The independent voice of rowing in Britain

‘I would never want to race against a Bowden crew’ – Oxford President

Posted by rowingvoice on April 6, 2014

Putney Sunday 6 April 2014

Christopher Dodd

When asked by a Canadian television crew at Putney why the Boat Race was such a big deal, I struggled with the usual clichés. There was no other popular sport when it started; Londoners took the Oxbridge toffs’ race to heart, and for reasons unknown the romance and the irrational support has grown into a worldwide TV audience; the Boat Race is two flies walking up a wall, easy to understand and easy to bet on; it quickly established a reputation for fairness.

Then there are key aspects for sporting and rowing types. Pioneering amateur status rules, developing rules of racing; introducing eight-oared boats to the Championship Course from Putney to Mortlake already used for professional sculling races; extending rowing from a professional sport to an amateur one; the challenge of a long side-by-side race on a big river with a strong tide.

For these reasons and more, the Boat Race retains its magic as the crews prepare for their 160th match. On the face of it, it remains a private affair for the Oxbridge intelligentsia, if no longer for toffs. But if you deconstruct Oxford and Cambridge 2014 into what brought them together, you find a variety of routes from the roots of rowing. The race that gives the sport of rowing – to say nothing of a couple of rare academic piles – an enormous publicity bonanza each year now contains traces and influences that stem from far beyond a bunch of college lads boarding a boat on the Isis or the Cam for a jaunt to London.

The statistics of the 160th are as follows: Oxford have seven postgraduates, five internationals, four Blues, three Olympic medallists, three Canadians, three who rowed for Harvard, two Kiwis, two Brits and one American. Cambridge have seven postgraduates, four Americans, two Blues, two Brits, two who rowed for Wisconsin, one German and an Aussie. Both coxswains are British. The difference, you will see, is that Oxford’s higher pedigree on the world scene points to success on Sunday (but remember that when Matthew Pinsent returned from the Olympics to lead Oxford in the 1993 Boat Race, his crew bowed to a humbler Cambridge). It’s a victory for Oxford’s recruiting sergeant. ‘If this continues, we can’t compete,’ said an Old Light Blue this week.

From inception to this side of the Second World War, Blues came from English private schools or learned their craft at the universities, with a trickle of American and Commonwealth oarsmen. The Boat Race bred internationals, while today it is as much a repository for internationals, even Olympic champions. Two-way traffic now involves North America as much as Britain, and there is almost annual input from European countries and Down Under. Its demography reflects changing patterns in higher education as well as the sport of rowing.

It is also a heady mix of influences, personified in Malcolm Howard, Oxford’s 31-year-old president, who is studying clinical medicine at Oriel. Howard hails from the paradise of Victoria on Vancouver Island, learning to row at Brentwood School in British Columbia. He embarked on an incredible rowing journey when his studies took him to Harvard and the Charles River, going afloat under the legendary Harry Parker, 50 years coach of the Crimsons. He also found himself on Elk Lake, near his home town, where the legendary British coach Mike Spracklen was in charge of Canada’s heavyweight men. Now he is on the Tideway under Sean Bowden, coach to the Dark Blues who has built an outstanding record in the Boat Race.

I lobbed an impossible question at Howard – how did these three compare? ‘I can only put it this way,’ he says. ‘I would never want to race against a Parker crew, or a Spracklen crew, or a Bowden crew. I’m glad I have never come up against one.’

Three different programmes, three different legends. ‘Harry taught me how to race. Mike taught me how to train. Sean refined the way I row,’ Howard says.

Parker’s programme encompassed multi-lane regattas like the Eastern Sprints and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships, the one-on-one 4-mile Harvard-Yale race, and trips to the English Henley. He put eight after eight of mixed ability on the Charles River and coaxed his men into sorting out for themselves how to race. Harry had a reputation for secrecy, a man of few words. But he was not secretive, Howard insists. He was a man you wanted to listen to, and you can guarantee anyone to whom he spoke would listen. ‘When Harvard bought the boat that we Canadians used to win the Olympics in Beijing and named it Michael Howard, Harry urged everyone at the naming ceremony to remember that there were seven others in the boat to win the medal,’ Howard says.

Seven years with Spracklen and the Canadian team taught him fitness and preparation. Where Parker spent half a century in one boathouse, Spracklen has been round the world, coaching Oxford in the Boat Race and medal winners on the international circuit in Britain, the US, Canada and now Russia. ‘Everything in a Spracklen crew is thought through. He has a reputation for mind games. If you didn’t agree with something he said, the reply was always ‘trust me’, and he was invariably right,’ Howard says. ‘The last thing you want from Mike is to be ignored.’

Spracklen is a crew coach through and through. His strength is not in running squads or teams, but in looking after people who believe in him, who want to be coached by him. On his DVD on motivation, Spracklen says that everyone has a point where they back off, so his job is create an environment where the goal is to retard that point. One of his weapons is poetry. ‘It’s quite something to be quoted a poem before you go out to race at the Olympics,’ Howard says.

Bowden began his coaching career at Thames RC and came to prominence with the now defunct Nottinghamshire County Rowing Association where he was responsible for more than 30 international medals. For several years NCRA coaches – Bowden and John Wilson with Harry Mahon – coached Cambridge and turned the Light Blues into winners. Howard stroked Bowden’s Dark Blue crew to victory in the 2013 race. Bowden is another coach that Howard has no wish to encounter as an opponent. ‘He is meticulous in every respect. Everything is thought through.’ Together with peaking on the day, attention to detail is a key for Boat Race coaches, given that their pool of talent is restricted to who is actually a full-time student at the university to which the club is attached.

This exposé may serve to reiterate the Boat Race’s significant place in the sport of rowing, but it doesn’t add up to a certain Oxford victory. Cambridge weigh more and have plenty of clout even if they are lighter on international experience. But it’s what happens on the Tideway that counts.


COMING SOON: Christopher Dodd’s Bonnie Brave Boat Rowers, the heroes, seers and songsters of the Tyne, published by


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