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The Boat Race
|The Men's Boat Race|
|First boat race||10 June 1829|
|Annual event since||1856|
|Current champion||Cambridge (2021)|
|Course record||Cambridge, 1998 (16 min 19 sec)|
|Course||The Championship Course
River Thames, London[a]
|Course length||4.2 miles (6.8 km)|
|Sponsor||Gemini (since 2021)|
|Official charity||Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)|
|Trophy||The Boat Race Trophy|
|Number of wins|
|There has been one dead heat, recorded in 1877.|
|The Women's Boat Race|
|First boat race||15 March 1927|
|First side-by-side race||1936|
|Annual event since||1964|
|Course record||Cambridge, 2017 (18 min 33 sec)|
|Course||The Championship Course
River Thames, London (2015 onwards)
|Course length||4.2 miles (6.8 km)|
|Sponsor||Gemini (since 2021)|
|Official charity||Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)|
|Trophy||The Women's Boat Race Trophy (since 2014)|
|The Isis, Oxford and
River Cam, Cambridge
|1927 to 1976 with several gaps|
|River Thames, London||1929, 1935|
|Henley||1977 to 2014 except|
|Dorney Lake||2001, 2013|
|Number of wins|
The Boat Race is an annual set of rowing races between the Cambridge University Boat Club and the Oxford University Boat Club, traditionally rowed between open-weight eights on the River Thames in London, England. There are separate men's and women's races, as well as races for reserve crews. It is also known as the University Boat Race and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.
The men's race was first held in 1829 and has been held annually since 1856, except during the First and Second World Wars (although unofficial races were conducted) and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The first women's event was in 1927 and the race has been held annually since 1964. Since 2015, the women's race has taken place on the same day and course, and since 2018 the combined event of the two races has been referred to as "The Boat Race". In the 2019 races, which took place on Sunday 7 April 2019, Cambridge won the men's and women's races as well as both reserve races.
The Championship Course has hosted the vast majority of the races. It covers a 4.2-mile (6.8 km) stretch of the Thames in West London, from Putney to Mortlake. Other locations have been used, including a stretch of the River Great Ouse which was the venue for the 2021 race. Members of both crews are traditionally known as blues and each boat as a "Blue Boat", with Cambridge in light blue and Oxford in dark blue. As of 2021, Cambridge has won the men's race 85 times and Oxford 80 times, with one dead heat. Cambridge has led Oxford in cumulative wins since 1930. In the women's race, Cambridge have won the race 45 times and Oxford 30 times. Cambridge has led Oxford in cumulative wins since 1966. A reserve boat race has been held since 1965 for the men and 1966 for the women.
History of the men's race
The tradition was started in 1829 by Charles Merivale, a student at St John's College, Cambridge, and his Old Harrovian school friend Charles Wordsworth who was studying at Christ Church, Oxford. The University of Cambridge challenged the University of Oxford to a race at Henley-on-Thames but lost easily. Oxford raced in dark blue because five members of the crew, including the stroke, were from Christ Church, then Head of the River, whose colours were dark blue. The colour itself is said to have been borrowed from Harrow Blue, which Charles Wordsworth and Charles Merivale, the creators of The Boat Race, attended. There is a dispute as to the source of the colour chosen by Cambridge.
The second race was in 1836, with the venue moved to a course from Westminster to Putney. Over the next two years, there was disagreement over where the race should be held, with Oxford preferring Henley and Cambridge preferring London. Following the official formation of the Oxford University Boat Club, racing between the two universities resumed in 1839 on the Tideway and the tradition continues to the present day, with the loser challenging the winner to a rematch annually.
1877 dead heat
The race in 1877 was declared a dead heat. Both crews finished in a time of 24 minutes and 8 seconds in bad weather. The verdict of the race judge, John Phelps, is considered suspect because he was reportedly over 70 and blind in one eye. Rowing historian Tim Koch, writing in the official 2014 Boat Race Programme, notes that there is "a very big and very entrenched lie" about the race, including the claim that Phelps had announced "Dead heat ... to Oxford by six feet" (the distance supposedly mentioned by Phelps varies according to the telling).
