The Boat Race: everything you need to know
Even if you're only interested in the sunshine and socialising, you'll sound like a rowing pro with our ultimate guide to the Boat Race
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This year, Easter Sunday sees Cambridge (the light blues) and Oxford (the dark blues) battle it out on the Thames for the 159th University Boat Race. Join the crowds and line the four-and-a-quarter mile course from Putney to Mortlake on Sunday March 31 to catch all the action. Since the Boat Race began in 1829, Oxford have won 76 to Cambridge’s 81 (there’s only been one dead heat in the race’s history, in 1877), so, for those with no strict allegiance to either team, prepare to spur on underdogs Oxford. Here’s our ultimate boat race crib sheet, filling you in on ten key facts you need to know about the annual event.
Get on board: ten things to know about the Boat Race
It's over in a splash
The actual race doesn’t last very long; the record, set by Cambridge in 1998, is 16min 19sec. But the atmosphere will be building up along the course all day and your riverside walk, lingering lunch or extended session in the pub will be crowned by a sighting of one of the capital’s great sporting events. Don’t forget the Goldie (Cambridge) versus Isis (Oxford) race between the reserve crews, which takes place half an hour before the Boat Race on the same course.
A good start
The rowing clubs’ presidents toss a coin (an 1829 gold sovereign) for the right to pick which side of the river they row on. Choosing the Middlesex station means an advantage on the first and final sections of the race; the Surrey station has the advantage round the long middle bend. Don’t worry, the traditional terms ‘Middlesex’ station and ‘Surrey’ station signify nothing to most people, but in the lingo of some Londoners, Middlesex means the north bank of the river and Surrey, the south.
The start of the race, downstream of Putney Bridge, is a great place to watch the crews warming up and getting into position. If you’re close enough, you’ll be able to hear the instructions of the coxwains as they position their eights to take the best water at the start without clashing oars with the opposing crew. You can also watch the crews endeavour to look supremely confident, while suppressing their nerves as they begin a race they’ve been building up to for a whole six months.
An oar-some view
The towpath along Putney embankment is a great viewing location because there’s a long, clear view of the race in both directions.
If you’re watching from the water’s edge, don’t get too caught up in the excitement. Following the competing eights is a dramatic procession of other vessels – the umpires’ launch, the camera boats, the Port of London Authority boat and the Marine Support Unit. Between them, they create a wash big enough to give the unwary a serious soaking.
It's not all plain sailing
A major part of the umpire’s role is keeping the crews apart as each fight for the best racing line. Last year, the umpire stopped the race after a rogue swimmer appeared in the race path. The race was restarted with the crews level, however, shortly after the restart, Oxford broke an oar and Cambridge went on to take the win. Umpires are always old ‘Blues’ and will sometimes wear a colour, often a cap, that reveals which university they rowed for.
That sinking feeling...
Sinking is not as rare an occurrence as you might think. If a crew is going to sink, the final stretch after Barnes Bridge is the likeliest place. Due to a strong wind meeting the incoming tide, which creates dangerously choppy water, Cambridge went down in that exact spot in 1978.
A floody nightmare
In 1898 Cambridge was waterlogged but still finished the race. Oxford sank in 1925, and in 1951, before the race had even started, thanks to a howling gale. And in 1912 both boats sank and the race had to be rescheduled for the following day.
Water off a cox’s head
The Boat Race tradition of dunking the winning cox takes place on the north bank by the Mortlake Anglian and Alpha Boat Club after the winning crew has been presented with the trophy.
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