Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

The Boat Race

A few yards below Chiswick bridge is the imaginary line across the river where the boat race finishes. For the next four and a quarter miles the walk will follow the course of the famous race, only backwards.

At Henley we saw how the race started with a challenge thrown down by Cambridge. The second race was held at Westminster and in 1845 the race was moved to its present venue between Putney and Mortlake.

The course is very neatly planned and is theoretically perfectly fair. The bird’s eye-view of the course is of three great bends in the river, but when you look more closely there is much more to it than that. Both start lines are exactly parallel, and although each of the bends will give a shorter distance to the boat on the inside of the bend at the end of the race both boats will have covered exactly the same distance whichever side of the river (or station) they have used.

It is the constantly changing nature of the tideway that makes the race a lot more tactical. The race is held one hour before high water at Putney. This means that the stream is flowing against the rowers, but the incoming tide is working in their favour. The fastest stream depends on a combination of the strength of the tides and the amount of water flowing down the river, which naturally varies with the previous amounts of rainfall through the Thames catchment area. On top of all this comes the wind, which will affect different parts of the course depending on the direction it has chosen to blow on race day. Not only can it make conditions very uncomfortable during the race, it can also lead to embarrassment, being one of the major factors in providing the conditions for increasing the chances of one of the boats sinking.

As a measure of how much training techniques and technology have improved over the years, the first race in 1845 was timed at 23 minutes and 30 seconds. The record time set by Cambridge in 1998 is 16 minutes and 19 seconds.

Some of the university rowers that I saw a few days ago upstream at Oxford will have their minds firmly fixed on obtaining a place in the dark-blue boat for next years race. Let’s take a look at the hill they have to climb for their (just over) fifteen minutes of fame.

To start with they must already be good oarsmen. Not just good, but very, very, very good. Both universities recruit internationally known athletes to study at their respective institutions. Over the last few years the composition of the crews has increasingly reflected this global outlook.

Secondly they have to be able to put the work in; and keep up their academic courses. It is estimated that at least two hours of training is taken for each single stroke made during the race. That is some serious commitment.

There is an early test in December when two boats from the same university will race each other along the tideway course. This is known as the “Trial Eights” and gives the coaches an opportunity to evaluate individual’s performances under race conditions.

As the winter progresses the coaches will gradually decide their best teams, and by the end of February will announce the two crews who will contest the main race. Those who just fail to make the grade will be rewarded with a place in the reserve race that takes place half an hour before the big event. The two boats in this race are known as “Isis” (Oxford) and “Goldie” (Cambridge).

Standing here at the finish line I know it is going to take me nearly one hour and a half to get to Putney Bridge. In the boat race they will cover this in around seventeen minutes.

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