A Change of Scene

By Matt Holland, the only cox to win both the men’s and women’s Boat Races on the Tideway

To what extent is the Boat Race defined by its course? The announcement that the Boat Races in 2021 are to be raced on the Great Ouse in Ely has caused many to consider this question over the past few weeks. Is a Boat Race truly a Boat Race if it doesn’t go through Hammersmith Bridge? Does the new course in Ely present enough of a challenge for the coxes and crews?

In reality it is the historic rivalry between the two clubs, and the extraordinary determination of the crews throughout the demanding academic year that makes the Boat Race special. The Boat Races have had several different locations in their 166-year history, including in Ely in 1944, yet each of these is recognized as a true varsity race, so there is no question that the 2021 Boat Races will be remembered as true equals to their Tideway predecessors.

Ely cathedral.

Although the course in Ely is certainly less exciting than in London, it does present its own unique challenges. The crews will be racing far closer to the banks, with reed beds and moored vessels to contend with. Side-by-side at full pelt, a lapse of concentration from a cox could see a blade clip a reed, with potentially disastrous consequences. There is also a stream, albeit less rapidly flowing than in London. Coxes and coaches will have to make judgements in training and racing as to the best play off between the potential wind shelter of the bank and the benefit of sitting in the faster water. Zephyrus notoriously takes no prisoners, and in Ely there is no exception. The flat plains of the fens allow relentless, bitterly cold winds to develop. From personal experience, the icy winds create very harsh conditions, and sudden gusts of wind can rapidly change the position of your boat. If the coxes aren’t on top of their game, the weather could easily get the better of them. Much like in London, the possibility for the elements to wreak havoc remains a very real one.

Speaking to Oliver Perry, cox at OUBC, it is clear that after the disappointment of last year, the change of location has done little to disturb the hunger in the team. ‘Everyone is glad to get a race, where it happens isn’t so important’. When asked about the prospect of racing on Cambridge turf he didn’t seem at all daunted, instead enthusing that ‘beating Cambridge at home would be legendary’. The distinct impression is that it is business as usual for the squads, a sentiment that is echoed by Cambridge’s Charlie Marcus who says, ‘preparations are undisturbed by the change of location’.

“The Great Ouse will make this like no race in recent history, but both clubs seem unperturbed by the change of circumstances.”

Perry believes, however, that the simpler course could see this turn out to be one of the most exciting races in recent history. ‘When you take out the differences caused by the bends, this is going to become a very tactical race, I think it’s going to be very hard for any crew to break clear’. It is certainly true that, although the straighter course will make the race seem more ‘traditional’, the extreme distance that the crews are racing next to each other will make this an exceptional test of mental toughness. No bend means no inside advantage, which will make a game-changing push significantly harder.

CUBC Women training in Ely.

Asking Marcus about the home advantage he says that CUBC have been ‘enjoying training on the race course and are looking forward to defending our home water’, but that generally the new location will have ‘little effect’ on the way they prepare for racing.

The Great Ouse will make this like no race in recent history, but both clubs seem unperturbed by the change of circumstances. Now on a simpler course, and with the crews burning with injustice after last year’s cancellation, 2021 is looking to be one of the most exciting races in living memory. Ely may not provide the crowds, but the competitive spirit is stronger than ever.