Phelps's nickname "Honest John" was not an ironic one, and he was not (as is sometimes claimed) drunk under a bush at the time of the finish. He did have to judge who had won without the assistance of finish posts (which were installed in time for the next year's race). Some newspapers had believed Oxford won a narrow victory but their viewpoint was from downstream; Phelps considered that the boats were essentially level with each surging forward during the stroke cycle. With no clear way to determine who had surged forward at the exact finish line, Phelps could only pronounce it a dead heat. Koch believes that the press and Oxford supporters made up the stories about Phelps later, which Phelps had no chance to refute.
Oxford, partially disabled, were making effort after effort to hold their rapidly waning lead, while Cambridge, who, curiously enough, had settled together again, and were rowing almost as one man, were putting on a magnificent spurt at 40 strokes to the minute, with a view of catching their opponents before reaching the winning-post. Thus struggling over the remaining portion of the course, the two eights raced past the flag alongside one another, and the gun fired amid a scene of excitement rarely equalled and never exceeded. Cheers for one crew were succeeded by counter-cheers for the other, and it was impossible to tell what the result was until the Press boat backed down to the Judge and inquired the issue. John Phelps, the waterman, who officiated, replied that the noses of the boats passed the post strictly level, and that the result was a dead heat.
Cancellations during World Wars
Because of World war I and II, the race was not held in 1915–1919 and 1940–1945. On 12 January 1915, The Daily Telegraph announced that the annual race was cancelled due to men leaving for war, "for every available oarsman, either Fresher or Blue, has joined the colours."
1959 Oxford mutiny
In 1959 some of the existing Oxford blues attempted to oust president Ronnie Howard and coach Jumbo Edwards. However, their attempt failed when Cambridge supported the president. Three of the dissidents returned and Oxford went on to win by six lengths.
1987 Oxford mutiny
Following defeat in the previous year's race, Oxford's first in eleven years, American Chris Clark was determined to gain revenge: "Next year we're gonna kick ass ... Cambridge's ass. Even if I have to go home and bring the whole US squad with me." He recruited another four American post-graduates: three international-class rowers (Dan Lyons, Chris Huntington and Chris Penny) and a cox (Jonathan Fish), in an attempt to put together the fastest Boat Race crew in the history of the contest.
Disagreements over the training regime of Dan Topolski, the Oxford coach ("He wanted us to spend more time training on land than water!", lamented Lyons), led to the crew walking out on at least one occasion, and resulted in the coach revising his approach. A fitness test between Clark and club president Donald Macdonald (in which Clark triumphed) resulted in a call for Macdonald's removal; it was accompanied with a threat that the Americans would refuse to row should Macdonald remain in the crew. As boat club president, Macdonald "had absolute power over selection", and when he announced that Clark would row on starboard, his weaker side, Macdonald would row on the port side and Tony Ward was to be dropped from the crew entirely, the American contingent mutinied. After considerable negotiation and debate, much of it conducted in the public eye, Clark, Penny, Huntington, Lyons and Fish were dropped and replaced by members of Oxford's reserve crew, Isis.
In 1989 Topolski and author Patrick Robinson's book about the events, True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny, was published. Seven years later, a film based on the book was released. Alison Gill, the then-president of the Oxford University Women's Boat Club, wrote The Yanks at Oxford, in which she defended the Americans and claimed Topolski wrote True Blue in order to justify his own actions. River and Rowing Museum founder Chris Dodd described True Blue as "particularly offensive" yet also wrote "[Oxford] lacked the power, the finesse—basically everything the pre-mutiny line-up had going for it."
In the 2012 race, after almost three-quarters of the course had been rowed, the race was halted for over 30 minutes when a lone protester, Australian Trenton Oldfield, entered the water from Chiswick Eyot and deliberately swam between the boats near Chiswick Pier with the intention of protesting against spending cuts, and what he saw as the erosion of civil liberties and a growing culture of elitism within British society. Once he was spotted by assistant umpire Sir Matthew Pinsent, both boats were required to stop for safety reasons. Once restarted, the boats clashed and the oar of Oxford crewman Hanno Wienhausen was broken. Garrett judged the clash to be Oxford's fault and allowed the race to continue. Cambridge quickly took the lead and went on to win the race. The Oxford crew entered a final appeal to the umpire which was quickly rejected; and Cambridge were confirmed as winners in the first race since 1849 that a crew had won the boat race without an official recorded winning time. After the end of the race Oxford's bow man, Alex Woods, received emergency treatment after collapsing in the boat from exhaustion. Because of the circumstances, the post-race celebrations by the winning Cambridge crew were unusually muted and the planned award ceremony was cancelled.
