Bullshit Corner’. But it wasn’t just licensed premises that attracted us – a short walk across Putney Bridge was the chaotic paradise of Hurlingham Books, where an occasional second-hand bargain could be found, or not.

The chaotic paradise of Hurlingham Books, where an occasional second-hand bargain could be found, or not.

Against this backdrop there sprang up the fledgling BARJ – the British Association of Rowing Journalists – whose stated aim was to improve press facilities at all regattas, at home and abroad. BARJ brought photographers, broadcasters and more journalists into the fold. Some of our favourite evening meals were when the Blue Boats invited us round to their lodgings for an informal supper or, in Cambridge’s case, a reunion with their Old Blues celebrating a significant anniversary of their own, typically 50 years since they had raced themselves.

These crew suppers gave press members the chance to find out more about the personalities in each boat, but the crew would sometimes have fun at our expense, and none of us will forget the Roly-Polygram hired by one Blue Boat to spice up Geoffrey Page’s evening! Of course, BARJ then had to develop an evening function of their own, and favourite haunts included Pissaro’s on Chiswick Pier, Blades in the Lower Richmond Road, and the Depot on the river bank at Barnes.

The Oxford 2010 Blue Boat Races past the Depot restaurant at Barnes, a favourite BARJ haunt (now a branch of Rick Stein’s empire).

Fast forward another couple of sponsors and it was all change once again, as the Press Office moved back to Thames RC, which by now had had a complete makeover. Long work tables by the windows gave everyone space to file their images and words using dedicated WiFi, while copious quantities of food and drink were regularly available, along with a fresh stash of sponsors jackets, of course. The Boat Race snow had their own full-time event manager, with an office at Thames, from which they could make the year-round arrangements for each successive event.

Gone are the food and drink, to be replaced by utilitarian work space, with WiFi and a kettle.

But already the wind of change was blowing along Putney Embankment – the national daily papers were no longer employing their own rowing correspondents, the race itself was being seen as less relevant, and the sponsors had to respond in novel ways by funding initiatives for youth rowing, for instance. Meanwhile a new ruling from the Port of London Authority barred all petrol-driven commercial launches from the Tideway, changing the look of the event for ever.

Rachel Quarrell (right) and a photographer follow Cambridge women on board Charlie Lima earlier this week.

Which is why the press now use the utilitarian Charlie Lima launch to follow outings, a craft more suited to TV cameras and their tripods than well-padded journalists. In these post-COVID times the budget for the event has been reduced by some 15%, so gone are the food and drink, to be replaced by utilitarian work space, with WiFi and a kettle. Gone, too, are most of the scribblers, to be replaced by more photographers, videographers, and all the paraphernalia necessary to feed the appetites of an increasingly digital audience. There is very little opportunity for interaction with the crews, and this year there are press launches following the outings for just three days of the final week, and because there are now four Blue Boats, perhaps just one chance to see each crew in action.

Yes, but who is going to win, I hear you ask? I’m sorry, you’ll have to wait for Sunday!     

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