Boat Race Eleventh Hour

The Championship Course, London, UK.

Photography Benedict Tufnell
Words Rachel Quarrell
Published 03.04.22

The Boat Race is back on the Tideway. Pity the Putney locals, as the circus has been in town for the last couple of weeks, winding up for the Big Day aka the first BBC-broadcast Oxford-Cambridge Boat Races to be held on the stretch for three years. The Hard has been scattered with various shades of light and dark blue kit branded with out of date and current sponsors, and dog-walkers have been entertained by the sight of highly-focused rowers prioritising pulling a boat along backwards over all other possible goals. The question now is what has changed over the last two weeks: how are final preparations going?

The Light Blue men returned back from Switzerland to join their women in sampling the delights of the Tideway just as the weather was turning colder. After an unexpected glitch in some of their last kit was put right, the club was upset to find its towing vehicle stolen from outside the house some of the club were staying in. That wasn’t the end of their woes, as on Friday after their practice starts the Blue Boat decided to row into the tempestuous headwind-induced waves around the Fulham Football Ground and ended up swamping their boat near Barn Elms after trying to row perpendicular to the wind across the river, necessitating 999 calls and the RNLI rushing to their rescue. (Hint: rowing at a steep diagonal in such conditions helps avoid too much water splashing into your shell…)

The good news for the holders of the men’s trophy is that their Olympian-boosted crew is going well and the forecast for race day is for lighter winds so much less chance of rough water. The combination of GB Tokyo medallists Ollie Wynne-Griffith and Tom George now sitting at 7 and 6 behind stroke Ollie Parish is working well and they have a feisty Goldie crew against whom they honed their start speed on Friday. Stylistically in paddling there is the usual ‘gathering’ moment at the finish, which can look like a pause, but this year’s crew is segueing effortlessly into a fluid rhythm at speed. The bookies naturally have the heavier Oxford crew as favourites (they are convinced weight is the only predictor of success) but Cambridge’s odds have been shortening over the final days and the club has created real momentum over the last few years which can spur on the belief a crew needs to reach the finish line first over this tough course. “In terms of races we’ve watched big ones for us are ’97, ’03, ’02 and more recently ’18 and ’19”, said cox and CU men’s president Charlie Marcus. “It’s just knowing and having confidence in your crew — we had some people from ’97 come and talk to us. But you need also not to get anchored in the past, you just have to row your best race at that point in time.”

The Oxford men came into the final weeks after a bruising contest against Brookes’ best, but have also had their share of ups and downs. On the up side they weathered rough water on Thursday extremely well, and proved mentally resilient while coping with the wash thrown up by the PLA when it whizzed off to help Cambridge during their starts practice. On the down side the pervasive wash meant they didn’t get any chance to do a proper long start off the stakeboat, robbing both their and Cambridge’s coaches of a chance to measure initial race speed across markers. [Oh hang on, that could be a bonus too.] They also had GB Olympic silver medallist Angus Groom sitting out for Tuesday’s paddles, perhaps a precaution against his ongoing injury niggles, and no crew is relaxed in the face of potential medical issues. Groom’s place was competently filled by Isis stroke Josh Bowesman-Jones, but that substitution just shows the seriousness of concerns, and throughout the season there has been an emphasis on the whole squad rowing the same way in case changes are needed, which let Oxford get through a Brookes fixture with two subs without substantial issues. 

Coach Sean Bowden has hovered between clear satisfaction at one of his best and most powerful crews of recent years, and annoyance at issues which are out of his control: he’s in his driest Boat Race patch ever and with this crew has a very good chance to strike success once again, if no problems crop up at the last minute. “We’re really relaxed, and I think that’s a good sign”, said stroke Tobias Schröder. It’s interesting that the video Bowden specifically chose to show his crew is the 2005 race, when Oxford won by two lengths. “We always want to be our own boat and create our own rhythm, row our own race”, said Schröder, “but there are echoes with that boat, we feel. That was a boat with a lot of characters, who had done a lot of successful things, come from a lot of different programmes. It’s been very clear this year that there’s a lot of talent in the team and the challenge has been how to bring the different styles together.”