The 2021 races were held on the Great Ouse at Ely in Cambridgeshire, over a shorter straight course of 4.9 kilometres (3.0 mi). This was due to the safety issues of Hammersmith Bridge, as well as restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic still being in force.
Plans are underway to hold the 2022 Boat Race on the Thames. Due to restrictions under Hammersmith Bridge, the course would start in Westminster and finish at Putney Bridge, making for a 5.4 mile long course.
In the 1912 race, run in extremely poor weather and high winds, both crews sank. Oxford rowed into a significant early lead, but began taking on water, and made for the bank shortly after passing Hammersmith Bridge to empty the boat out: although they attempted to restart, the race was abandoned at this point because Cambridge had also sunk while passing the Harrods Depository.
Cambridge also sank in 1859 and in 1978, while Oxford did so in 1925, and again in 1951; the 1951 race was re-rowed on the following Monday. In 1984 the Cambridge boat sank after colliding with a barge before the start of the race, which was then rescheduled for the next day. In 2016, at Barnes Bridge, Cambridge women began to sink and received advice from the umpire to pull to the side. The Cambridge cox indicated that she wanted to continue to complete the course and was allowed to do so.
History of the women's race
From the first women's event in 1927, the Women's Boat Race was run separately from the men's event until 2015. There was significant inequality between the two events. Changes in recent years, arising significantly from the sponsorship of Newton Investment Management, have made the two races more equal: both events have been held together on The Tideway since 2015, and there are new training facilities for the women, comparable to those of the men, since 2016.
The 1st Boat Race took place at Henley-on-Thames in 1829 but the event was subsequently officially held along the Thames, mostly the Championship Course, until the 2021 race which was moved to the River Great Ouse both due the COVID-19 pandemic and safety concerns under Hammersmith Bridge. Unofficial races were held during the Second World War at various locations.
|1829||Henley-on-Thames||2.25-mile (3.62 km) stretch of the River Thames between Hambleden Lock and Henley Bridge|
|1836 to 1842||Westminster to Putney||5.75-mile (9.25 km) stretch of the River Thames between Westminster Bridge and Putney Bridge|
|1845, 1849–1854, 1858–1862, 1864–2019||Championship Course||4 miles and 374 yards (6,779 m) stretch of the River Thames between Putney to Mortlake|
|1846, 1856, 1863||Championship Course||4 miles and 374 yards (6,779 m) stretch of the River Thames between Mortlake to Putney|
|2021||River Great Ouse||5,350-yard (4.89 km) stretch of river between Adelaide Bridge and Sandhill Bridge|
The Championship Course
The Championship Course is 4 miles and 374 yards (6.779 km) from Putney to Mortlake, passing Hammersmith and Barnes; it is sometimes referred to as the Championship Course, and follows an S shape, east to west. The start and finish are marked by the University Boat Race Stones on the south bank. The clubs' presidents toss a coin (the 1829 sovereign) before the race for the right to choose which side of the river (station) they will row on: their decision is based on the day's weather conditions and how the various bends in the course might favour their crew's pace. The north station ('Middlesex') has the advantage of the first and last bends, and the south ('Surrey') station the longer middle bend.
During the race the coxes compete for the fastest current, which lies at the deepest part of the river, frequently leading to clashes of blades and warnings from the umpire. A crew that gets a lead of more than a boat's length can cut in front of their opponent, making it extremely difficult for the trailing crew to gain the lead. For this reason the tactics of the race are generally to go fast early on, and few races have a change of the lead after halfway (though this happened in 2003, 2007 and 2010).
The race is rowed upstream, but is timed to start on the incoming flood tide so that the crews are rowing with the fastest possible current. If a strong wind is blowing from the west it will be against the tide in places along the course, causing the water to become very rough. The conditions are sometimes such that an international regatta would be cancelled, but the Boat Race has a tradition of proceeding even in potential sinking conditions (see Sinkings above).
