More Lycra that you could shake a stick at. Boat shoes by the bucket load. A ridiculous variety of college insignia ranging from fluttering flags to face paint, ribbon and nail varnish. For the hundreds of rowers in Oxford, race day had finally arrived on the Isis. Three klaxons, 13 races and 47 bumps later the first day of Summer Eights was over, climaxing in a compelling battle for the Men’s Division One title of Head of the River where Oriel M1 (that’s men’s first boat to you and me) took on the might of Christchurch M1.
This week is the sum of a term’s work for college rowers. All the time spent sweating in steamy, often topless and borderline homoerotic erg sessions, all the hours spent perspiring on the water and squatting in the gym finally come into fruition. To some this may beg the question as to why row at all, but for those clad in the Lycra of their college; this is the peak of the annual rowing calendar. Get it right and bump every day and the reward is the prestigious ceremonial “blade”. Mess up, or catch a dreaded crab, and a terms preparation will sink into the depths of the Isis.
The great strength of Eights is the fact that each race brings a different blend of entertainment or seriousness. The lower divisions are typified by fun, with creative attire more significant than the technical excellence of crews. These VII’s ranged from leopards in leotards, exhibitionists sporting only Speedos and swim hats to a men’s boat braving some rather seductive fishnet stockings. My personal highlight was watching Jesus M3 still manage to bump despite being dressed from head to foot in fetching Viking attire. Evidently the weight of their mighty weapons did not slow them down, and motivated by the power-ten code words of “rape and pillage” they captured John’s M3, plundering their boat. Great effort.
Brief research on YouTube into Eights painted a picture of absolute carnage. I envisaged boats smashing into each other with little regard for the lives of their rowers, the sound of carbon hulls breaking bones, coxes heroically diving into the dingy water to avoid decapitation and pileups that the M62 would be proud of. Compared to this weak journalistic preconception, the day was a rather tame affair, with no bloodshed – apart from the Vikings obviously. Three klaxons were blown by race stewards to prevent such apocalyptic collisions. Apart from a rogue cruiser that wreaked havoc in the women’s Third Division race, contests were kept safe and drama came only from events on the water.
For the rowing purist the action gained significance with each coming division as boats grew in technical prowess. Increasingly races extended through the gut, in front of the numerous fans collected at college boathouses. In the men’s section John’s, Oriel and Anne’s all had strong days, bumping with both first and second boats. New on the other hand had a day to forget, with all three of their crews being bumped. For the women, three of four Wadham crews managed to gain places, with Merton bumping twice in one day to move into Division One.
After Balliol W1 serenely defended their place at the Head of the River in Women’s Division One it was time for the final race of the day. Men’s Division One is the premier event at Eights, but often delivers drab racing as the skill of each top crew cancels each other out. Not so on Wednesday as Christchurch – so often the dominant force in college rowing – were knocked off the Head of the River by an Oriel boat spurred on by four returning Blues. A poor line through the gut by the Christchurch cox cost them dear, as they were forced to concede right in front of their boathouse and a colossal Oliver Wyman banner. He will not be happy. Nor will Christchurch fans, for whom this must be a bitter blow, having been Oxford’s top college since 2009. All this will increase the delight of their rival Oriel support. For them the hope must be for a period of dominance such as that seen from 1978 to 2002, where they were Head of the River for 20 out of 25 years. For the rest of us, let’s hope for more excitement, and carnage, in the upcoming week.