Overall though the riskiest area, as is always the case in a potentially close contest between two excellent crews, will be the steering. Sir Matthew Pinsent takes the flags for this year’s men’s race, and showed himself willing to disqualify Cambridge’s old boys while adjudicating the veteran men’s race. Whilst no cox ever wants to put their crew into a dangerous position Oxford’s Jack Tottem and Cambridge’s Charlie Marcus have both steered well previously and neither will back down if they feel their line is threatened. Let’s hope for no clashes to mar what could otherwise be a very good race.

On the women’s side there is no getting away from the magnetic ability and experience of Grace Prendergast sitting at seven in Cambridge’s crew.  So many people feel she can’t lose that it’s difficult to look past her presence to the realities of a Tideway Boat Race, which needs everyone to play their part for mile after mile. However, this is a highly skilled Cambridge crew, who are clearly very relaxed in their position as titleholders and favourites. “The past few weeks it’s really sunk in how big of a deal the Boat Race gets and how excited people get for it”, said Prendergast a few days before the race. “Though it’s about getting your head around the different water: you can’t really expect a boat to feel perfect here. You just have to go with it and as soon as you start fighting it, it gets harder and harder.” Prendergast has scoliosis — curvature of the spine — which clearly has not hindered her rowing career though it limits her to bow side and makes erging uncomfortable. But the Tideway does bounce her spine about. “It’s a little bit tougher on the body — I try not to wobble around too much else it can get a bit sore.”

Caoimhe Dempsey has now moved to the six-seat where she looks very comfortable behind the sharpness of Imogen Grant and the length of Prendergast’s stroke, and cox Jasper Parish, younger brother of Cambridge men’s stroke Ollie, has shown a forcefulness while bossing reserves Blondie on the river which suggests he may try and take Oxford’s water early on if he gets a chance. The crew has been watching the record races and wondering about their chance of breaking the 18:33 mark, but Dempsey is realistic. “It’s good to have something to aim for, right, and it’s good we’re in the position where that could be called a realistic goal, but we’ll see what happens.” “The real goal is to row the best race we can”, said bow Adriana Perez Rotondo, “and the outcome will be winning or getting the record or whatever.” “That sums up our entire approach to everything,” added Dempsey. “We’re not actually trying to beat Oxford, it doesn’t matter what crew is beside us, we’re out there to give our best performance.”

On the Dark Blue side the changes mostly happened over the last month, and they’ve been settled in their combination during the final week, as well as clearly happy to be together.  “This is the tightest-knit squad I’ve been a part of”, said former Blue and President Amelia Standing. “The crew is full of great personalities, we’re having a good time.” After intensely tight selection which saw former Blues not make the cut, this is possibly the best Boat Race crew Andy Nelder has ever coached, but they know the size of the mountain they face as the underdogs. “We haven’t got the names but I do think we have the talent and depth” said highly experienced Blue and former international Anastasia Posner, who decided to trial again on Boat Race day last year, when she saw her club lose to Cambridge.

The women’s crews chose not to weigh in this year but it’s clear Cambridge are on average taller, and Oxford will have to spring a surprise on the Light Blues to break their faith in Cambridge’s recent winning streak and put them under pressure. That surprise might also have to be quite early in the race, since despite good fixtures results they won’t be able to let Cambridge get a clear upper hand in the first minutes. However if the crews are still alongside one another late in the course, this is the race more likely to create disputes over where the fastest stream will be, which umpire John Garrett will have to adjudicate.

There’s one more trick 2022 is serving up: the BBC drone. If as seems likely the wind will be low enough to let it fly, spectators can expect Henley Royal Regatta’s expert drone pilot Steve Peters to serve up the best views ever delivered for a Tideway race. His drone flew over part of the races in Ely last year but the spectacular background of London’s famous history-filled course will be even more stunning. The racing had better live up to it.