The independent voice of rowing in Britain

159th Boat Race: Tell it to the marines

Posted by rowingvoice on March 30, 2013


Donald Legget, rower and coach for the Light Blues for five decades, surveys the potentially treacherous Tideway water of his 50th Boat Race

The chief sport at Putney these past days leading to the 159th Boat race has been looking out for parked cars likely to be swallowed by vigorous high tides. But inevitably after the high jinks of last year, the unmentionable cur who made the 158th race one of two halves has hogged the headlines and the copy, if not quite the limelight.

He has been braying to the Spectator that he is a sought-after consultant to the Met in their desire “to facilitate any peaceful protest” and to afford him his “lawful rights without causing disruption or danger to himself or others” – surely a cunning ploy by the cops to get the cur to leave his wet suit at home and tag himself.

It appears to have worked if you can believe his statement to the magazine that he intends to go rambling in the Cotswolds this weekend. Incidentally, several Spectator respondents to the latest news of the Aussie class warrior wonder why he is permitted to remain in the country.

Last year was not just the near beheading of an idiot. The re-start was soon followed by a clash in which, umpires are agreed, Oxford were at fault, only to be punished by breaking a blade and losing the race. The inevitable delay in re-starting is reckoned as a factor in the collapse of Alex Woods, the former lightweight in Oxford’s bow seat, into unconsciousness (Alex is happily appearing this year in the Isis crew).

Which is another reason why the marines, never mind the Met, have been called in to give armed on-the-water protection to ensure that the river remains free. In the words of this year’s umpire, Sir Matt Pinsent, “I wouldn’t want to be part of a Boat Race where it was impossible for someone to get access to the river, because that would mean crowd barriers. Much as I disagree with the cause and the manner of the protest last year, I still want to be part of a society that allows the idea of protest.”

My suspicion is that there is nothing new in armed marines floating about on Boat Race Day. But the race organisers have rightly reviewed safety and emergency procedures. They have set clearer guidelines for who should do what in the unlikely event of a stoppage.

And so to the recipe for the elite – in the best possible sense – for the 159th Boat Race.

Ingredients – sixteen good men and true, plus two coxswains. Active brain to admit candidate to study at university of choice. University fees or horrendous loan. Physical fitness and mental agility. Professional high-calibre coaches. Ability to pull an oar and move a boat. Funding for boat club, now from BNY Mellon. Stamina to get to the end of the Fulham Wall to earn that Blue blazer that you have to pay for yourself.

Hazards – ire of the umpire, who may be God but is powerless in the face of obtuse coxes. Wind from the side. Wind from ahead. Wind from behind. Eddies, whirlpools and waves. Strong tide, weak tide, heavy land water. Snow, sleet, vertical and horizontal rain. The other boat (which looks good on paper and swift on water, guys, belive it). Driftwood, swimmers, armed marines, PLA launches.

This week the crews have been paddling about, practising starts and preening themselves, posing for team photos while hoping to peak on the day. They sent their presidents, coxes and coaches to press conferences at which questions about unexpected occurrences and sore points were fended.

Dark Blue coach Sean Bowden was asked if revenge was a motive this year. Who do we take vengeance on, he asked in reply.  His president, Alex Davidson, said it may be irksome to have lost last year, but the important thing is winning this year.

Oxford had five returning Blues of whom three made it into the boat, including the London 2012 bronze medallist Constantine Louloudis, who also stands out because he is the only Etonian afloat this year. His stroke is Malcolm Howard, Canadian silver medallist at London 2012 who was coached by Mike Spracklen who brought success to Oxford after the mutiny of 1987. They are using a boat christened Acer Nethercott in memory of their illustrious cox who died recently of brain cancer.

Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore said that this is his best crew and squad since he has been on the Cam, which is three years. Bowden’s been around too long to be besting, having won eight with Oxford and two with Cambridge in a previous life from 17 starts. Light Blue president George Nash, also a London 2012 bronze medallist, is the only Brit on board apart from his cox, Henry Fielding, who learned the Tideway from Latymer.

Between them the crews have six nationalities, including Cambridge’s Milan Bruncvik as the first Boat Race Czech (apart from Bob Janousek who coached them for a year, yonks ago).

If Cambridge win, one factor could be their new secret weapon. The railway beside the bleak Ouse at Ely has been electrified, providing stanchions at regular intervals as speed- and timing-ometers and the opportunity to out-pace trains. But like James Cracknell in the Telegraph, my instinct tells me that Oxford will win on Sunday. Then again, tell that to the marines.

Christopher Dodd 


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