I’ve raced in quite a few rowing formats over the years, but the Boat Race experience stands out as a uniquely intense encounter. Unlike an international regatta there’s only one opponent. There are no heats and no lanes increasing the danger of over-focusing on the opposition. And that’s before adding the inclement and often perilous March weather. The two-student-terms of living in the Boat Race bubble saw constant highs and lows as I was pushed to explore physical and mental boundaries in a way I had never known before. So many things were new: the levels of exhaustion, the levels of camaraderie, and the levels of pasta consumed.
The pride of going from a novice to row for my College and then represent the University was hugely uplifting. Cambridge is a small town, and so many people I’d never even met seemed to know who was in the Blue Boat and to be rooting for us. That depth of ‘allegiance’ to a clan was new to me. It felt great to belong and have a moment on the frontline for the Light Blue tribe.
“We share in something that lasted way beyond the results: a love of spending time in a boat on a river trying to go backwards as fast as possible with great people.”
Memories from my first race, which did not go to plan, are dominated by huge waves rolling down the Henley stretch. We took on a lot of water during our warm-up and didn’t have the confidence or experience to stop and find a way to bail out before the race. We hit a ‘wall of water’ coming out of the start and shipwrecked within the first ten strokes, taking even more water on board. We never recovered. I have isolated flashbacks in my mind of repeated shouts from the cox and crew to try harder, try again, and keep trying.
It was by far the biggest sporting event I had ever taken part in – having gone through school as an officially ‘nonsporty’ type (I have the school reports to prove it). To lose the race with such a non-performance was hard to take, we never got into our stride, never created any rhythm, and struggled our way to the end. There is no satisfaction in a performance where you felt unable to give your best, but it was not for lack of effort. The back page of The Times the next day showed an expressive picture of our crew after the finish line – heads hanging, frustration, exhaustion, disappointment. It was a huge lesson in understanding the imperative to get better at managing the full panoply of possible river conditions, as well as the need to accept that there are so many variables at play when you race.
After a year abroad to catch up on the languages part of my degree, I rowed a second Boat Race with a very different result. The sun shone, the wind tossed in a few gusts, but we were ready for it. In one of the strongest crews fielded we confidently executed our race plan and played our part in a historic year where Cambridge won all the Boat Races, women, lightweights and men. Our crew still holds the largest winning margin (4½ lengths) ever recorded over the Henley Boat Race course – unlikely to be broken now that the race has moved to the Tideway.
So, my score line reads: lost one, won one. But when I get together with crewmates at reunions and alumni events, we rarely talk about the actual races: we talk about crazy Lycra outfits, indulgent breakfast feasts and songs from minibus journeys. We recall nicknames and pre-race rituals. And we share in something that lasted way beyond the results: a love of spending time in a boat on a river trying to go backwards as fast as possible with great people.