In a swansong to the Henley course that has proved so fruitful for Oxford crews in recent years, Oxford’s women rowers enjoyed a clean sweep of victories against three Cambridge crews on Sunday afternoon.
The main attraction of the day – a true festival of rowing– was the Newton Women’s Boat Race. Oxford came into the race as clear favourites, having won five out of their last six clashes; Cambridge, however, had history on their side, with forty past victories to Oxford’s twenty-seven. Having won the toss and elected to line up on the Berkshire station – regarded as more favourable, given the conditions, than the Bucks station to which Oxford were consigned – the Cambridge crew perhaps dared to wonder whether this could be their year.
Both crews started impressively, speeding off at around forty strokes per minute. Nevertheless, Oxford soon edged into a lead of about half a length. This advantage would only grow as the race progressed; by the time the Oxford boat flew (not literally) past its gathered fans at the Upper Thames Rowing Club the Oxford host had a full-length lead to cheer about – which they duly did. The Cambridge response was admirable, with club President and cox Esther Momcilovic imploring her crew to close the gap with cries of ‘Drive!’ and ‘Accelerate!’ Despite the attempted Cambridge fight-back, however, the Oxford lead proved unassailable. Indeed, it is testament to Oxford’s flawless technique and effort that, despite the tenacity of the Cambridge crew, by the time both boats had crossed the finish line at Temple Island, Oxford were deemed to have won by an impressive four lengths. Moreover, with a time just six seconds shy of the Women’s Boat Race record, the cheers with which the Oxford crew were greeted were nothing if not well-earned. Oxford chief coach Christine Wilson’s appraisal of her squad as being “a remarkable group of women” looks difficult to deny.
What was perhaps most encouraging for followers of Oxford women’s rowing, however, was the incredible strength in depth hinted at by victories in both the Reserves and Lightweight races. Whilst the Lightweight triumph was almost as emphatic as the Dark Blues’ victory, as they beat their opponents by just over three lengths, Oxford’s Osiris crew won by only half a length in a thrilling competition with Cambridge’s Blondie boat, an encounter characterised by a series of clashes in the final section of the course as the crews battled for supremacy. In the context of the Oxford women’s hat-trick of victories, the Cambridge Lightweight Men’s convincing win against their Oxford opponents, whilst commendable, looks to have been little more than a consolation prize for those Cantabrians still gathered on the banks of the Thames after a long afternoon of sporting spectacle.
This, then, was a great day for Oxford rowing. It is next year’s race, however, which promises to be truly momentous not just for the boat clubs of Oxford or Cambridge, but for the whole institution of the Varsity Boat Race. For the first time ever, next year’s women’s race will take place on the same 6.8km course, and on the same day, as the men’s races. It would seem, then, that rowing has moved on from its past prejudices, exemplified in a 1962 letter from the Captain of Selwyn College – who evidently missed the memo on sixties liberal attitudes – to the CUWBC, denouncing women’s rowing as “a ghastly sight”. The universities’ women rowers, then, are finally achieving the recognition and coverage they deserve – not least in the form of a possible television audience of several million. On the evidence of Sunday’s spectacle, nobody could argue they do not deserve it.