Back in Blue

The Boat Race returns to Ely. For only the second time in its 191-year history, The Oxford Cambridge University Boat Race will swap the River Thames for the River Great Ouse.

The decision to relocate responds to ongoing Covid-19 uncertainty and structural weaknesses within Hammersmith Bridge. Last year’s Boat Race event was cancelled owing to the pandemic and the race organisers consider Ely to be a more Covid-secure location. Ordinarily, Oxbridge athletes race beneath Hammersmith Bridge two and half kilometres after their Putney start, on route to a Mortlake finish, but ongoing construction work on the bridge raised concerns for both spectator and crew safety.

“For only the second time in its history, The Boat Race will swap the River Thames for the River Great Ouse.”

The men’s race has an Ely precedent. The Blues last competed in Ely on February 26, 1944 during World War II. At that time Nazi V1 flying bombs known as “doodlebugs” were pouring down on the capital making an open-air mass gathering far from safe. Furthermore, it was questionable that a student sporting event would play well during the hard times Londoners were suffering.

Photos and footage of the 1944 Ely Boat Race show crowds lining the riverbanks. Contemporary commentary references the wartime effort: “…and because the Navy was there, not a U-boat in sight.” In our current coronavirus pandemic, it remains to be seen which restrictions will be in place in terms of spectator support but following the race on horseback is unlikely to make a reappearance.

Cambridge University Boat Club’s Chief Coach, Rob Baker, was initially unsure of the Ely proposition but has come around to the idea:

“The stark contrast between our normal Putney to Mortlake race and Ely will be interesting. The fens landscape is so flat that when the BBC get their aerial footage it will look really cool. Whenever we have photographers visit, they get incredible shots. The high sided riverbanks will give drama to the television coverage because the crews will be racing down a bit of a tunnel. It will be intense, like a long drag race basically. As a contrast for one year, I think it is going to be beautiful and if the crews are evenly matched it will be an incredible spectacle.”

Medicine student Katherine Maitland of the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club is excited by the prospect of an Ely Boat Race:

“The high sided riverbanks will give drama to the television coverage because the crews will be racing down a bit of tunnel.”

“Like a lot of the returners, I’m back for my second year with OUWBC, even hungrier for a Boat Race win after not being able to race last year. I’m especially excited for the chance to beat Cambridge on their home water.”

A rowing nomad, Maitland has competed for: Eton Excelsior Rowing Club, Duke University in the States, Leander Club, and now OUWBC.

“Training for the Boat Race is unlike anything else I’ve done in my rowing career, particularly with the additional challenges posed by Covid-19. But every time it gets tough my teammates are there to walk alongside and support me. I think this year will also be special as there is an additional element of wanting to win it for those that didn’t get a chance to showcase their strength and resilience last year.”

President of the Cambridge men, Callum Sullivan, leads by example and utilises his strong eights racing pedigree. A 2019 Boat Race winner and World U23 champion from the GB eight in Sarasota, Sullivan is not unsettled by the change of venue.

“The Boat Race is one of those weird races that have many twists and turns, like the swimming protester in 2012, Wayne Pommen’s broken wrist in 2003, or the Oxford mutiny in 1987, so this is another twist and another chapter in Boat Race history. It is going to be a unique race and a great opportunity to defend our home stretch.”

So, come race day on Sunday April 4, 2021, Cambridge hope to capitalise on their home water advantage. Ely is a forty-minute drive from Cambridge, and although the original Goldie boathouse is on the River Cam in Cambridge both the men and the women squads now train from Ely. Oxford will take comfort from their 1944 predecessors who were victorious, overcoming an initial deficit over the start to lead by three-quarters of length at the finish.

Cambridge lead Oxford in both the men’s and the women’s series, 84 to 80 and 44 to 30, respectively.