While most students hang out in bars, play in bands and march on Parliament, the pride of Oxford and Cambridge sit in a boat and tear up Father Thames. And what for? Bragging rights and the chance to hurl their cox in the river. He, by the way, is the little chap who sits at one end of the boat, screaming for the big chaps to keep rowing. No wonder they chuck him in. Meanwhile, the losing captain has the dodgy honour of issuing next year’s challenge, when they’ll do it all again in front of the same crowd, high on craft beer and a new set of bemused tourists.
Welcome to the University Boat Race!
Taking time out for a couple of World Wars (when defeating The Kaiser and Hitler was deemed slightly more pressing), this annual sporting stalwart has be going since 1829 and is more English than tea and scones at Henley. What’s more, the Boat Race has stubbornly demonstrated a stiff-lipped refusal to modernise, reminiscent of the MCC and House of Lords. So brazenly snooty is this Easter rowing parade that in 2012, the race was stopped by a fanatical anti-elitist campaigner who dived in and swam between the boats. Unfortunately his name was Trenton Oldfield, which sounds a bit like an elite public school.
The race begins in poshest Putney with the toss of an original 1829 gold sovereign (hopefully on dry land), which gives the choice of sides. While everyone else in London calls these the ‘North’ and ‘South’ bank, our society oarsman plump for ‘Middlesex’ and ‘Surrey’ Stations, bless ‘em. No one seems quite sure which station is best but remember, the cox is very clever and, like Baldrick, has a cunning plan.
With both teams rowing in blue, the notion of an away kit seems alien, but no matter as overtaking is considerably less frequent than in Formula 1. To be honest, there’s only the chance of a good sinking to keep us watching – and this is a surprisingly common misfortune for two crews that spend six months training beforehand! Each boat has gone under twice and in 1912, both boats sank in a storm.
For those patiently waiting on Chiswick Bridge, however, the odd finish has been mighty close, leading to ripples of excitement, audible as far away as…the bank. But nothing will surpass the unbridled thrills of 1877. In that year, with a finish too close to call, race judge John Phelps fell a little short of unequivocal by loudly declaring, “Dead heat to Oxford by five feet!”