May 14, 2021

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Fentastic! Switch from the Thames to the Great Ouse helps Cambridge clinch a Boat Race double


Cambridge University clinch Boat Race DOUBLE over Oxford after switch from the Thames to home waters on the Great Ouse… in the 166th staging of the famous race

  • Cambridge University won in both the Men’s and Women’s Boat Races in 2021 
  • The women secured a fourth successive win, the men a third consecutive victory
  • Only a handful were there on this barren stretch of the fens in Cambridgeshire
  • But victory was still sweet for Cambridge and bitter for the losing Oxford teams 

For years, the crews of Cambridge University have skated along the River Great Ouse, past the band of houses before the Victoria Street Bridge — always conscious of keeping their voices down, always keen not to wake Littleport residents.

All those early morning sessions led up to this. And for once, they had licence to roar. For once, locals were up and gathered behind bunting to cheer them on.

In this Boat Race like no other, two fascinating arm-wrestles fell the way of the light blues as, on home waters, Cambridge women secured a fourth straight win before the men landed a third consecutive victory.

The Boat Races took place with only a smattering of onlookers, unlike the usual quarter-million

The Men's and Women's Boat Races were set on the River Great Ouse near Ely, Cambridgeshire

The Men’s and Women’s Boat Races were set on the River Great Ouse near Ely, Cambridgeshire

The quarter-million-strong throng along the Thames was replaced by a handful on this barren stretch of the Fens. But that wasn’t going to stop the winning crews enjoying this victory. And that couldn’t soothe the pain for the Oxford boats — shoulders slumped, hearts broken, bodies shattered.

After last year’s event was curtailed by Covid, the Boat Race landed here for the second time in 191 years. Both sides had only four weeks to prepare on water after lockdown left them training over Zoom, on rowing machines in student bedrooms.

And yet they produced the closest men’s race since 2003 and the tightest women’s battle for nine years.

‘Everyone in this boat has been putting in the work for the last eight months,’ Cambridge’s Garth Holden said. ‘In the cold, the rain and the snow. That’s the pay-off.’

Organisers considered almost a dozen possible venues before settling on this flat stretch of the Great Ouse near Ely. The race had been here once before, in 1944. 

The Cambridge men's team won for the third consecutive year in the 166th year of the race

The Cambridge men’s team won for the third consecutive year in the 166th year of the race

Oxford triumphed on that dull February afternoon, when locals packed on to the raised banks. On Sunday, only occasional fluorescent scare-crew lined the river to ward off spectators.

Hardly the annual carnival between Putney and Mortlake. Hardly a landmark, either, on this narrow, three-mile straight. ‘Bloody straight, bloody cold and bloody boring,’ as a Cambridge cox once put it.

Perhaps nothing illustrated this race-unlike-any-other as vividly as the names of Oxford’s two boats. During trials here in December, Track beat Trace and Pfizer overcame AstraZeneca.

When they returned, even the skies were light blue. All while clouds gathered over the visiting crew. This week, Oxford, and its boat club, were accused of ignoring a female rower who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a top male athlete.

The Cambridge women's team took the victory for the fourth successive year, to their delight

The Cambridge women’s team took the victory for the fourth successive year, to their delight

Members of both women crews wore white ribbons — synonymous with the fight to end male violence against women — for their 75th race. 

Oxford squeezed their rivals towards the reeds and oars seemed about to clash. The visitors came from behind to lead, only for Cambridge to rally and pull clear. By the time they flew past their gaggle of fans, they were nearly a length in front.

Sarah Winckless — the first woman ever to referee the men’s race — was also rather busy after Cambridge rushed into an early lead and pushed towards their rivals, bending the rules further with every stroke.

The men's crew celebrated a strange race in traditional style, throwing cox Charlie Marcus in

The men’s crew celebrated a strange race in traditional style, throwing cox Charlie Marcus in

They had several warnings but cox Charlie Marcus knew that every boat width towards the left bank could save his crew up to two seconds per 500m.

Oxford clung on, even dodging a clump of reeds at one point along the course, but they couldn’t close the gap. ‘It f****** sucks,’ admitted Jean-Philippe Dufour.

As for the Cambridge crews, a long night awaits. But before that, it was time to give their cox an early bath. Some things never change, no matter where you are. 

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