This article appeared in the Sunday Herald
WHAT IS IT? It is the day they cannot spoil, the day when honest oarsmen toil! Once a year along the Thames, scholars are prone to losing their boaters, such is their excitement as crews from Oxford and Cambridge compete in an event which one team of eight wins and the other generally loses. As John Snagge famously relayed in his commentary on the wireless in 1949: “I can’t see who’s in the lead but it’s either Oxford or Cambridge.” In 1877 the thing was declared a dead heat, but only because the judge, “Honest John” Phelps, had fallen asleep under a bush near the finish. The other great tradition around race day is for young gentlemen to attempt to steal policemen’s helmets, a task made significantly harder now the Peelers all ride around on mountain bikes.
WHAT’S THE COURSE? Starting at Putney and finishing at Mortlake, the teams follow an S Shape, from east to west. The coxes, usually boys of about eight or nine, compete for the best current, in the middle of the river. A crew that gets a lead of more than a boat’s length can cut in front of the opposition and few races have a change of lead if this happens. In 2002, however, the favoured Cambridge crew led with only a few hundred metres to go when one of their oarsmen collapsed from exhaustion and Oxford rowed through to win. The fellow is now most likely in charge of a hedge fund.
WHO WILL WIN? Well, Oxford won last year, but Cambridge have had marginally more victories overall. Of course, fewer and fewer Englishmen “get their blues” these days: Germans and Americans – including the abominably named twins, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both Oxford) – account for half the rowers this year. It should be noted that on the only two occasions when crews have mutinied – 1959 and 1987 – Americans were the orchestrators. Hugh Laurie, who rowed for Cambridge in 1980, now also pretends to be American on television, evidence surely of England’s general decline.