The last run to the Boat Race used to be Tideway Fortnight, a full two weeks of daily outings for each Blue Boat, every practice start pored over by pundits. In modern times it has shrunk to a handful of days during which the press snap pictures and grab interviews with the athletes and coaches, and all the dress rehearsals of a complex event are run.
Monday saw the lightweight races take place over the full course (wins for the Cambridge lightweight women and men), then Tuesday and Wednesday were busy days for Boat Race outings, all eight participating crews busily getting on with final technical tweaks, practice starts and coxes checking the line.
While the BBC piled up hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of outside broadcast equipment along the far end of the Putney Embankment, OUWBC tried a new trick, rowing to Quintin on the incoming tide on Monday and then coming back to Putney during their Tuesday outing to cut down the unprofitable miles of paddling against the stream but still paddling the whole course twice.
Wednesday was Press Afternoon, time to catch soundbites and group photographs at London Rowing Club. Friday was Practice Starts Day followed by the Flotilla Emergency Stop practice, Saturday is the Veteran Boat Races held as tests for the big ones, and Sunday 4pm and 5pm are the two 2023 Gemini Boat Races with the reserve crew races in between them.
Wednesday 22nd March at 8am suddenly became very noisy on the Tideway, the skies above Putney filled with the roar of a low-flying helicopter as the water police blue-lighted it downriver towards Putney Bridge with the RNLI in hot pursuit. They stayed under the bridge for a few minutes, before disappearing again, with locals wondering if it might be a false alarm about someone possibly jumping off the bridge. This time, definitely not.
However upriver beside Hammersmith Bridge several pedestrians crossing Hammersmith Bridge called in another alert, this time for what looked like a corpse on the low-tide shingle beside the north bank of the river. The RNLI scrambled from Chiswick Pier again, only to be told by a shame-faced man in a boat marked “POLICE” that they had turned up for nothing. The corpse was a dummy, one which has apparently been in and out of various London reservoirs lately as part of the filming for the next series of ‘Silent Witness’. As the Boat Race media launch returned downstream from Barnes later that morning the film crew and actors were in full swing filming, photobombed by rowers in the background.
A new post has been added to the Boat Race scenery, a 4.25-metre half-ton post of English oak marking the point which St Paul’s School (SPS) have had measured to be the halfway point of the Championship Course. The new addition is some way downstream of the ‘Blue Doors’ on the opposite bank which have traditionally been regarded as roughly the halfway point of the course since the days when it was owned by artist Julian Trevelyan who used to throw Boat Race parties for the literati of the capital. But since it’s unlikely that a new landmark will at this late stage be added to the familiar roster of timing points including the Milepost and Chiswick Steps, it probably doesn’t matter.
In any case, it may be hard to spot. The post, dressed in smart black and white (an invitation to SPS’s rival schoolboy crews to repaint if ever I saw one) is inside the school grounds. Not only that, but it is near-invisible from the river even in the leafless depths of winter, masked by the thick trees clustering along the back of the towpath on that reach.
The four crews preparing for the top races on Sunday are taking rather different approaches over the final days of training. The Cambridge men’s and women’s crews favour lots of all-eight paddling, the odd exercise but not for too long, interspersed with short bursts, starts and pieces (though the Cambridge men did a full three minute piece between the start and the Milepost on Wednesday). Cambridge women do plenty of work with their reserves Blondie though most of the other reserve crews have a separate training plan and outings.
In Oxford, Sean Bowden is now doing his 26th year with the Dark Blues and therefore doing his 26th week with outings including a lot of pairs and fours paddling, catch and pause drills, highly technical. At the end of outings his 2023 men’s crew get to row some high-rate bursts and a few starts, ideally on the tide rather than against the stream. His OUWBC counterpart, Andy Nelder, has spent a particularly large amount of time on starts this week, and all four crews have sought out bouncy water to give themselves practice before Sunday.
High on riverwater
A bunch of new vehicles joined the infamous Putney High Tide Club on Thursday, as the combination of a 7.3m high tide combined with an easterly wind brought the river washing fully over the Putney Hard road and lapping at the balcony supports of some of the boathouses. For those not used to the vagaries of the Tideway, the pull of the moon sucks water back upriver every 12 hours and 25 minutes, reaching the edge of the Embankment road on fairly high tides and sloshing over it on very high tides which can catch unwary motorists. In the early 2000s one Oxford Blue Boat were pictured in the tabloids rescuing a flooded car.
In Boat Race week, with the races run in the period two to one hours before high tide (when the stream is quickest), that means ebb-tide paddles for the crews in the mornings and flood-tide outings in the afternoons doing pieces and starts on the water they will experience on race day. This year, as often, race week fell just after the new moon, in the period when the sun, moon and Earth are all aligned, making the tide height even bigger (a ‘spring’ tide). Add to that a very strong easterly wind, as on Thursday, and the water gets blown back up to Putney adding even more height to the top level, and forcing drivers to scurry to get their vehicles moved out of range of the polluted salty water. Moments before those pictures were taken several drivers had managed to get their cars out of the more flooded areas, though not without some wet seats and flooded foot-wells.