What have Lord Snowdon, House M.D., Dan Snow and the Winklevoss twins got in common?

They have all competed in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.

This Sunday, 2nd April, will see the 163rd edition of the Boat Race and the 72nd running of the Women’s Boat Race.

Two crews of 8 (guided by their cox) will battle it out over the 6.8km course which starts next to Putney Bridge and finishes just short of Chiswick Bridge on the River Thames in South West London.

The Boat Race was first held in 1829 after Old Harrovians, Charles Wordsworth (nephew of renowned poet William Wordsworth) and Charles Merrivale suggested a challenge between their respective Universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Cambridge challenged Oxford, and the first Boat race took place on 10 June 1829 at Henley on Thames with Oxford, wearing the Dark Blue of Wordsworth’s Christ Church, winning comfortably.

Since then, 162 Boat Races have taken place with Cambridge leading the overall standings with 82 wins to Oxford’s 79. A controversial dead heat occurred in 1877 overseen by race judge John Phelps, who was reportedly over 70 and blind in one eye, and who called the race a “dead heat…to Oxford by six feet”.

The Women’s Boat race was founded in 1927 albeit the first ‘races’ were not decided in a conventional boat against boat fashion rather teams would complete the course separately and be judged on both “time and style”. From 1935 they became head to head races over a shorter course before mirroring the men’s race over the full Championship Course for the first time in 2015.

The rules of the race are simple. Crews must keep to their station, either Middlesex (North side) or Surrey (South side), unless they have a lead of ‘clear water’ in which case they may move to their opponents station in order to take advantage of the fastest water – overtaking being a very rare event. The only other rule is that both boats must pass through the centre arches of Hammersmith and Barnes Bridge. Otherwise its pull as hard as you can in an attempt to get over the finish line first.

Despite these simple rules the Boat Race has had a number of eventful incidents in the past:

  • 1978 – The Cambridge Boat is famously televised sinking (the 5th such sinking in the Race) close to the finish at Barnes Bridge as a result of failing to attach splashboards to aid with the windy conditions.
  • 1987 – the infamous Oxford mutiny during which a number of American members of the selected VIII refused to race as a result of their unhappiness at the training regime and selection decisions. In the end Oxford still triumphed and the affair was made into a film, True Blue.
  • 2012 – Perhaps the most dramatic race ever. The race Umpire is required to call a halt to the race near Chiswick Pier after Australian Trenton Oldfield is spotted by Assistant umpire Sir Matthew Pinsent swimming into the path of the boats in protest at spending cuts and a growing culture of elitism. 35 seconds after the restart the boats clash with the Oxford 6 seat breaking his oar, dashing any hopes of winning the Race. After the race Oxford’s bowman, Alex Woods, is rushed to hospital after collapsing on the finish line with exhaustion. Oldfield was subsequently convicted of causing a public nuisance, fined £750 and given a 6 months prison sentence.

Together with those individuals named above the Boat Race has also been a rich breeding ground for Olympic rowers, of all nationalities, such as Sir Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster, Cath Bishop and most recently Constantine Louloudis.

However one of the main attractions of the Boat race is that it remains a truly amateur event with rowers having to meet the academic standards required to enter their respective University and competing purely for the glory of winning.

Rowers have to schedule the gruelling and intensive training around lectures and exams leading to early starts and significant sacrifice. Indeed when Thorsten Engelmann dropped out of his course shortly after the 2007 race to concentrate on selection for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, such was the controversy that the decision was taken to not award him the ‘Blue’ afforded to all others who compete in the Boat Race

As a result it is perhaps no surprise that this annual event should capture the imagination of the British public and the World at large. The Boat Race now attracts an attendance of some 250,000 people to the riverbanks on the day of the race with a further 7 million watching coverage on TV.

In today’s increasingly professional sporting world where revenue is king and formats are constantly being tinkered with to appease viewers and sponsors alike (see here and here) the Boat Race remains somewhat of an anomaly. It has remained virtually unchanged for nearly 200 years, with the same teams racing over the same course using much the same equipment as in 1829.

Long may it continue.