After the 7am starts, the endless circuit training and the draining ergs, the end of Michaelmas saw the return of the Christ Church Regatta. As the new boys of the Oxford rowing scene donned their lycra, their coaches looked to the skies, full of memories of last year’s disheartening washout. Thankfully, the threatening clouds which dominated the sky throughout most of the competition failed to cause the same amount of havoc as they did this time twelve months ago. For many of the less well drilled teams who competed in the first few days, the weather was the least of their problems.
Going into the first day of racing everyone was looking to Exeter as the boat which was expected to dominate the week, courtesy of the earlier win at the Nephthys regatta. However, teams such as St John’s A, who had lost to Exeter in the final of that regatta by less than half a length, were keen to make their mark on the water. With both A and B boats being put into the same draw, there were always going to be mismatches, as well as some of the stronger teams having a more favourable draw than their competitors. Despite this, an easy run in was no guarantee of reaching the later stages, which was proved by a strong looking Teddy Hall boat, who managed to scupper their chances of advancing further when they crashed into the bank, amid mass confusion amongst the rowers.
The sight of boats careering into the side of the river, or losing an oar, was a common one in the first few rounds, with many of the races having only one team finish. It was clear, even to people who knew nothing about rowing, that many of the people involved, well, knew nothing about rowing either. There were several teams who had clearly never been out on the river before, and had hardly crossed the start line before they found themselves meandering their way towards an ego bruising crash and an early exit.
However, despite the first half of the regatta throwing up some questionable performances and often laughably one sided results, the Saturday proved to be much more exciting. After Queens A had been defeated in a shock result against St John’s B’s, Exeter were left as the only A boat in their side of the draw, thus almost guaranteeing their place in the final. The other half of the draw however, proved to be much more hotly contested. As the number of boats dwindled throughout the rounds, the quality of rowing increased dramatically, as some of the more accomplished crews finally came head-to-head. St. Peter’s seemed to be establishing themselves as dark horses for the title, as they cruised through their first few encounters untroubled, looking every inch the well trained outfit. The semi-final bought their first real test as it matched them up against Nephthys runners-up St John’s, who had had a similarly comfortable run-up to the race. With both teams looking like strong contenders to try and topple Exeter, the crowds thronged the edge of the river as they set off. Despite being unable to separate the two boats for the first half of the race, St Peter’s gradually pulled out into a half length lead, which they refused to relinquish for almost the entire rest of the race. Although a huge St John’s effort in the last 50m made a comeback look possible, the boys at the bottom of Norrington table held on, and in the process booked themselves a place in the final.
After this draining encounter, despite St Peter’s strong showing, many still fancied Exeter, with their previous win this term already under their belts, to walk away with it in the final. But their attempt to take a clean sweep of novice silverware this term was thwarted by what can only be described as a monumental effort on the part of their opponents. The fact that Exeter had not been properly tested until the final may have played a part, with complacency perhaps creeping into the mindset of the previously undefeated team. It certainly looked that way, as they came out of the blocks sluggishly, immediately surrendering a lead, one which they could not claw back no matter how hard they pulled. As the triumphant St Peter’s team crossed the line, arms aloft, you could see their coach standing on the bridge, regaling the crowd with his dulcet tones. Whether this was witchcraft in an underhand attempt to help his charges we cannot know. We can at least be sure that on that Saturday afternoon his team managed to magic the trophy out from under Exeter’s noses, who until that moment seemed to have been convinced of their invincibility. But as that melodic voiced floated down the river banks there was no doubt as to who had won; nor that it was a fully deserved outcome.