The Gemini Boat Race 2021

April 4th 2021 - Ely, Cambridgeshire

4 minute read
Words Tom Ransley
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 07.04.21

A two-year Boat Race hiatus ended with a spectacular clash between the Light and Dark Blues. In the wake of last year’s cancellation, the current crop of Oxbridge rowers put on a good show in Cambridgeshire on Easter Sunday – worthy of the only previous Ely Boat Race in 1944. It has been a tough year, heavily influenced by the global pandemic, but it was great to watch the four crews take to the water and renew their historic rivalry.

The Women’s Race
Photo Umpire Judith Packer starts the women’s race
Credit Benedict Tufnell

Tough to lose, great to win, and a joy to watch: The 75th anniversary of the women’s Oxford versus Cambridge race delivered an enthralling battle on the three-mile Ely course. The Light Blues prevailed to earn their fourth consecutive win.

A south westerly wind meant patchy shelter could be found on the railway side of the River Great Ouse and race-favourites Cambridge, who won the coin toss, chose accordingly. Making matters worse for Oxford, the hard wall nearest the road meant any bounce in the water reverberated back at them.

Photo Cambridge women at the Boat Race in Ely
Credit Benedict Tufnell

From the start, Oxford’s cox Costi Levy was determined to claim the centre of the river for the fastest water and better conditions. Levy said of her line: “I knew where I wanted to be, and we were there. I wasn’t getting much pressure at the beginning of the race from the Cambridge crew so that was a good position to be in”.

Cambridge moved out to a third of a length lead and their cox, Dylan Whitaker, steered defensively to avoid the clash while umpire Judith Packer warned Levy to return to her station.

As the race continued it was apparent Levy was struggling to maintain a straight line down the course. “It was tricky to control in the conditions today because you shift over a little bit and you get blown over a lot. Once your bows are pointing in the direction of the wind it just pushes you over. It was a tough balance to strike between moving out and then staying in the right direction,” said Levy.

Photo Oxford women at the Boat Race in Ely
Credit Benedict Tufnell

The Dark Blues’ fighting spirit enabled them to claw back and take the lead, but they were unable to keep it. Cambridge resumed pole position by the Lark, less than two kilometres from the finish. 

Had the Light Blues not crossed the finish line first Dylan Whitaker might well have appealed the result. A clash between Fenley in the Cambridge five seat and Oxford’s stroke woman Katherine Maitland occurred while umpire Judith Packer was warning Oxford to return to their station. 

“Costi did a good job. Maybe there is a conversation to be had about being warned and where the stream is,” said Maitland, the losing stroke woman who felt the intensity of the racing. “It was the first time I’ve been in a race and not worried about how much longer there was left. It was stroke for stroke, and we did whatever we could to get our bows in front. But we didn’t have enough to hold off their push.” 

Maitland is hopeful the race will prove a turning point for Oxford and hopes future Dark Blues can find a winning path. “Maybe this is the year that sets Oxford up. What we did today has started out our legacy for Oxford University Women’s Boat Club.”

Winning President Sophie Paine of Cambridge was proud of her crew’s effort and the levels of trust her rowers had built during this unusual Boat Race campaign. “When we were down, I felt okay. I was not panicking because the boat still felt good. Let them burn let them take some seats and then, when they get tired, we will come back. And that is exactly what we did,” said Paine. 

Photo Cambridge celebrate their win
Credit Benedict Tufnell

Paine admits their final preparation was good, but she said, “We weren’t rowing technically the best…” An absence of ‘polish’ was made up for in firepower. “We had a lot of fight in us…”

Julia Lindsay, the Canadian bowsider in Oxford’s stern pair, knew Cambridge would come out fast in the first kilometre but felt her side did well to ensure it was not a one-sided contest. “We gave them a run for their money. It was the most painful race. I would be curious to know what would have happened if we had started on the other side – it probably would not have made a difference, but I am hanging on to that right now. It feels disappointing. The race feels like it happened in thirty seconds…”

Ruing a missed opportunity, Oxford’s Head Coach, Andy Nelder, said it was “a tough one to take”. Perhaps a race he felt slipped through Oxford’s fingers.

The Men’s Race
Photo The men’s trophy
Credit Benedict Tufnell

The 166th men’s Oxford versus Cambridge race produced a sensational battle. Ultimately it was the Cambridge underdogs who triumphed.

Stoked to defend their home water, Cambridge leapt out and seized control. Peaking at forty-five strokes a minute the opening two-minutes was a demonstration of fearless, slick, and slippery rowing by the Light Blues. It required a whole-hearted commitment from every member of their crew. But in the face of this blistering attack the Oxford crew refused to panic – a mighty feat considering their limited four-week preparation period. 

Photo Oxford men at the Boat Race in Ely
Credit Benedict Tufnell

Cambridge’s start could be confused for the mother of all ‘fly and die’ tactics. The Cambridge cox, Charlie Marcus, said after the race, “It wasn’t a kamikaze”. But to borrow from poker playing parlance, the Cambridge crew were certainly all-in. 

Oxford, the bookies’ favourites, had the railway side of the River Great Ouse after winning the coin toss, so Cambridge’s frontloaded approach might have been a daring attempt to steal Oxford’s sheltered water.

They came agonisingly close to doing so, but Charlie Marcus was forced to relent as the margin between the crews was not enough to steer across. But while he attempted to nudge across, Oxford’s bowsiders had to row in the puddles of the Light Blue rowers.

The next ten minutes were agonising for both the spectators and the oarsmen. The central question underpinning the ensuing BBC drama: Would Cambridge hold on?

Were it not for Sarah Winckless’ umpiring expertise and the Oxford cox Jesse Oberst’s steersmanship, the audience might have missed their answer. A floating clump of reeds dislodged from the riverbank threatened to halt proceedings, but Winckless warned the crews and Oberst repositioned. The clump slipped by safely beneath the Oxford oars.

Oxford rallied and mounted a counterattack, Oxford’s President Alex Bebb said later: “We didn’t roll over”. At the halfway mark they reeled Cambridge back to within a 1.3 second deficit. The Dark Blues seemed to find their best rowing in the third quarter of the race. Harmony by way of collective fatigue.

Photo Cambridge men at the Boat Race in Ely
Credit Benedict Tufnell

Despite it not being a comfortable lead Cambridge revelled in the margin. Their pre-Christmas Trial VIIIs battle served them well in this year’s Boat Race; it was very similar. One crew leapt out and were forced to defend their lead for the rest of the race. Without the usual fixtures this experience was invaluable.

Cambridge held on for the 2021 Boat Race win. It was the closest race since 2003 – the Light Blues were almost a length ahead at the finish line. A desolate Oxford crew, many of whom are unable to return next year, left it to their bow pair to face the press. 

Photo Cambridge celebrate as they cross the finish line
Credit Benedict Tufnell

The youngest member of the crew, James Forward, was unflinching in his assessment. “It wasn’t our best stretch of rowing and there’s no point pretending it was, but we gave it a good shot and Cambridge were the quicker crew today. It is tough to lose. It does not really matter what age you are; it is the Boat Race. Everyone here is really wanting to win it and therefore losing is not much fun.”

Oxford’s President Alex Bebb, from Canada, was magnanimous in defeat. “We have a lot of respect for them (Cambridge), and they put together a hell of a good race.”

Photo The Light Blues celebrate double victory
Credit Benedict Tufnell
White ribbons 

Against the backdrop of allegations of serious sexual misconduct claims being mishandled at Oxford, both women’s crews and the Oxford men’s crew raced in white ribbons in a show of support for the victims of sexual assault.