5 facts about… the Boat Race

This Sunday sees the men’s crews of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge meet for the 160th time in the brutal physical challenge, the Boat Race

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Over the 4 miles 374 yards course between Putney and Mortlake on the River Thames, the two rowing crews battle it out for victory every year, with the only interruptions during World Wars I and II.  

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Cambridge, wearing light blue, are in the overall lead with 81 wins, but Oxford, dark blue, are not far behind on 77. There has been one dead heat, in 1877.

The crews train for six months, all for a race that lasts under 20 minutes (the course record is 16 minutes 19 seconds set by Cambridge in 1998). It is said that every member of the eight-man crews trains for two hours for every stroke in the race. As it takes 600 strokes to reach the finish line, that puts it at 1,200 hours of physical and mental preparation.

Here are five facts about this historical rivalry…

1) On 10 June 1829, the first race took place, as a result of a challenge between two school friends, Charles Merivale of Cambridge and Charles Wordsworth of Oxford. The letter sent by the Cambridge boating club to Oxford read: “The University of Cambridge hereby challenge the University of Oxford to row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation.” Unfortunately for Cambridge, Oxford won the first race comfortably, but the start of a fierce contest was born. Over the next 25 years, it took place irregularly until it became an annual feature in 1856. 

2) While the crews make their way along the river, they go through Richmond upon Thames. The London borough’s coat of arms shows two griffins, one holding a light blue oar and the other with a dark blue one.  

3) The 1877 race was called as a dead heat, but many believe the race was not that close. The judge at the finish line, John Phelps, is reputed to have called, “Dead heat to Oxford by five feet” – which seems frustratingly ambiguous. There was no clear finish line at the time so it was difficult to call tight races accurately. A finish post was put in for the next year’s race.

4) Starting the race has also caused confusion in the past. In 1883, the crews couldn’t hear the orders of the elderly Edward Searle, who had started every race since 1840 by shouting “Go” and dropping a handkerchief into the river. The Oxford crew hesitantly set off only when they saw the handkerchief drift past them, leaving Cambridge at the start as they hadn’t heard the shout. From the following year, a pistol was introduced to signal the start of the race.

5) In 2003, not one but two sets of brothers were competing. The Oxford crew included Matt Smith and David Livingston while their brothers, Ben and James respectively, rowed for Cambridge. There seems to have been too much in common between the crews as it was the closest finish in the race’s history, not including the dead heat. Oxford won by a single foot – and had the race been a few strokes longer, Cambridge would have overtaken them. 

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The Boat Race is on 6 April.