P to M On Couch And Box

Putney Embankment in all its Boat Race finery.

2 April 2023

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd couch-potatoes with the Blues.

It turned out to be a pleasure to watch the 77th women’s and the 168th men’s Boat Races on my own screen while joined by superstars James Cracknell and Dame Katherine Grainger, presenter Clare Balding, commentators Andrew Cotter and Wayne Pommen, umpires Matt Smith and Tony Reynolds, coaches Sean Bowden and Rob Baker, Oxford Blue and Olympian, James Groom, and returnee Olympian Helen Glover and a selection of recent Blues and talking heads to mumble justifications and excuses for various moves at various points along the 4.25 miles from Putney to Mortlake. 

Andrew Cotter led the BBC’s commentary team.

The Canadian Pommen was victim of a wrist injury two days before the 2003 race when his Light Blues collided with a Port of London Authority launch whose lookout procedure left something to be desired. The 2003 race was a gift to Radio Four’s More or Less fans, being the first race to be scheduled for a Sunday, the first to have two sets of brothers who happened to be from the same school (Hampton) rowing in opposing Blue boats. Oxford had David Livingston in the 4 seat and Michael Smith at stroke. Cambridge boated Ben Smith in the bow (subbing for Pommen) and James Livingston at 7. The verdict was one foot – Oxford’s foot – the smallest margin on record and probably the smallest that a photo camera will be allowed to record in the future. Tim Wooge is the first German to be president of CUBC. He won the toss and chose Surrey, a decision that sealed his fate when he just failed to drive his crew to victory round the outside of the last bend. 

Cracknell, twice an Olympic champion and endurance nut, became the oldest man to row for Cambridge in 2019 when a graduate student. He explained his bandaged arm as an injury caused by tripping over a rowing machine in the gym. He’s human after all. Oxford’s Bowden was coaching his 29th Boat Race. 

Glover is aiming to be the first Olympic champion with three children if she is selected for the GB team in Paris next year. Grainger is chair of UK Sport, arguably the most powerful person in British sport. She is a multiple Olympic and world champion, a fellow of King’s College London and chancellor of Glasgow University.

This bunch can knock Gary Lineker and his punditfooties into a cocked hat when it comes to bullshitting explanations of the complications, mysteries and hazards of a simple race like the Boat Race. Remember the O’Donovan brothers’ take on how to medal at the Rio Olympics? I paraphrase: ‘Your man at the start says Go. You close your eyes and pull like a dog, and there’s a stopper at the finish.’ 

A “media scrum”, rare for a rowing event.

The 4.25 miles from Putney to Mortlake, aka the  Championship Course, has bends and bridges, flood tides and ebb tides with a strong estuary-bound stream running under the tide, a drain for the Thames Valley’s land water; rough water and smooth; piers and pontoons; winds strong and weak, following, head, side and cross (sometimes all of them jostling boats in different phases of the same race); dashing launches chewed by lifesavers, police or coaches; rowing crews by the dozen and novice rowers by the reach-load, not to mention a string of pubs and rival clubs (eg Star and Garter, Winchester House, Doves, White Hart and Rick Stein’s eatery) and spots with strange names that serve as markers for timekeepers and commentators (Chiswick Steps, Craven Cottage, Harrods, the Crossing, the Fulham Wall, the Eyot, the bandstand). Then there is all the logistics or closing the river and staging the race. On non-race days you can add sailing dinghies and swimmers, reed beds, pleasure boats and floating Chelsea tractors. Not all at the same time, but enough to keep your wits about you, especially if you happen to be a blind sculler or a cox.

The Rutland and the Blue Anchor pubs at Hammersmith, two of the riverside hostelries that have seen every P to M (and occasionally M to P) Boat Race. For many years, they were the only things that kept the boathouse sited between them (belonging to Auriol RC and Kensington RC, amalgamated in 1981) from falling down.

When questioned which station he would choose if he won the toss, the wise Wayne Pommen plumped for the unpopular Middlesex side because, he explained, the northerly wind was whipping up waves by the stakeboats in Putney. But both toss winners chose Surrey – Cambridge for the women’s race and Oxford for the men’s. 

