Tuesday, October 28, 2014

BOAT RACE: History of the Boats 1829-1983

Artist's rendering of the first (?) Oxford boat, training for the
race against Cambridge, 1829. The boat uses wherry construction.
For the first Oxford-Cambridge race, Charles Merivale of Cambridge University wrote to Charles Wordsworth of Oxford University (a Harrow classmate) throwing down the gauntlet.

That historic letter has been lost to posterity, but we have two letters from Wordsworth.

The first is written two decades after the race. Now a bishop, and therefore someone whose veracity we can scarcely challenge, he claims credit for having provoked the challenge from Merivale - as he had the first Oxford-Cambridge cricket match two years before:
Not only was I one of the Oxford Crew in the first Inter-University Boat-Race in 1829, but the Race was entirely set up by me, owing to the fact that though I was myself at Christ Church, Oxford, my home was at Cambridge (my father being Master of Trinity), and I had a large acquaintance there, and some-times (especially in Easter vacations) was invited to pull in one of their boats, e. g. that of St John's, in which were the now Bishops, Selwyn and Tyrrell, and Charles Merivale the historian, all now vigorous and flourishing.
The second letter is Wordsworth's response to Merivale, which is datelined Cambridge because Wordsworth was staying with his father in Cambridge during his summer vacation. The letter is not as poetic as his uncle William would have crafted, but it does the job:
Cambridge, June 2nd [1829]   My dear Merivale, Thank you very much for your letter. Its impudence was unparalleled. I do not know which to admire most, its direct assertions or occult insinuations. The very supposition of my being in our boat here quite rejoiced you. Allow me to assure you of the truth of the report.But this is not the only bone I have to pick with you. The sufficiently candid manner in which you talk 'of lasting us out'(!!!) amuses me so much, that I am ready to die with laughter whenever I think of it. My dear fellow, you cannot possibly know our crew, or you would not write in such an indiscreet manner. Allow me to enlighten you: (8) Staniforth (Christ Church Boat): 4 feet across the shoulders and as many through the chest (διαμπάξ). (7) Moore (Christ Church Boat): 6 feet 1 inch; in all probability a relation of the giant whom the 'three rosy-cheeked schoolboys built up on the top of Helm Crag', so renowned for length and strength of limb.(6) Garnier (Worcester boat): splendid oar. (5) Toogood (Balliol Boat) - [Toogood] for you: but just the man for us. (4) Wordsworth (new oar): has neither words nor worth, action or utterance, etc. I only (row) right on; I tell you that that you yourselves do know. (3) Croft (Balliol Boat): no recommendation necessary. (2) Arbuthnot (Balliol Boat): strong as Bliss's best (Harrow beer). (1) Carter (St John's four-oar): 'potentior ictu fulmineo'. Thus far this letter was written three or four days ago in Popham's rooms, the infection of whose company must be my excuse for its saucy style. The fact is, our boat has been reduced to a considerable pickle, owing to some of our best oars not being able to pull, Stephen Davies's mismanagement, and one or two other minor considerations.We have at last, however, got under way with a fixed crew, and matters are proceeding rather more swimmingly. You will see by the above list that our stroke has been changed. Our days at Henley will be Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Monday. Our uniform - black straw hats, dark blue striped jerseys, and canvas trousers: you must not abuse it, as Garnier and I were chosen to decide upon it. ... Now I think of it, you wished to know our boat. It is the old Balliol, built by Stephen Davies. This I am sure will please you. However I am still ready to take two to one.With kind remembrance to all friends and brothers, Believe me, My dear Merivale, Sincerely yours,C. Wordsworth. In all probability there will be a four-oar at Henley, too happy to be manned by a limb of the victorious Cambridge crew - but we shall meet at Henley before the day of the race and then I will let you know all about it.
History of the Boats

In the early years of the race, the drawings indicate the boats were wherries, with the sides of the boats well above the waterline. These were only slightly better performing than the workaday wherries that plied the ports of New York and London and still ply the Thames.

The first innovation was to use outriggers, which were invented first in 1828 and were perfected in the 1930s by Henry Clasper of Newcastle. These outriggers were still on wherries with keels and high sides - and fixed seats.

As of 1841, the Oxford and Cambridge boats still seem from etchings to look like wherries. Even so, some observers said that the Oxford boat was too flat-bottomed for the Thames at that point in the river.

The keel was perceived to be a drag on the boats and in 1844 Henry Clasper, again, came up with a boat design that put a smooth shell around a frame that did not have a keel. His design was perfected with a thin wooden skin around the frame in 1854 by Matt Taylor, and in 1856 his boats beat the competition and became the boat of choice.

In the 1860s the more familiar shells, with sides that are only a few inches above the water line and oarlocks that are set off from the side of the boat, may be seen in the etchings of the race.

But the seats were still fixed. Not until 1869 did someone come up with the idea of a sliding seat, allowing a much longer sweep of the oars and more effective use of the legs rather than just the arms. In 1873, the sliding seats were standard in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.

Starting in 1874, many new innovations were proposed, notably by Michael F. Davis of Portland, Maine, who took out many patents for his innovations. He invented a swivel row-lock; out-rigger connector castings so that steel tubing could be used instead of solid iron rod; the three-tube rigger instead of the four-tube type; reduced friction seats; sliding seat with rigger; a modern type oar button; a roller bearing oar collar, and steering foot-stretchers.

But the main features of today's shell were in place for the Oxford-Cambridge boat race in 1873. At least one innovation was quashed in 1983 by FISA, which governs rowing races - the sliding rigger. The seat would be fixed but the rig would move. FISA used an economic reason for the ban, namely that the boats would become too expensive. In fact, however, a sliding rig might save a lot of money on construction of the shell and could be stored separately from the shell, saving huge amounts of space in the boat houses.

The other major innovation in the 20th century was the replacement of a wood shell with composite (some form of fiber glass) starting in 1972. This had the practical benefit of reducing the weight of the shell from an average of 38 pounds per rower to 25 pounds - a huge relief for lighter weight rowers.

New boats for the second class of the five-year HBS-B
 in Amsterdam, April 1913. The arrow points to my second-cousin
 Tom de Booy in the middle boat, second from left, 
named Woelwater. It was a festive presentation with new flags.
The issue of the cost of shells is not trivial, especially for rowing in schools. As a point of reference, Dutch students were still rowing in eight-oared wherries in 1913. (See photo.) When the Dutch became serious about rowing in the 1930s, they invested heavily in the latest equipment and in 1936 during the year of the famous Olympic Games built a closed course, at Bosbaan outside of Amsterdam that has been used for many competitive races.

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