Oxford v Cambridge

boat raceOars at the ready as the crews of Oxford and Cambridge’s finest rowers prepare to battle it out on Sunday in the 160th Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race.

The annual event started back in 1829 after two school friends – one who went to Oxford, the other to Cambridge – decided to set up a challenge, and it’s been held every year since except during both World Wars. Oxford won the first ever race, but comeback kids Cambridge are currently ahead with 81 wins to Oxford’s 76.

It’s now a national institution with millions watching and if you can’t join the throngs of spectators lining the banks of the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake, you can still cheer them on by tuning into BBC One or watching online.

Here’s our stroke-by-stroke guide to the race: 

We’ve got the race blues

Both Cambridge and Oxford are called the Blue Boats, as they both chose shades of blue as their team colour – Oxford is dark blue, Cambridge is light (although in the first race in 1829 their colour was pink). The rowers and coxs selected for the race are awarded a ‘Blue’ – the top sporting honour each university can bestow and is only awarded for competing in a Varsity match. Hence the two crews are known as the Blue Boats.

On your marks

The clubs’ presidents toss the 1829 sovereign coin, to commemorate its origins, before the race to choose which side of the river each team will row on. The best side depends on the weather and their team’s tactics.

Get set…

Every member of the Boat Race crews trains for two hours for every stroke in the race. It takes about 600 strokes to complete the 4.8 mile course ­– so that works out at 1,200 hours over six months, training seven days a week – for less than 20 minutes work – that’s dedication for you!


A major part of the umpire’s role is keeping the crews apart as each fight for the best racing line. Umpires are always old ‘Blues’ and will sometimes wear a colour, often a cap, which reveals which university they rowed for.

It’s all over… in a big splash

The 4.8 mile race takes up to 20 minutes – the fastest time belongs to Cambridge who rowed to glory in 16 minutes 19 seconds in 1998 – with only one dead heat ever recorded in 1877. It is traditional for the winning team to throw their Cox – who sits facing the rowers, co-ordinating their movements and generally shouting at them  – into the river to celebrate their victory. Meanwhile, the loser of the race traditionally challenges the winner to a rematch every year.

That sinking feeling

Not such a rare happening as you might think! There have been six sinkings and in the 1912 race, both boats sank and the race was held again on 1 April. In 1984, Cambridge sank during their warm-up on their way to the start after hitting a moored barge. The most likely place for a sinking is the final stretch after Barnes Bridge when strong winds meet incoming tide creating choppy waters!

Spectator sport…

The BBC first broadcast a race commentary in 1927 – and still broadcast today, but it’s just a tad bigger! Some 20 land-based cameras, satellite and communication relay stations, plus countless miles of cable, helicopter cameras, jib and mini cameras all capture the atmosphere and drama and beam it round the world with an estimated seven million UK viewers and tens of millions more from America to Africa.

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