At the conclusion of the race, the boats come ashore at Mortlake Anglian & Alpha Boat Club, directly upriver of Chiswick Bridge. Here, shortly after the race, the Boat Race trophy is presented to the winning crew. It is traditional for the winning side to throw their cox into the Thames to celebrate their achievement.
- 1940, 1945 – At Henley-on-Thames
- 1943 – Sandford-on-Thames
- 1944 – River Great Ouse, Ely, Littleport to Queen Adelaide
Women's Boat Race courses
During its early years (1927 to 1976 with several gaps) the Women's Boat Race alternated between The Isis in Oxford and the River Cam in Cambridge over a distance of about 1,000 yards. On two occasions, in 1929 and 1935, the race was held on the Tideway in London. Unlike the men's race, the official women's race continued in most years through the Second World War.
From 1977 to 2014, the Women's Boat Race was held on a 2000-metre course as part of the Henley Boat Races. In 2013 the entire Henley Boat Races was moved to Dorney Lake due to rough water at Henley. In 2021, the race was held on the River Great Ouse from Ely, Cambridgeshire along with the men's race.
The race first appeared in a short film of the 1895 race entitled "The Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race", directed and produced by Birt Acres. Consisting of a single shot of around a minute, it was the first film to be commercially screened in the UK outside London. The event is now a British national institution, and is televised live each year. The women's race has received television coverage and grown in popularity since 2015, attracting a television audience of 4.8 million viewers that year. BBC Television first covered the men's race in 1938, the BBC having covered it on radio since 1927. For the 2005 to 2009 races, the BBC lost the television rights to ITV, after 66 years, but it returned to the corporation in 2010. Ethnographer Mark de Rond described the training, selection, and victory of the 2007 Cambridge crew in The Last Amateurs: To Hell and Back with the Cambridge Boat Race Crew.
The race is for heavyweight eights (i.e. eight rowers with a cox steering), with no restrictions on weight or gender. There have been a number of female coxes – the first to appear in the Boat Race was Sue Brown for Oxford in 1981 – but in practice the rowers are always male.
Although the contest is strictly between amateurs, and the competitors must be students of the university for which they race, the training schedules the teams undertake are very gruelling. Typically each team trains for six days a week for six months before the event.
Such is the competitive spirit between the universities that it is common for Olympic standard rowers to compete, notably including four-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Matthew Pinsent, who rowed for Oxford in 1990, 1991, and 1993. Olympic gold medallists from 2000 – James Cracknell (Cambridge 2019), Tim Foster (Oxford 1997), Luka Grubor (Oxford 1997), Andrew Lindsay (Oxford 1997, 1998, 1999) and Kieran West (Cambridge 1999, 2001, 2006, 2007), 2004 – Ed Coode (Oxford 1998), and 2008 – Jake Wetzel (Oxford 2006) and Malcolm Howard (Oxford 2013, 2014) have also rowed for their university.
Other famous participants include Andrew Irvine (Oxford 1922, 1923), Lord Snowdon (Cambridge 1950), Colin Moynihan (Oxford 1977), actor Hugh Laurie (Cambridge 1980), TV presenter Dan Snow (Oxford 1999, 2000, 2001) and Conspicuous Gallantry Cross recipient Robin Bourne-Taylor (Oxford 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005).
Oxford University does not offer sport scholarships at entry; student-athletes are not admitted differently to any other students and must meet the academic requirements of the university, with sport having a neutral effect on any application. Likewise, bursaries and scholarship opportunities for athletes at the University of Cambridge are only open to those students who have already been admitted to the University on academic merit.
In order to protect the status of the race as a competition between genuine students, the Cambridge University Blues Committee in July 2007 refused to award a blue to 2006 and 2007 Cambridge oarsman Thorsten Engelmann, as he did not complete his academic course and instead returned to the German national rowing team to prepare for the Beijing Olympics. This has caused a debate about a change of rules, and one suggestion is that only students who are enrolled in courses lasting at least two years should be eligible to race.
