Will Oxford turn the tide?

Putney, London

4 minute read
Words Tom Ransley
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 28.03.24

Last year Cambridge delivered a historic clean sweep of victories. Have they poked the Oxford bear?

Credit Benedict Tufnell

Hoping for ‘business as usual’ are the Cambridge Women, winners of the last six races. In 2023 they cut in front of their rivals just before Hammersmith Bridge and rowed away from the Dark Blues to secure a 4½ length victory. (The two rival 2023 Blue Boat coxes, James Trotman and Tara Slade, go head-to-head again this year, this time in their respective reserve crews, Blondie and Osiris.) Overall, the Light Blues lead the Dark Blues 47 to 30.

Despite an inauspicious start, the Oxford Women’s squad are buzzing this year. They began the 2024 Boat Race campaign without a Chief Coach but have been visibly buoyed by the arrival of Allan French. Fortunately for French, and more so than in previous years, the Dark Blues have strength and depth.

The Oxford Women have six returning Blues in their top boat, compared with Cambridge’s two; the Cambridge Blues are President Jenna Armstrong (USA) and German Carina Graf, at four and five respectively. Oxford even have Blues in their reserve line-up, Osiris, with cox Slade, famed for her bolshie bump (called not made) during last year’s race, and Aussie Freya Willis in the seven seat.

Credit Benedict Tufnell

Three of this year’s Oxford Women’s Blue Boat were part of the 2022 Dark Blue losing effort against a decidedly stacked, Olympian-laden Cambridge crew. French has placed the trio in the stern; Cox Joe Gellett (GBR), strokewoman Annie Anezakis (AUS), and seven-seat Julia Lindsay (CAN) make a formidable unit. Intriguingly this pushes Lucy Edmunds, who mostly rowed at seven this season, to the bow seat. Edmunds, an ex-Yale rower and 2019 U23 W8+ world silver medallist, brings serious wattage to the Dark Blues. Ex-Princeton Tiger Anezakis, who came out of retirement for this year’s race, makes a tenacious strokewoman as proven by her gritty performances in the fixtures and at Trial Eights.

The 2024 Gemini Boat Race Official Programme

Oxford Women’s performance against neighbours Oxford Brookes in the fixtures was particularly impressive, especially as Cambridge were later beaten by Brookes at the Women’s Head of the River. Even Umpire Richard Phelps expects this year’s race to go to the wire: “…the gap is reducing, and Oxford are getting closer and closer. I am expecting a tight race… the most evenly matched Women’s Boat Race for over a decade”.

The Cambridge Women are not to be dismissed. Although many of the 2023 Blues graduated out of the programme, Cambridge Women’s Chief Coach Paddy Ryan had ample Blondie talent to choose from. There are seven ex-Blondie rowers in the Cambridge Blue Boat, four from last year and three from 2022. The Light Blues will lean on that shared racing experience. World Rowing commentator and former Olympic Champion, Martin Cross, underscores the point: “Cambridge have got people who know how to win Boat Races”.

The disparity between the two clubs appears reduced, arguably tipping in Oxford’s favour. The Oxford Women face their greatest chance of victory, in years. The question is, are they ready to grasp it?  

In the 2023 Men’s Boat Race, Jasper Parish executed an audacious move to seal victory for the Light Blues. The exceptionally rough conditions that prompted Parish to cut the first corner and cement himself into Boat Race lore, are highly unlikely to prevail this weekend – the forecast suggests the Lightweights are in for a bouncy ride on Friday, but the winds should drop by Saturday afternoon for the Men’s, Women’s and Reserves’ races. Either way, expect slower times across the board as the tide is turning later and the incoming land water will make for slow progress.

Credit Benedict Tufnell

This year, Cambridge Men’s Chief Coach Rob Baker extended the selection period and delayed his decision for the final line-up. His reasoning? The added pressure on those still fighting for their seats will drive the overall performance of the crew. But this strategy isn’t without risk; it reduces the period of time in which to regather, regroup, and bed down his Blue Boat.

Whether Baker’s strategic ploy pays off is yet to be seen, but certainly his final line-up is filled with race savvy rowers. Two-time Boat Race winner Luca Ferraro is in the seven seat. (He was also at seven in the gold-medal-winning GBR U23 M8+ last summer.) Ferraro is sandwiched between winning Blues Thomas Lynch (CAN) and strokeman Matt Edge (GBR/POL), the metronomic ex-lightweight. The Cambridge Men’s President Seb Benzecry (USA) leads from the bow seat, behind another 2023 Blue, Frenchman Noam Mouelle.

Despite the strength of returning Blues on the Cambridge side, Oxford’s new recruits have knocked two 2023 Blues into Isis, the reserve crew. International pedigree in the Oxford Blue Boat comes by way of Great Britain’s James Doran at four, Lenny Jenkins at seven, and Harry Glenister at two. Oxford Men’s Chief Coach Sean Bowden has precision-honed a crew dripping with power and hungry to prove itself. Location rather than personnel, might prove its undoing.

Video Turning The Tide | “A Long Time Coming” | Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race Documentary (2024)

For all of watery Wallingford’s Wind in the Willows prettiness, Oxford’s patch has proved problematic. In this year of record rainfall, flooding has hampered the Dark Blues. Beauty comes cold, bleak and barren at Ely but what the Great River Ouse lacks in charm it makes up for in functionality. Cambridge churned uninterrupted through their monotonous mid-winter miles while Bowden and French tore through A, B, and C plans scampering between Wallingford, Caversham, and the Tideway in search of rowable water.

It will be impossible to quantify, but this year’s Boat Race could come down to just how much Dark Blue boat-speed was washed away down the Wallingford stretch, as the flood water forced Oxford ashore, with landlocked rowers retreating to the ergs.

Credit Benedict Tufnell

Fitness versus finesse then? Perhaps. A Boat Race campaign is short, only six-months to unite a plethora of rowing types, styles and backgrounds: water time is key, and a scarcity of it cannot have helped the Dark Blues camp. Yet, more important than the lost time on the river, is the character of a crew, and how it reacts to such adversity.

Glenister, whose Boat Race debut is expected to be his rowing swansong, is adamant the weather has not dampened the Dark Blue’s gunpowder. He told reporters at the Boat Race press conference: “We don’t think that’s a problem”.

Photo The Gemini Boat Race 2024 Official Programme