The battle to the death - that wasn't

The Rowing Service

A gloomy drizzly day put some of the crowds off, and the Embankment was not as full as usual, but otherwise Boat Race day dawned the same as usual, a bizarre mixture of tension and total normality. On the face of it, a quiet Saturday on the Tideway, but under the surface, nerves and concern from anyone involved in either the Oxford or the Cambridge camp.

This year the press found it very hard to call the form. Training camps away in Amsterdam and Nottingham until the very last week kept the Blues away from national paper scrutiny until late on, and the coaches were as ever, confident on both sides. Late in the final week, starts rehearsals showed Oxford to be fast and strong, but Cambridge (when they got it right) a stroke quicker to get cover between their puddles. With six Cambridge victories running in the record books, for interest's sake if nothing else punters were predicting a Dark Blue win, but all agreed it could be very tight. Weather was grim but uneventful: no wind, and flat water, but the cloud cover so low that the usual BBC helicopter was grounded, giving the commentators hard time distinguishing position on the river.

In traditional TV form, the toss was made with the 1829 gold sovereign (Duncan Clegg, race organiser, standing over to ensure it wasn't lost down a drain), and Cambridge won, choosing Surrey, favoured in mid-race.

The umpire this year was Mark Evans, an Oxford Blue who has ruled the roost on this difficult race on two previous occasions. 1997 and 1998 had seen tightly fought coxing battles, so this year he warned them (and their German strokes) quite clearly about his intentions for a fair race. If the coxes ignored him, he was quite prepared to barge his launch in between the crews, and if necessary sit it in the stern-wash of the offender, in order to slow them down and force them apart. Forthright and inventive stuff, but in the end the surprise of the day was that it was barely needed.

Evans kept them both waiting a nervous age on the stake-boat while he checked adjustment, both coxes having to continually realign in the swirly water coming off Putney Bridge. Minutes ticked past, with old Blues watching the TV monitors in the boathouses barely breathing as they relived the agonising pre-start pause. The start time came and went, and still they were held: the stakeboat guys with their arms in the water getting colder and damper. Finally a rapid start "Attention, GO!" and the cameras almost missed it as they set off.

Oxford, on Middlesex, were off very slick, hitting a rapid 41 at the end of their wind, but Cambridge had a better second ten, and as they settled at the end of the moored boats, showed a couple of seats in the lead. Coming out around the corner at the end of the Fulham wall, the crews were stroke for stroke, and Oxford, trying to maximise the effect of their bend, were warned once, twice and then a third time as they tried to push Cambridge out. A couple of strokes clashing while Evans' launch moved nearer to harry the Dark Blues, and then O'Donnell, the Oxford cox, finally moved, a sharp flick of the rudder which must have lurched the Oxford shell considerably. Cambridge stayed a few seats up between Barn Elms and the Mile Post, then steadily started to draw away. Times to the Mile Post 3:37 and 3:38 (record 3:31). At this point Oxford were being washed down slightly as O'Donnell tried to stop them being pushed out of the stream, and by Harrods Depository it was six seats up to the Light Blues, and very tight steering on both sides. Times to Hammersmith 6:27 and 6:30 (record 6:20).

As they cruised through Hammersmith Bridge Cambridge lifted a touch to 36 (Oxford 35 and a half), trying to break clear. The Dark Blues veered a little to bowside here, presumably in another effort to avoid the wash, but this was a miscalculation, and gave Cambridge another few seats they happily accepted. The two rowing styles were clear here: Cambridge sitting quite upright and very economical, Oxford rowing a clean long stroke but utterly failing to make any impression. What showed clearly, as it had in practice, was the slick bladework of Cambridge, the spoons slicing clean and low straight into the water without hesitation, while Oxford were swinging in from quite a height, and more ragged. At St. Paul's there was another attempt to push back, Tim Wooge in the Cambridge stroke seat looking tense, but it didn't work, and by Chiswick Eyot Morgan Crooks in the Oxford 6-seat was having to look quite far round to see the Cambridge stern.

At the Crossing Oxford were right inside the bend in a desperate attempt to lose no more ground, but Cambridge, with President Brad Crombie clearly in pain, were pulling away inexorably with every stroke. Times to the Chiswick Steps 10:10 and 10:17 (record 9:56). As the Bandstand passed a TV shot of Oxford President Charlie Humphreys evoked imminent defeat - he clearly knew how far adrift his crew were already. Seeing the light blue caps waving in the launches behind, not even able to feel the wash off the crew in front, and unable to get back on terms - you always know in the bow seat. 1998 President Andrew Lindsay was desperate, tugging away at every stroke. Times to Barnes Bridge 13:49 and 13:58 (record 13:32).

It was all over bar the shouting, which began as the waiting Cambridge crowds at Quintin started to yell for their boat. The crews passed the newly-painted finish post, and collapsed into cliche, Oxford bent in stunned and exhausted grief over oar-handles, Cambridge looking deceptively fresh, and cheering their victory to the skies. Brad Crombie stood in the 3-seat to acclaim the applause as the shell drifted through Chiswick Bridge, and the Cambridge pre-race underdogs revelled in their victory. Oxford floated out of sight, ignored and unwanted, as the lauches, cameras and reporters flocked round the new winners. Times to the fionish 16:41 and 16:52 (record 16:19).

This was the second-fastest winning crew ever, for whom everything had come together: start, steering, technique and guts. For the losers, just a fraction slower each stroke, something made all the difference, but they were at a loss to know what.

Quotes

Brad Crombie, Cambridge President, on choosing Surrey:
"We think that the it's favourable to both stations, so you have to pick one."
(oh yes, right: prize for the cheekiest put-off ever)

Dai Ellis, Cambridge 5-man:
"Actually, I really knew after 40 strokes that we would win. We've had some trouble with our starts, but the middle of our race was really strong, so I knew."

Josh West, Cambridge 4-man:
"It was an unbeatable experience...
...We had a rhythm that was unstoppable: it was easier than I thought."

Toby Ayer, Oxford 4-man, on being down:
"I was very focused on back and front of me, and the race...
...There were no big tactical bursts made or anything that I noticed, just that they were quicker - that's a hard thing for me to say."

Harry Mahon, Cambridge finishing coach:
"We just row long, with a good rhythm...
....You have to take a good long stroke, and then another."

Vian Sharif, Cambridge's pint-sized cox:
"Toby, Toby, come and give me a lift out of the boat" to her young bowman, as her crew were surrounded by reporters and ignoring her after coming in to land.

Charlie Humphreys, Oxford President and bow-man:
"This year is worse than previous years, maybe it's because I was President. We were very confident in our abilities and unfortunately we weren't able to put it into practice on the day."

Josh West, Cambridge 4-man:
"It hurt a lot, a lot of pain, but while we were washing them down, I could see it was hitting them"

Peter Snow, BBC broadcaster and father of Oxford's 3-man:
"We were shouting as hard as we could, but it didn't make enough difference...
...I was thinking "Fight harder chaps, this is your race" at Hammersmith...
...You care a lot who wins when your son is in the Boat Race"

Harry Mahon, Cambridge finishing coach:
"I was surprised the way it evolved - we just went away...
...I was surprised where Oxford were, they dropped back so early...
...I just thought there was no contest."

Chris Dodd, Guardian writer:
"It's the same old cliches. It's just sad that such a good bunch of guys have to lose."

Charlie Humphreys, Oxford President:
"We found a reasonable rhythm. We're going to have to look at everything we do in our system and try to put things right for next year. We'll definitely be back next year stronger than ever."

A hell of a curtain-raiser - the reserves race report