The Boat Race

The annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge universities is a wonderful example of British eccentricity.


The original race was dreamed up by two former students of the Harrow public school. One, Charles Wordsworth (a nephew of the poet William Wordsworth) was studying at Oxford University while Charles Merivale was studying at Cambridge.

On March 12th 1829, Cambridge sent a challenge to Oxford, and the first race took place on the River Thames at Henley (home to a famous rowing regatta each summer). The second race took place on the Thames between Westminster and Putney, a preferred venue of Cambridge.

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The current course, between Putney and Mortlake has been used since 1845. The course is exactly 4 miles 374 yards and while the teams toss a coin (an 1829 Gold Sovereign) to decide from which side of the river they start (which ‘station’) the bends in the river ensure that the distance is the same for both teams.

The fastest time recorded for the race is 16 mins 19 secs, by Cambridge in 1998.

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The teams each comprise eight rowers (who are required to be students at the appropriate university) plus a ‘cox’ who steers the boat and calls the rhythm of the stroke. All the rowers are male, but female coxes have taken part in recent years. Both teams are called ‘blues’ – the rowers of Oxford wear dark blue, Cambridge wear light blue.

My father used to tell me that in the 1930’s the people of London would wear dark or light blue rosettes to show their support for each team. While the event is less well followed these days, crowds of up to a quarter of a million people are expected to line the banks of the course, while many millions more watch the race on television.

Historically Cambridge currently lead the series since 1829 by 87 wins to 81, there has been one dead heat – in 1877.

Cambridge won the 158th race between the two teams on April 7th 2012 – after an eventful race that was briefly interrupted after a protestor swam between the two boats. The protestor (Trenton Oldfield – an Aussie – it appeared unclear as to what exactly he protesting against) but he succeeded in narrowly avoiding deportation back to his native Australia.

In 2015, for the first time, the women’s race took place on the same day as the men’s race; women have raced since 1927.

In 2019, James Cracknell a double Olympic rowing champion, rowed for the victorious Cambridge crew, the oldest ever competitor at 46 years of age.

The 2020 race was cancelled die to the Covid-19 pandemic and, the 2021 race was held, without crowds, on a stretch of the Great Ouse at Ely, in Cambridgeshire, amid Covid safety concerns. Cambridge won both the mens and the ladies races.