This Sunday, 29th March, sees the University Boat Race – Oxford and Cambridge competing again, as they have for over 150 years, to win this annual event.
The Boat Race, like the Derby, the Grand National or the FA Cup Final, is one of those sporting events that has become part of popular culture. You don’t have to be an alumnus of either university or interested in rowing, to know about the Boat Race – or to have fun going to see it.
Although the Boat Race itself won’t start till 1540 in the afternoon, turn up early, and you’ll be able to see the reserve boats, Isis (Oxford) and Goldie (Cambridge), race.
Cambridge colours are light blue; Oxford, dark blue. (Those who have represented either University in a sports team are known as ‘blues’, for this reason.) Depending on where you are on the course, it may not be obvious which team is which – on one famous occasion, a poor BBC commentator said, “I can’t see who’s in front, but it’s either Oxford or Cambridge.” Er, yes, precisely.
This race will be the 155th. Currently, the tally stands with Cambridge ahead, having won 79 races to Oxford’s 74; each team has been sunk once (Cambridge in 1859 and Oxford in 1925), and there has been a dead heat once (in 1877).
The race is rowed over a distance of just over four miles – 4 miles, 374 yards to be precise – in the Thames tideway. The fact that the river is still tidal here makes for extra interest; the race is rowed upstream but on an incoming flood tide (an hour before high water). The coxes of the two boats aim to use tidal currents to assist their boats’ performance; at the same time, they have to steer around three huge bends. Clashes of blades (oars) are common as they jockey for position.
This is a long race – the record time is 16 minutes, 19 seconds, rowed by the Cambridge crew in 1998, and last year’s race took over 20 minutes in very rough weather. Wherever you stand, you’ll only see part of the race – though three big screens are being put up this year, so you can watch the rest of the race via TV coverage. One screen will be at Bishops Park, Fulham (Putney Bridge tube station), and the other at Furnival Gardens, Hammersmith, about halfway along the course.
There are numerous good places to watch on either bank of the river. The riverbanks are liberally dotted with pubs, so you can get a pint or two once you’ve watched the boats go by. My favourite place during the rest of the year is the Hammersmith riverbank, with its lovely alleyways and old pubs – but for the Boat Race, I have to say the atmosphere at the end of the course is probably unbeatable. And there’s a good pub there, too – the Ship, by Chiswick Bridge.
The only disappointing thing about the end is that apparently, only two teams that were behind at the Barnes railway bridge have ever managed to come back and win. So you’re probably not going to see that exciting a finish. Then, on the other hand, you might always see one of the boats sink…
If you can’t get down to the Thames, you can watch the race live on ITV1. And you can have a bet on the race in most bookies if the fancy takes you.
I shall, as ever, be supporting Cambridge. And drinking Fullers – because the Fullers brewery is actually on the Boat Race course!