The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race

by frankbeswick

This annual race between crews from Britain's elite universities is a cultural icon

The pandemic caused last year's boat race to be cancelled, and this year's race was for a variety of reasons switched to a different venue, but it was an exciting event in which rowing of a high quality was displayed. There were men's and women's races, though the traditional reserve crew race was sadly cancelled. Altogether it was a fine sporting event that graced Easter Sunday.

Ely Abbey looked down on this year's boat race.


Every year, bar world war and/or pandemic, England's two elite universities splash out  an annual contest on the Thames. Putney to Mortlake is the route. This year was different, the Thames was not used. Why? Two problems: crowds during a time of pandemic risked spreading infection  [even though we have the most successful vaccination programme on the planet] and secondly because Hammersmith Bridge, under which the boats each containing eight rowers and a cox  go, is undergoing repairs, and so spectators, who often gather there, are banned.  

This year the race was shifted to East Anglia, not far from Cambridge, on the Great Ouse, a reed-fringed fenland river, very straight, overlooked at one point by the majestic Ely Abbey [despite its name not now a monastery.] 

The authorities tried to be heavy handed with spectators [intoxicated with their powers.] They sent letters to residents whose houses and gardens fringed the river ordering them not to  watch from their gardens and  warning that there would be consequences, unspecified of course! The people ignored these little Hitlers, and while the banks of what is basically a rural river were not as packed as the Thames' banks are, many people happily watched from their gardens. So far the consequences have not materialised.

Some people simply watch, but many take sides, either the dark blue of Oxford or the light blue of Cambridge. I confess to being a Cambridge supporter. I am not a Cambridge graduate, but  I worked for many years for UCLES, University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate and for its sister organisation Cambridge International Examinations, CIE. I also have a certificate awarded by Cambridge. I have spent many a spare hour before meetings wandering Cambridge, exploring its old churches and bookshops. So I have an affection for the university and the city which is lasting and strong. So on Easter Sunday afternoon I switched on the television [I live 164 miles from Cambridge] to watch the race.


Part of the race build-up was introducing the crews, women first, then men.  The size of the participants, was impressive. The women were obviously the smaller  of the two, but most of them were five foot nine or above and eleven stone plus of  well-honed muscle. Only one   was five foot seven, and she was sturdily muscled. This means that the smallest female was my height; but the male crew averaged six foot four and fourteen stone ten pounds, a very powerfully built bunch!  It is my one frustration with rowing, my size! I love the sport, but at five foot seven I would never have a chance against the big men, so I contented myself with being a spectator.

The whole infrastructure was established on the Great Ouse and its banks. Portable club houses were established and a course was mapped out. This was not easy, as the fenland river has reedy banks at places, so the course had to ensure that neither boat became trapped in reedy patches. Starting positions had to be calculated exactly. We know those on the Thames from well over a hundred years experience, but the Ouse, though very straight, does have a slight bend on the course. 

The race is accompanied by a flotilla of boats, of which the  main one was the umpire's launch, which contains the person who is tasked with ensuring that boats do not clash oars. In   addition, there are four launches provided for safety, just in case a boat sinks,  as has happened on occasion. All these boats, generally moored on the Thames, had to be transported  to the Ouse and kept safe and secure. An activist on one occasion disrupted the boat race, motivated by the usual delusion that somehow he was furthering his cause. This year there was no interruption or  disruption.

Large pontoons had to be brought as starting blocks, from which the boats are held ready for the start, which only happens when the boats are properly positioned.

Finally feeding facilities had to be  provided for the hungry crews. 

The Race

We were lucky with the weather, for we were in a warmish spell lasting a few days, dry days thankfully, before a cold north-easterly bringing snow showers was due to arrive. East Anglia suffers when the wind is from the north-east, as the icy blast can scour the flat landscape.

The day was bright and sunny, as the women's crews rowed to their mooring at the pontoon. Cambridge had opted for the inside of the bend so they commenced slightly behind the Oxford crew. Both coxes, the only crew members of small size, kept their arms raised to signify unreadiness to start, then both dropped their arms and the race began on the umpire's signal. Cambridge women got off to a good start, and soon were a third of a boat ahead, but Oxford women put in a super effort and overhauled them. But the Cambridge girls were not fazed by this. They had since the start had longer oar strokes than the Oxford women had and soon it was clear that Cambridge were overtaking an Oxford crew who had been forced into a sprint that they could not sustain. Cambridge overtook and stayed ahead, winning the race. As a Cambridge supporter I was delighted. Now for the men's  race.

One interesting point is that for the first time the Oxford male crew were being coxed by a woman. The position of cox is not restricted and so the cox can be male or female.

Cambridge surged off to a good start, surprising for what was the slightly lighter crew, but soon they were cruising through the flat fields of East Anglia, in what is basically for them  a home waterway. Oxford put up a brave fight, but Cambridge held on to their lead which eventually lengthened to about a boat length, despite Oxford's attempting a final sprint for the finish. Cambridge powered across the line to maintain their dominance of this event.

That this event could be held is a sign that we are coming out of the dark tunnel of the pandemic.

Updated: 04/05/2021, frankbeswick
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Veronica on 04/09/2021

Reference to Loch Ness opens up a entire new Wizzley article , hey favourite Big Bro ? :)

frankbeswick on 04/09/2021

The picture is not Cambridge, it is of Ely, a small town overlooking the race course. It is of Ely Abbey, an imposing Norman edifice. I could not find a suitable small picture of Cambridge, and as I visited for work I never took pictures.

Ideally, a venue equidistant from both universities would have been chosen, but there was none suitable, and the Great Ouse is an established rowing course, so the race was held there.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/08/2021

frankbeswick, Thank you for practicalities and products.
Perhaps the pretty picture to the left of your title bears a street view of Cambridge, what with your personal and professional affiliations there... .
Did "the authorities" explain why they chose the venue that they did? It's a bit surprising to me that they didn't select something, for example, half-way between the two universities.

frankbeswick on 04/06/2021


Rowing is one of my favourite sports. I have, though, never rowed competitively, though I have rowed for fun on lakes in England, Scotland, Ireland and Norway. This list includes Loch Ness. which was difficult to steer on because of the current where I was rowing.

blackspanielgallery on 04/06/2021

Such races are shown on television occasionally, and one local university practices in a canal, or did at one time. The problem with watching such an event is like watching golf, you might see a segment, but unless you are near the finish line will not see the end of the event where the winner is determined, It is like golf in the sense you might see who wins the seventh hole, but not the final victor. In such events it is more important to be with the crowd and see others than tthe event itself for some. But that alone is important.

frankbeswick on 04/06/2021

One peculiar tradition is that the winning team throw their cox into the water.

frankbeswick on 04/05/2021

Wise of her.

Veronica on 04/05/2021

When our niece started Oxford and went to the Freshers Fair, the boat team, gasped and said " She's perfect " . It seems they wanted someone short like her to be the team Cox , who was lightweight and would be thrown in the river at the end. She declined , as she would.

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