Both races were crackers. The Light Blue women were pursuing their sixth consecutive win, and no doubt had a bit of a shock when Oxford took the lead and were about two seats ahead on Middlesex at Fulham football ground. But Cambridge gradually closed the gap when they reached the Mile Post and went ahead, passing Hammersmith bridge in 8.11 minutes, but not before aggressively steering into Oxford’s water near Harrods. The Dark Blues came very close, and closeup on the screen, to a bump as the Light Blues’ Cox James Trotman washed them down, and umpire Smith was no doubt dreading an Oxford touch as he got busy with his semaphore.

Trotman eventually moved back to his own water, shot the bridge and soared on round the inside of the Surrey bend to pass Chiswick Steps about three lengths ahead in 12.43 minutes. The Lights were now rowing strongly in showcase rhythm that disguised effort as ease, while the Darks were heads down and pedestrian. Game over. Cambridge crossed the line in 20.29 minutes and clocked their sixth win on the trot. Oxford Cox Tara Slade raised her hand, but umpire Smith dismissed her appeal on the grounds that no contact occurred between the boats during the aggressive incident near Harrods.

The women’s race at Hammersmith Bridge.

Umpire Reynolds got busy with his flag early at the start of the men’s race when he warned Cambridge as the crews passed London Rowing Club, and he found cause to warn the Light Blues twice more before the ‘black buoy’ (now yellow) was passed. Cambridge took advantage of sheltered water on the Middlesex station along the Fulham wall and were three men up when they reached the impressive new stand of Fulham footie ground. They received a warning after the mile but arrived at Hammersmith bridge a length and a quarter ahead. They increased this to two lengths at Duke’s meadow bandstand and from there had the race in hand. 

Oxford stuck to the chase. Something like a three-length verdict was an honourable and close finish, but it illustrates the effects of broadcasting on the fixture. Radio coverage that began in the 1920s brought mystery to the race. When the famous commentator John Snagge declared that one crew was three or four lengths ahead, his millions of listeners could imagine that the trailing boat could catch up between, say, Barnes Bridge and the finish line. But television blew away the mystique of the length of a length, and the chances of closing it. And it sometimes explains puzzling aspects of such a simple thing as a boat race. It is as well to remember that the BBC pioneered live broadcasting of outdoor, moving events by broadcasting the Boat Race, a pageant that S-bends for more than four miles.

The last few strokes of the men’s race.

Thus the 2023 Boat Race season concluded with a clean sweep by Cambridge crews, leaving them ahead in the overall scores between Blues, reserves, men, women and lightweights. To the list of Boat Race factors above must be added statistics, which have played a merry dance in the fixture since 1829.

The view from the couch is that there is usually something new, surprising or even shocking in the Boat Race each year, even though the men have been practising it since the first challenge in 1829. One advantage of TV coverage nowadays is the ability to screen informative stats such as interval times, stroke rates and rowers’ heartbeats. And sometimes hear the umpire’s voice.

The Women’s Boat Race times (Putney to Mortlake, Cambridge leading)
Mile Post 4.31 (Oxford +1.30 sec)
Hammersmith Bridge 8.11 (Oxford +2.80 sec)
Chiswick Steps 12.43 (Oxford +3.10 sec)
Barnes Bridge 16.54 (Oxford +16.30 sec) 
Finish 20.29 (Oxford +12 sec)

Cambridge won by 4.5 lengths 

Oxford: Laurel Kaye; Claire Aitken; Sara Helin; Ella Stadler; Alison Carrington; Freya Willis; Sarah Marshall; Esther Austin; Tara Slade (cox)

Cambridge: Carina Graf; Rosa Millard; Alex Riddell-Webster; Jenna Armstrong; Freya Keto; Isabelle Bastian; Claire Brillon; Caoimhe Dempsey; James Trotman (cox)

The Men’s Boat Race times (Putney to Mortlake, Cambridge leading) 
Mile Post 4.03.10 (Oxford +4.00 sec)
Hammersmith Bridge 7.21.90 (Oxford +5.70 sec)
Chiswick Steps 11.21.90 (Oxford +5.30 sec)
Barnes Bridge 15.13.60 (Oxford +6.10 sec)
Finish 18.18 (Oxford +5 sec)

Cambridge won by 1.1/3 lengths

Oxford: James Forward; Alex Bebb; Freddy Orpin; Tom Sharrock; James Doran; Jean-Philippe Dufour; Tassilo von Mueller; Felix Drinkall; Anna O’Hanlon (cox)

Cambridge: Matt Edge; Brett Taylor; Noam Mouelle; Seb Benzecry; Thomas Lynch; Nick Mayhew; Ollie Parish; Luca Ferraro; Jasper Parish (cox)

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