First raced in 1829, the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race is one of the oldest sporting events in the world. The eight-man rowing crews race along the River Thames in South West London for just over four miles. Cambridge leads the rivalry in wins, with 80 compared to Oxford’s 76. Some famous folks have taken part in this race, you might recognize names like Hugh Laurie and the Winklevoss twins. It is a highly publicized and watched event, with live BBC coverage and many spectators along the river. This year I was one of those spectators.
I headed down to London late morning and decided that Furnivall Gardens would be a good place to watch the day’s events. Furnivall Gardens are right along the river just North of the Hammersmith bridge (pictured above) and as a bonus, there was a huge screen displaying the BBC coverage and plenty of food and drink vendors. My idea was to watch the boats go by on the river, and then watch the rest of the race on the screen while enjoying a pint of Pimms. As you can see by the picture above, many other people had the same idea. I heard that something like 250,000 people flock to the riverside for the 20 minute race. Everything still managed to go to plan – well sort of.
Here are the two crews rowing by right in front of me. The Oxford boat is yellow and appears to be slightly behind in this shot, but once they heard all the cheers from the people on the river banks they quickly established a rhythm and pulled ahead of their competitors. They were just about halfway in to the race when this happened:
Yes, that is a man’s head in the water looking like it is about to be decapitated by the blades of the oars. The race officials spotted the swimming intruder and paused the race – no small feat. The Oxford boat actually went right over this guy and he managed to escape unscathed. According to the news reports, he was in the water to protest the elitism of the two Oxbridge Universities. Anyway, the official decided that the crews would restart the race from up the river half a mile or so. I’m not sure why but they made the crews row against the current and choppy water back up the river to get to the restart position. Watching the coverage on TV I could see that the big 6 of the boats did all this rowing and gave the smaller guys in the back a rest. It would have made more sense to me for them to hook the boats up to motorboats and tow them back up the river. This way the crews wouldn’t get unnecessarily tired. Anyway, about 40 minutes later the two crews had warmed up again, were in place and ready to go.
Here you can see all the people in Furnivall Gardens glued to the screen as the race continues on. It was really exciting once it got going again with everyone cheering on their favorite squad. That is until this happened:
Take a look at the region of the picture that I have highlighted with the red circle. Notice anything funny? The oar of this Oxford rower is missing a blade. After the boats got going again, it didn’t take long for disaster to strike for a second time, only this time it was beyond recovery. According to the video replays the Cambridge boat drifted close enough to the Oxford boat to cause a collision of the oars, and the one guy from Oxford was on the unfortunate end of a snapped oar. You can still compete in some sports being a man down, rowing isn’t one of them. The race was certainly over at this point with Cambridge easily cruising to victory.
Would the boats have collided if it weren’t for that protester? Hard to say. I feel bad for the athletes that spent so much time training and preparing for this event only to have it not materialize into a real race. I’m sad that I didn’t get a chance to see a competitive race come down to the wire, but the sadness wanes when I think that I got a chance to see a truly historical race.