Monday, June 23, 2014

BOAT RACE: History (Updated Dec. 9, 2015)

Memorial to Dr. Charles Merivale (1808-1893)
 in Ely Cathedral. "Caustic in wit".
The Original Challenge.  The BNY Mellon website on the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race pins the origin of the Boat Race on a very personal story.

The founders of the boat race are two friends from Harrow named Charles:
  • Charles Wordsworth, who had gone on to Oxford  (Christ Church) and
  • Charles Merivale [sic, only one "r"], who went on to Cambridge (St John's College).
Charles Wordsworth was the nephew of the poet William Wordsworth (St. John's College, Cambridge, 1787-1791) and the son of Christopher Wordsworth (1774-1846), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1820-1841.

Charles Merivale deserves most of the credit for the challenge. He actually rowed in the Cambridge boat at #4. The two Charleses met during the vacation in Cambridge and are said to have gone "rowing" on the Cam (they may have been punting).  The two Harrovians decided to organize an intercollegiate challenge.

Punting on the Cam. View looking south from the Garret Hostel
Bridge. Photo by JT Marlin, June 2014.
On February 10, 1829, according to the BNY Mellon site, a meeting of the Cambridge University Boat Club requested Mr. Snow of St John’s to write immediately to Mr. Staniforth of Christ Church with the message
The University of Cambridge hereby challenge the University of Oxford to row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation.
Staniforth and Snow had been contemporary oarsmen at Eton.

However, a guide to Cambridge Colleges published by Pitkin Press, printed in 2014, says the boat race was started by Cambridge as a challenge from the Lady Margaret Boat Club at St. John's College. The Lady Margaret Boat Club is the oldest college boat club on the River Cam and is famed for the scarlet jackets worn by its rowers. This jacket is said to have been the origin of the word "Blazer" as applied to boat club jackets and later to any jackets of a formal nature.

The two stories can be reconciled if we speculate that Merivale took the matter of the challenge up with the Lady Margaret Boat Club and they in turn approached the CUBC.

What is broadly agreed is that the first race eventually took place on June 10, 1829 at Henley-on- Thames. Oxford won this first race easily. The fact that the next race was not until 1836 suggests both how much the initiative had come from Cambridge and how much the eagerness of the Cambridge oarsmen to test themselves may have been dampened by their initial defeat.

Their winning boat from the first race is on display at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley.

Since 1856 the annual event has been uninterrupted except during the two World Wars, although the actual race was interrupted in 2012 by an Australian protester who was subsequently convicted of a crime.

The Course. The 4.2 mile course on the Thames starts in Putney and ends in Mortlake, which also happen to be stations on the SouthWest Trains line, which originates in Waterloo Station. The train trip from Putney to Mortlake takes five minutes, about one-fourth the time it takes to travel on an Oxford or Cambridge boat–although only the cox is able to travel without doing any rowing. The cost of the train each way by is £1.90 or about $3.
The two boats are called "Blue Boats", although they are not in fact painted blue. Cambridge rowers wear shirts that are light blue or have light-blue highlights. Oxford wears dark blue or shirts with dark-blue highlights.

Each year approximately 250,000 people watch the race live from the banks of the Thames while millions watch on television. Cambridge has won 81 races and Oxford 78 races, with one tie.
Writer in 2012 at marker of the start
of the boat race, with Putney Bridge
in the background. UBR stands for
 "University Boat Race."
Boat Race training starts immediately with the beginning of the academic year in September.

The Wikipedia Boat Race entry has an exhaustive history of the boat race, including full coverage of two interesting disputes among the Oxford crew members that involved American rowers who found the Boat Race culture of the time more than they could take.

Several books have been written on the history of the boat race and the various disputes that occurred.
Some Famous Rowers. Investment bankers are said to favor Oxford and Cambridge rowers because they are presumed to be smart, fit and tall–except for the cox. )

The most famous cox may be Jim Rogers, the investment biker, who coxed the Oxford boat and recently donated a new shell to Balliol. Some famous rowers (lists of crews for most years may be found here):
1922-23 (Oxford) Andrew Irvine
1950 (Cambridge) Lord Snowdon
1977 (Oxford) Colin Moynihan
1978-83 (Oxford) Boris Rankov (whose long stint led to the Rankov Rule)
1980 (Cambridge) Hugh Laurie ("Dr. House")
1990-91, 1993 (Oxford) Olympic gold medalist Matthew Pinsent (his sharp comments on the 2012 race are famous)
1997 (Oxford) Olympic gold medalist Tim Foster
1997 (Oxford) Luka Grubber
1997-99 (Oxford) Andrew Lindsay
1998 (Oxford) Ed Coode
1999, 2001, 2006-07 (Cambridge) Kieran West
2010 (Oxford) The Winklevoss twins (who spoke at the 2012 NYC Boat Race Dinner)

Racing Rules. The race is governed by a Joint Understanding between the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs. Since 1983, no rower may row more than four times as an undergraduate and four times as a graduate.

