159th Boat Race, Mortlake, 31 March 2013
Oxford beat Cambridge by a length and a third
If this was football, Steve Trapmore would be walking the plank by now. His record is now two losses to one win, and there have been times in the past, both post and ante the exceptional Robin Williams, where Coach on the Cam falls foul of an insecure hierarchy. The nature of the event plays to uncertainty. Only one fixture matters and there are no places other than first. As one of the most enduring players once put it to me, in the Boat Race there are only styles – winning and losing.
At least one thing is different from the football sin bins, however. After Trapmore’s crew had just been defeated in the 159th match with Oxford, the man himself walked along the beach at the finish and shook opposite number Sean Bowden by the hand. And Sean shook it. No Ice Cold Alex, him.
It may look bleak for Cambridge right now – Oxford are creeping nearer to squaring the score, which now stands at 77 Dark wins to 81 Light – but before the Light Blue heavies start re-reading his soon-to-expire contract, let’s have a look at Trapmore’s third. It is too early to man the panic stations.
For this was a great race, the sort of race you hope for and sort of race that last year’s might have been but for unusual circumstances. Fourteen minutes of side-by-side passed before clear water was visible between the boats. Oxford chose Surrey but tried to row on Middlesex for much of the way, or so it seemed to me from the launch nearest to the Surrey bank.
After a tolerably good start – “I thought our start was OK,” said Sean, “Fortunately our bad ones are still OK, and I thought it was one of those” – Oxford were warned twice by umpire Pinsent before they reached Newens Marine’s premises, but had squeezed to about four seats up at the Black Buoy (still painted yellow, by the way). Soon after that Sir Matt was warning both, and then Cambridge, and there was clashing. Zorrilla was quicker to respond than Fieldman, he said. The flag man at the Mile Post would have us believe that the crews were level, because he only lowered his flag once, but Oxford were in the lead there by at least a couple of seats.
From my perch the crews still looked far to Middlesex and, approaching Harrods, Cambridge were warned twice, and were clocked two seconds slower than the Dark Blues to Hammersmith Bridge.
By now, with both crews rhythmic and rating about 33 all the way from the third minute, Oxford had failed to capitalise on their lead. There would be no rocketing booster to open the gap, despite an attempt as they shot the bridge. They were not more than three-quarters of a length up passing Latymer School, where the Cambridge cox Henry Fieldman learned his trade, and the Light Blues held the outside of that long bend all the way to Chiswick Steps, where the margin equalled the two seconds at Hammersmith.
After the Steps comes the Crossing, where the river bends left but the Tideway veers off the Surrey flats towards the Middlesex station. Land water was probably applying the brake by now, and Oxford at last opened clear water while facing the outside of the last bend. Coxswain Oskar Zorrilla faced a make-or-break calculation. Would taking Cambridge’s water make or break his crew?
“We knew we were ahead but not enough to tactically alter the race,” he said. “We were not going to be able to cross in front, and so I had 20 strokes to decide what to do. Asking them to push for 20 strokes was asking for great reserves – 20 strokes is a lot. So coming to the crossing I looked behind me, saw where Cambridge were, and looking ahead at the bend in their favour decided it was a trade-off I was willing to take.”
He moved in line ahead, risking a Cambridge surge to bump, and it went in his favour. “It was the guys, the guys who were putting in the work; they answered when I asked them to push.”
Cambridge could not produce the surge, but Fieldman cleverly manoevered them just off centre of Oxford’s stern to minimalise being washed down by the Dark Blues’ stern. And the pressure never let up. They shot Barnes Bridge five seconds behind, and still with the bend in their favour, stepped on the gas again, while Zorrilla sidled toward Surrey to put his boat beyond territorial danger. The gap at the finish was four seconds, or a length and a third.
A length and a third or about 80 feet is not a lot of difference after four and a quarter miles of rhythm and Blues. The 159th is the latest example of a Boat Race that goes the distance, and Pinsent, umpiring his first Boat race, was highly chuffed that both crews were given an equal chance to display what they are capable of. It was packed with the action we like to see, not the action of misplaced protest, and that should please BNY Mellon in their first year of sponsorship.
Bowden praised Cambridge’s sharp start and dangerous pursuit. The late, great Acer Nethercott was honoured with his name on Oxford’s boat. Zorrilla was thrown in the drink. And it is too soon for Trapmore to walk the plank. He did as good a job as Bowden in melding a boat-load of oarsmen from Melbourne (Oz) to Litomerice (Czech Rep), or in Sean’s case from Christchurch NZ to Bozeman, Montana, and everywhere in between.
Though I pity whoever’s lot it was to make the speech at the Cambridge dinner on Sunday night. There was a ding-dong reserves’ race where the lead changed a couple of times and Isis emerged narrow victors by a third of a length. So the day added two Dark Blue victories to the four gained a week before at Dorney, where the women and their reserves and the lightweight men and women won, giving Oxford a clean sweep. The happiest man on the bank was Neil Chugani who was Oxford’s dinner toaster. He had prepared one for each possible outcome. How nice to be able to scatter the agony one to the winds. That’s metaphorical, by the way. The promised east wind was not a factor in Oxford’s day.
An hour after the race, when the needle for the 160th Battle of the Blues began, the tide turned under fading light at Mortlake, and flotsam resembling a body bag floated past the press centre, bound for Gravesend. Reporters stood to bid farewell to Trenton Oldfield.
2013 Boat Race
Oxford beat Cambridge by 1 and 1/3 lengths
Mile Post: Ox 3-46, Cam 3-46 (Ox slightly ahead)
Hammersmith Bridge: Ox 6-49, Cam 6-51
Chiswick Steps: Ox 10-42, Cam 10-44
Barnes Bridge: Ox 14-28, Cam 14-33
Finish: Oxford 17-28, Cambridge 17-32
2013 Reserves race
Isis beat Goldie by 1/3 length
Mile Post: Goldie 3-48*, Isis 3-49
Hammersmith Bridge: Both crews 6-53
Chiswick Steps: Isis 10-51, Goldie 10-52
Barnes Bridge: Goldie 14-46*, Isis 14-47
Finish: Isis 17-51, Goldie 17-52
* denotes loser leading at this point