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  The University Boat Race

The University Boat Race is a rowing race on the River Thames in London, held in the last week of March every year between teams from Oxford University and Cambridge University.  The two crews raced from Putney to Mortlake - four and a quarter miles long - in a tradition dating back to 1829.


The Race between the two universities was the brain-child of two friends, Charles Merival (a Cambridge student) and Charles Wordsworth (an Oxford student and nephew of the poet William Wordsworth).  On 12th March, 1829, Cambridge sent a racing challenge to Oxford and a tradition was born.  The two crews first met in this historic competition at the now famous Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. 

The year 1829 was the founding of the Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC).  It was not until ten years later that the Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) was established. 

Since 1829 the Boat Race has been rowed every year except those of the two World Wars, in 1914-18 and 1940-45.  Except for the first Boat Race, the early Boat Races were held at Westminster-Putney course in London but, by 1845, Westminster was so overcrowded that the Race was moved six miles up-stream to Putney which, in bygone days, was a quaint country village. From 1856, this annual event was moved to the Putney-Mortlake course and has been contested there ever since.

In the early years of the Boat Race the crews wore no distinguishing colours.  In 1836 Oxford selected dark blue to race in, the colour of their stroke-man's college (Christ Church), and Cambridge adopted the "duck egg blue" of Eton.  The first woman to get a "Blue" was Sue Brown, who coxed Oxford in 1981 and 1982. 

In time-honoured tradition, five weeks before Race Day, the losing team of the previous year challenges the winners to a new race, then crews are announced to the world's press.  On the Race Day, an official toss takes place before the Boat Race begins to determine which side of the river each crew will row.  The Boat Race is always preceded by a race over the same course between the two reserve crews: Isis (Oxford) and Goldie (Cambridge). 

In the history of the Boat Race there has been one dead heat.  The judge on the finish ("Honest John" Phelps) was asleep under a bush as the crews raced past.  When awakened and asked the result he said "Dead heat to Oxford by four feet". 


Preparation for the big day takes place as early as six months prior to Race Day, and sees the eighteen students training for six hours a day, six days a week in a bid to add their names to the history books of this prestigious racing spectacle. Initial training and selection is carried out at each university from October to December, culminating in the 'Trial Eights' - when each university races two of its own crews against each other over the Race course as a dry run. Individual performances are rated and crews for the big Race are selected at this point by the coaches.

Between early January and mid-March, students are put through an exacting training schedule at the university training centres: Ely (Cambridge) and Wallingford (Oxford), which is interspersed with practice runs on the River Thames. By the crews' own choice, a section of the university holidays is taken up with rowing work-outs in foreign locations.

Interest in the race goes far beyond those people who have rowed or who went to either University.  The Boat Race has for 150 years attracted attention not only from the United Kingdom, but from all around the world, in particular Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, Europe and Japan. 

The Boat Race is one of the most popular events in the British sporting calendar and attracts a massive crowd of over 250,000 to the banks of the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake, with pubs, bars and rowing clubs dotted along the towpath and embankment for spectators to visit.  It is also one of the only free sporting spectacles in London.

Over the last five years, the live BBC television audience for the Boat Race has averaged over six million, making it a top five live televised annual British sporting event (along with the Grand National, the FA Cup Final, Wimbledon finals and the
British Grand Prix).  The BBC recently signed a new contract to cover the event through to 2004.  The event also has a huge international following with a potential viewing audience of 400 million in around 160 countries. 

Meet this year’s crews

1999 marks the 145th Boat Race between the two universities.  It took place at 3.30p.m. on Saturday 3rd April 1999.

The crews for the 145th Boat Race and its Reserve Race were announced at the Challenge on 1st March 1999, at the Star and Garter in Putney, London.

Three Blues from last year returned to the Cambridge crew.  President Brad Crombie, Olympic oarsman Graham Smith and Toby Wallace rowed in the 1998 Cambridge crew which won in a record time of 16 minutes and 19 seconds.  One member of last year's reserve crew (Goldie), Kieran West, joined them.

Oxford, who are attempting to break Cambridge's run of six consecutive wins, also retain three members of last year's Blue Boat.  Charlie Humphreys, this year's President, and Andrew Lindsay, are both making their third attempt to win the Boat Race.  Henrik Nilsson, who, in 1998, became the first Swede ever to row in the Boat Race, makes his second attempt. 

Cambridge University, the marginal underdogs, recorded their seventh Boat Race victory in a row for the first time since before the last war.  They won by three and a half lengths in the second fastest time ever 16 minutes 41 seconds.

So far, the score is 76 to Cambridge, 68 to Oxford, with one dead heat. 

The Boat Race is the longest-surviving amateur event of national standing in the UK, and the oldest formally organised sport at Oxford and Cambridge universities.  It remains unique not simply because of its national and international profile, but because, despite the changes of the last hundred years, it remains as it was in the outset, a private race between eighteen young men (and sometimes women) from the two most famous universities in the world. 

Perhaps one of the most amazing things about the race is the world class standards achieved by two totally amateur crews who have to combine a demanding training schedule with their studies, at what are perhaps the two most famous educational institutions in the world.


    [Source: Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture,
 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Races, 1999 website
Regatta Online - The Boat Race 1999 website
The Boat Race Collection website
The Great University Challenge website 
Cambridge University Boat Club Website
Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) website]
Chris asks: What is the Boat Race?


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© H. W. Lee, 1999