Sir Matthew Pinsent, umpire of the men’s contest in the 2017 Cancer Research UK Boat Races, had a busy Saturday afternoon refereeing the water equivalent of a boxing match in the annual Veteran Boat Race between the two ancient universities.
The race, now in its 22nd year, ended up as Cambridge’s fifteenth victory in the series, after Oxford beat them to the line but were promptly disqualified for fouling.
After a member of the public had found what they thought might be an unexploded bomb downstream of Fulham Rail Bridge on the Middlesex shoreline at lunchtime on Saturday, the veteran crews, boasting eight Olympians between them, were forced to warm up beside the Fulham Wall rather than out on the downstream reach. But it had no impact on the race, which began from a clean floating start a length behind the University Stone at Putney. Oxford, who won the toss, chose Middlesex for the short course which ends approximately 2km from the start, at the Furnivall doors.
Both crews rated a brisk 38 off the start, but the punch of the Dark Blues, selected on ergometer scores during the winter, began to tell straight away and by London Rowing Club they already had half a length and were continuing to draw away. Cambridge’s crew settled to 33 while Oxford remained at 35-36, and before the Black Buoy Oxford were clear water ahead, a lead they extended to two lengths as the two eights passed Fulham Football Ground.
“[The Dark Blues] just had a terrific start”, said Cambridge cox Martin Haycock (Blue ’93, 94) who told his veteran crew to bide their time and wait for Oxford to pay for their fast opening minutes. At the Milepost, where Oxford were six seconds quicker, Cambridge began to inch back, but it wasn’t until about a minute later that the Light Blues began a serious push. “By that point we knew we were coming back and once the guys got that sniff, I knew it was going to be a really close finish”, said Haycock. “It was just a case of how long it would take us to get through them.
“As Cambridge notched the rate up to 35, Oxford struggled to answer the attack, and the lead shortened dramatically. “When we tried to take it up, nothing happened,” said Oxford cox Zoe de Toledo (Blue ’12). Cambridge closed rapidly past the Harrods Depository, Pinsent began a prolonged series of warnings for Oxford, and meanwhile Haycock predictably defended his station, taking advantage of Oxford’s disagreement with the umpire to make the turn towards Hammersmith Bridge at the last possible moment.
Since de Toledo chose to hold her line as the overlap grew, a clash looked inevitable, and just as they passed under Hammersmith Bridge the blades started to interlock. A few strokes later Cambridge 3-man Toby Backhouse caught a crab, struggling to regain control of his oar as they raced the last 20 strokes. Oxford cleared the finish line opposite Furnivall Sculling Club a length to the good, but Pinsent already had hold of his red flag, eventually disqualifying them for interference and making Cambridge the victors.
“[Zoe] said she’d give me a work-out”, said Pinsent, adding that it had been a very easy decision. Under Boat Race rules, any crew causing a foul is at risk of losing the result, and Pinsent had been warning Oxford persistently both before and during the clash and when the crab occurred. A sad result for both crews, neither of whom would like to win or lose due to a disqualification, but yet another result for the history books.