To protect the status of the race as a student event, the Boat Race committee in July 2007 refused to award a blue to 2006-2007 Cambridge oarsman Thorsten Engelmann because he did not finish his year, returning to the German rowing team to prepare for the Beijing Olympics. One proposal is that only students in courses lasting two or more years should be allowed to row.

Organization. Like the British Constitution, the organization of the boat race is not written down in any one place because the agreements are private and have been changing. Oxford's official site includes a useful summary of the culture of the boat race and some information on the costs. The race costs "hundreds of thousands of pounds" for the rights to use the Thames for the race and an equal amount to prepare the two crews for the race.

So title sponsorships can be taken to be of this order of magnitude. The rules of the boat race are set by the Oxford and Cambridge rowing clubs, and they also appear to be in charge of hiring the management company, the Boat Race Company Limited (BRCL), that handles the details of the race. BRCL in turn obtains sponsorships and hires staff and contractors. One of its contractors is Professional Sports, based in Weybridge, which deals with media and addresses details relating to sponsorships. The boat race website also lists contractors who do web site design and updating.
Writer at Putney Pier, next to the start of the Boat Race.

Sponsors. Boat Race sponsors over the years have included Ladbrokes, Beefeater Gin, Aberdeen Asset Management, and until May 2012, as a "Title Partner", the business outsourcing company Xchanging, which has an office in Chicago but was not widely known in the United States.

The new "Title Partner" sponsor with a strong U.S. base has a five-year contract from 2013 to 2017, BNY Mellon. The boat race is called the BNY Mellon Boat Race. Sponsorships are governed by private agreements with BRCL.

BNY Mellon's Newton Asset Management group has already sponsored the women's boat race and starting in 2015 women's race will be given equal billing with the traditional men's race (for which women have been allowed to race in the coxswain spot). This is a long way from 1963, when Murray Edwards College's women's boat beat Oxford’s in what appears to be the first intercollegiate women's boat race.

Besides the title sponsor, the BRCL obtains other partners such as Hackett, Sharp's Doom Bar, Bollinger Champagne, and BBC Sport. It also lists "suppliers" including London Voyagers, Fattorini, Crew Room, Hunter and BT. The BRCL also lists an official charity, London Youth Rowing, which teaches rowing to young people who might never otherwise have a chance to learn to row and get a chance to compete.

Boat Race Dinners. More than 70 Oxford-Cambridge committees worldwide are dedicated to running boat race events - 15 in the United States, five in Canada, and more than 50 in the rest of the world. In addition, many university-specific Oxford and Cambridge alumni associations sponsor dinners at the time of the boat race, i.e., in the March-May period.

The largest Oxford-Cambridge dinner is usually held in New York City, attracting more than 200  people in years 2012-14, although in the first year of President Clinton's occupancy of the White House, more than 300 people signed up for the Washington Boat Race Dinner. (President Clinton did not appear, although many of his appointees did. I was at the dinner. After 1993, Washington BRD attendance fell.)

The 2014 and 2015 NYC BRDs are at the University Club. The NYC dinner is also the oldest continuous Oxford-Cambridge alumni event in the world, celebrating its 82nd uninterrupted annual dinner in 2015. The Vancouver BRD is the oldest, dating back at least to 1929, but it was not held in three of the next four years including 1933 and therefore loses by one year to NYC, which started in 1933 and had not missed a year.

Alumni Boat Races. Over the years a number of efforts to organize Oxford-Cambridge boat races have been made in the United States. Boston is continuing the tradition, with an alumni boat race before its Boat Race Dinner in May.

New York has had several successful launches, but none has endured as long as Boston's. Most recently races were held at the Saugatuck Rowing Club in Westport, Conn. Dr. Saman Majd was Race Director in  2006-2007. He spoke about the race at the 2007 NYC Oxford-Cambridge Alumni Boat Race. He has a degree in Physics from Oxford and a PhD in Finance from MIT. He rowed for St. Paul's School, London, and for Christ Church (Captain, 1977). He stroked the Isis crew that set a new course record in the race against Goldie. Since 2004, he has competed for the Saugatuck Rowing Club in the US and World Masters Championships and served as the Club's Commodore in 2006-7.

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