Standard of the men's crews
The question whether the Boat Race crews are up to the standard of international crews is difficult to judge, since the Boat Race crews train for a long-distance race early in the season, so their training schedule is quite different from crews training for international regattas over 2000 metres that take place later in the year.
According to British Olympic gold medallist Martin Cross, Boat Race crews of the early 1980s were viewed as "a bit of a joke" by some international-level rowers of the time. However, their standard has improved substantially since then. Current Boat Race crews do race against some club and international crews in the build-up to the race, and are competitive against them, but again these matches are over various non-standard distances, against crews that might not have been together as long as the Oxbridge crews.
In 2005 a strong Oxford crew, similar to the crew who had rowed in the Boat Race, entered the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta, losing to the winning German international crew in the first round by a third of a length. The same year, Cambridge won the Ladies Challenge Plate at the same regatta.
In 2007 Cambridge were entered in the London Head of the River Race, where they should have been measured directly against the best crews in Britain and beyond. However the event was called off after several crews were sunk or swamped in rough conditions. Cambridge were fastest of the few crews who did complete the course.
- Men's race
The Boat Race has been sponsored since 1976, with the money spent mainly on equipment and travel during the training period. The sponsors do not have their logos on the boats, but do have their logo on kit during the race. They also provide branded training gear and have some naming rights. Boat Race sponsors have included Ladbrokes, Beefeater Gin, Aberdeen Asset Management, and the business process outsourcing company Xchanging, who sponsored the race until 2012. Controversially, in the renewal of the deal with Xchanging, the crews agreed to wear the sponsor's logo on their kit during the race itself, in exchange for increased funding. Prior to this, all sponsorship marks had been scrupulously discarded on boating for the competition, in line with the race's amateur and ‘Corinthian’ spirit. Xchanging also became title sponsor in November 2009 so, from the 156th Race until 2012, the event was known as The Xchanging Boat Race.
In 2013 the sponsor BNY Mellon took over and it became the BNY Mellon Boat Race. From 2016 to 2018, BNY Mellon and Newton Investment management donated the title sponsorship to Cancer Research UK.
- Women's race
The Women's Boat Race 2011 was the first to be sponsored by Newton Investment Management, a subsidiary of BNY Mellon. Previously the crews had no sponsorship and were self funded. Newton have remained the sponsor since then and increased the amount of funding significantly.
Other boat races involving Oxford and Cambridge
Although the Boat Race crews are the best-known, the universities both field reserve crews. The reserves race takes place on the same day as the main race. The Oxford men's reserve crew is called Isis (after the Isis, a section of the River Thames which passes through Oxford), and the Cambridge reserve men's crew is called Goldie (the name comes from rower and Boat Club president John Goldie, 1849–1896, after whom the Goldie Boathouse is named). The women's reserve crews are Osiris (Oxford) and Blondie (Cambridge).
The Henley Boat Races, usually held a week before the Boat Race, host the lightweight men's and women's races and their reserve races. There is also an intercollegiate men's and women's race.
A veterans' boat race, usually held on a weekday before the main Boat Race, takes place on the Thames between Putney and Hammersmith.
- Men's race
Training for the Boat Race officially begins in September, before the start of term. The first public tests are in November at the British Indoor Rowing Championships, where each university sends around 20 rowers to compete. Everyone races 2 km on an indoor rower with the club presidents using adjacent machines. Both universities also send crews to the Head of the River Fours race in London, which is raced over the reverse Boat Race course, that is to say the Championship course from Mortlake to Putney.
In December, the coaches put out Trial Eights where two crews from the same university race each other over the full Boat Race course. These crews are given names such as Kara and Whakamanawa (Māori words for strength and honour, Cambridge 2004) or Cowboys and Indians (Oxford 2004). Other trials boat names have included such pairings as Guns and Roses.
Over the Christmas period the squads go on training camps abroad, where final places for the blue boats are decided. After the final blue boat crews have been decided, they race against the top crews from the UK and abroad (e.g. in recent years the men's crew have raced Leander, Molesey, the German international crew, and a composite crew of Olympic scullers). These races are only over part of the course (from Putney to Chiswick Eyot).
