Mr Sleepy caught napping on the Tideway

Cambridge men's Trial VIIIs

3 minute read
Words Rachel Quarrel
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 21.12.21

There was a sense of inevitability as the misnamed Mr Sleepy crew nevertheless succumbed to their more energetically-monikered rivals Burpees, as the Cambridge trial eights race supplied less drama but just as much intensity as the Oxford crews had the day before.  Isis-Goldie umpire Matt Smith took charge of the red flag, as a wash of photogenic green (cough, duck-egg blue) swept the Thames waters, on a day with flatter conditions and less wind than Oxford’s dark blues had enjoyed the day before.  

As they had on Sunday, the crew that won the toss unsurprisingly chose Surrey, the pick of any sane Boat Race captain who thinks they might be less than ten lengths quicker than their opposition and is racing on normal stream and wind conditions.  And just like on Sunday the Middlesex crew (Mr Sleepy) raced off like bats out of hell, intent upon making the most of their first slight corner before the river wound in the other eight’s favour for the middle ten minutes of the race and picking up all but two of the first few umpire warnings as a result.

Photo CUBC Trial VIIIs men’s crews.
Credit Benedict Tufnell

This time, however, the Middlesex crew (Mr Sleepy) only managed to sneak two seats, and were unable to claim any more as Burpees roared along beside them, the two crews level-pegging on rates.  As the stride came the first bit of damage was done by Burpees, who settled immediately into a strong effective rhythm behind stroke Ollie Parish, and quickly went two seats up.  Again they stuck, holding Mr Sleepy carefully around the slight but important Middlesex bend, while Mr Sleepy’s lack of attack bite meant they couldn’t take full advantage of their station.  As the river straightened along the flats east of the Harrods Depository the better Burpees rhythm really began to tell, and then a solid push took them clear over the next half-minute.  For the start of it a counter-push from Mr Sleepy prevented it being a quick kill, but once that effort was over the power being put down by the Surrey crew had an inexorable feel and Burpees had taken a full length by Hammersmith Bridge.  It was a proper old-fashioned killer Boat Race move, perfectly timed and a rare sight these days on the Tideway when crews are trained to expect that the race might go nearly all the way.

The Burpees victory might now have been inevitable for them but the margin was by no means decided, and in steering terms this is where it became interesting.  Ollie Boyne, steering Burpees, was keen to capitalise on his lead and attempted a bit of washing-down, which umpire Smith heartily disapproved of, calling him back onto station each time.  There was a brief moment when this appeared to suggest the crews would change sides, but they went back to their own lines quickly and the lead stretched by Chiswick Pier to 2.5 lengths which was held, more or less, until the finish line.  

“I thought there might be contact but the coxes quite rightly responded to my calls quickly, so there wasn’t any,” said Smith. He was being precautionary once Burpees were ahead, needing a length of clear water and the leading crew clearly moving away in order to stop warning once they were line astern.  “We had a period of time there where Burpees wasn’t moving away, and had [only] about a length, and therefore they were putting themselves at risk of being disqualified if the other crew came back and there was a foul.”

“They went a little bit more intense on the first few strokes, but we kept our cool and was always our game plan to be confident we could get down a bit and still be able to hold our rhythm”, said Boyne.  “As we came round past Fulham Football Ground and straighten up, we just started to move and move.  When we got a bit closer to Hammersmith we made our step, a 15-stroke push and were able to get in front.  Once we got ahead we were able to move in front and dictate what happened from there, we were in control.”  He had an interesting take on being warned, explaining “When you’re hearing from the umpire it means you’re probably in a good position because you’re putting pressure on the other crew.”

Photo CUBC’s Mr Sleepy stroked by Tom George
Credit Benedict Tufnell

2021 winning cox Charlie Marcus was resigned to defeat after steering Mr Sleepy, having seen the writing on his technology during the race.  “From about 45 seconds in, our rhythm was about a second slower per 500m through the water than theirs, and you could just always feel in the boat that they were just inching.  We took a couple more [seats] round Fulham but you could feel that the boat-speed just wasn’t the same.  We tried to be more efficient up past the Mile into Harrods but you could just feel them moving every stroke.  That’s hard to overcome, when your base pace just isn’t there.  We tried to fight back and there was good commitment, but they were too strong.”  

He was also stoical about having to cope with Burpees zooming around ahead of him past Chiswick Eyot, during the apparent difference of opinion between the two coxes about the line of quickest stream.  “It’s always a difficult one.  It’s hard to steer from the boat in front because you don’t know where the boat behind you is, and it’s hard to steer from the boat behind because all of your reference points, the markers you’re looking for, are blocked out by the boat in front of you.  Though you have nothing to lose.  We probably gave Matt a few tense moments but I don’t think we were in any danger.  I thought about diving inside the corners but there was a lot of stream today and when you’re doing quick splits relative to the land you don’t want to dive out of the stream.”

Photo CUBC Trial VIIIs men’s crews after the finish line.
Credit Benedict Tufnell

CUBC chief coach Rob Baker found the race useful to his long-term job of selecting the crews, but admitted that the result was not entirely unexpected.  “Yes I’d probably have predicted the crew that won.  There’s most likely more Blue Boat guys in that crew, in the end. Ollie Parish is a particularly good man in the stroke seat for us, there’s definitely a rhythm there.  Not that Tom [George] wasn’t doing that, but we ended up with probably a bit more support round Ollie as well, the combination was a little bit better.  It’s about how they gel in the last few days.  You’d like a close race all the way, but at the same time we’re trying to figure out who will make the Blue Boat.  When the crew on Surrey put themselves in a really good Surrey winning position they were able to capitalise and I want them to be able to do that.  They’ve got to be able to close races off like that.  But after this everyone goes back to level and we move on again.”  

The Cambridge men are also planning a UK camp in the new year:  a week training with Eton at Dorney on the closed lake, following by returning to Ely to get on with the home routine.  At this first proper opportunity to compare there is a smidge more power in Oxford (but not by much), and a lot of quality, particularly in bladework, in the upper echelons of both squads, with Cambridge having perhaps the tiniest of technique edges but again not by much.  So far so stereotypical but either of those slight advantages could switch in the remaining months before they take to the water against one another on Sunday 3rd April 2022.  Meanwhile the large number of internationals and U23/U19/Coupe internationals having decided to take some time away from turbulent post-Olympic national squads in the calm waters of Boat Race aspiration has strengthened the standards of both teams, which will allow the chief coaches to give full rein to their crew-polishing skills.  

The postponed women’s trial eights are due to happen in January, but no details have yet been released.  

Crew lists are as follows:

BURPEES Bow George Hawskwell, 2 Henry Evans, 3 Reef Boericke, 4 Hugo Durward, 5 Ollie Wynne-Griffith, 6 Simon Schürch, 7 James Bernard, Stroke Ollie Parish, Cox Ollie Boyne

MR SLEEPY Bow Seb Benzecry, 2 Peter Stevens, 3 Tom Marsh, 4 Tom Lynch, 5 George Finlayson, 6 Cameron Spiers, 7 Luca Ferraro, Stroke Tom George, Cox Charlie Marcus

Video Highlights: Trial VIIIs action from the Cambridge men, Dec 2021