In case of injury or illness, each university men's crew has ten extra rowers, eight in the reserve boats Isis and Goldie, and two as the spare pair. Isis and Goldie race 30 mins before the Blue Boat event over the same course. As for the spare pair, in the week before the main event they race each other from the mile post to university stone (i.e. from a point one mile into the Championship Course back to the Boat Race start). In the final week, there is also an official weigh in and the average crew weights are announced. The perceived slight advantage of being the heavier crew leads to the practice of drinking large volumes of water directly before the weigh in order to artificially increase weight for a short period of time.
In popular culture
In the stories of P. G. Wodehouse, several characters allude to Boat Race night as a time of riotous celebration (presumably after the victory of the character's alma mater). This frequently sees the participants in trouble with the authorities. In Piccadilly Jim, it is mentioned that Lord Datchett was thrown out of the Empire Music Hall every year on Boat Race night while he was an undergraduate. Bertie Wooster mentions he is "rather apt to let myself go a bit on Boat Race night" and several times describes being fined five pounds at "Bosher Street" (possibly a reference to Bow Street Magistrates' Court) for stealing a policeman's helmet one year; the beginning of the first episode of the television series Jeeves and Wooster shows his court appearance on this occasion. In the short story Jeeves and the Chump Cyril, he describes having to repeatedly bail out of jail a friend who is arrested every year on Boat Race night.
In Missee Lee by Arthur Ransome (one of the Swallows and Amazons series of children's books) Captain Flint (who had dropped out of Oxford) tells Missee Lee he was in gaol once on Boat-race night. High spirits. A fancy for policemen's helmets. When Missee Lee says Camblidge won and evellybody happy he replies Not that year, ma'am. We were the happy ones that year.
- Men's race
A selection of the more frequently cited statistics includes:
- Number of wins: Cambridge, 85; Oxford, 80 (1 dead heat)
- Most consecutive victories: Cambridge, 13 (1924–36)
- Course record: Cambridge, 1998 – 16 min 19 sec; average speed 24.9 kilometres per hour (15.5 mph)
- Narrowest winning margin, excluding the dead heat: 1 foot (Oxford, 2003)
- Largest winning margin: 35 lengths (Cambridge, 1839)
- Most races: Boris Rankov, Oxford 1978–83, 6
- Heaviest rower: Thorsten Engelmann, Cambridge 2006-7, 17 st 6 lb 4 oz (110.8 kg; 244 lb)
- Lightest rower: Alfred Higgins, Oxford 1882, 9 st 6.5 lb (60.1 kg; 132.5 lb)
- Heaviest crew: Oxford 2009, 15 st 9 lb 13 oz (99.7 kg; 219.7 lb) average
- Tallest rower: James Letten, Cambridge 2017-18, 6 ft 10 in (2.08 m)
- Tallest crew: Cambridge 1999, 6 ft 6.3 in (1.98 m) average
- Oldest rower: James Cracknell, Cambridge 2019, 46 years 348 days
- Oldest cox: Andy Probert, Cambridge 1992, 38 yrs 86 days
- Reserve wins: Cambridge (Goldie), 29; Oxford (Isis), 24
- Most successful station: Surrey 78; Middlesex 76 (as of 2018)
- Women's race
- Number of wins: Cambridge, 45; Oxford, 30
- Course record: Cambridge, 2017 – 18 min 33 sec (faster, in different conditions, than the Cambridge men's Blue Boat in 2016 and the Oxford men's in 2014)
- Reserve wins: Cambridge (Blondie), 27; Oxford (Osiris), 20
- Men's race
There have been 166 official races in 192 years.
|Decade||Total races||Cambridge wins||Oxford wins||Notes|
|1870s||10||7||2||1 dead heat|
|Total||166||85||80||1 dead heat|
- Women's race
There have been 75 races in 94 years.
- The Boat Race of the North – a similar event in Northern England between Durham University and Newcastle University
- Harvard–Yale Regatta – A similar event in the United States between Harvard University and Yale University
- Oxbridge rivalry
- Scottish Boat Race – a similar event in Scotland between Glasgow University and Edinburgh University
- Varsity match
- The Welsh Boat Race – a similar event in Wales between Swansea University and Cardiff University
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