The pinnacle of Oxford college rowing begins this Wednesday, as Summer Eights gets underway.
The event takes place in the traditional ‘bumps’ format, in which boats chase each other in single file, as each crew tries to catch—or bump—the boat in front. Eights includes over 1500 competitors annually, and draws crowds of thousands, who flock to the Isis both to support their college and to enjoy the summer weather.
Last year, Oriel and Wadham finished head of the river in the Men’s and Women’s competition respectively, but Keble, Christ Church, Pembroke, and Univ will all be in contention for the prestigious honour.
Lower down the divisions, colleges will compete for the honour of winning Blades, a triumph bestowed on a crew which manages to bump a boat ahead of them on each of the four days of the regatta.
Many observers will look to Torpids, the main Hilary regatta, as a guide for form—but with Blues rowers only available for Eights, and finalists present for Torpids alone, there can be large turnovers in personnel between the two competitions.
In the top division of Men’s Eights, Oriel will be hoping to repeat last year’s success. However, after a disappointing Torpids campaign, they know to expect tough challenges from the Blues-heavy boats from Keble and Christ Church.
Indeed, for Oriel, there is more riding on this year’s Eights than in many previous, with M1 rower Stevan Boljevic telling Cherwell that “a win this year would give us the all-time record [number of headships] with 33.”
Oriel currently sit level with Christ Church, who are boosted by the presence of Boat Race winners William Warr and Ollie Cook on 32 headships, but it is Keble, who have four Blues rowers, who are seen by many as clear favourites, having finished third in 2016.
“This is a three, rather than a two-horse race,” Boljevic continued. “Any of the top three could take the crown, but if you’re not backing yourself [to win] then you’ve lost before the cannon is fired.”
There have been mutterings from those in rowing circles over the past few years about the suspiciously high numbers of graduate rowers who end up at Christ Church and Keble Colleges for their studies. Of the sixteen who rowed for Oxford at either Blues or Second Boat level in 2017, ten study at those two colleges, and nine are graduate students.
There is more than a hint of scepticism from Boljevic as he comments that this happens “coincidentally right in line with the 200th anniversary of the foundation of Christ Church Boat Club.”
“In all my previous racing, my opposite man has been a ‘regular’ college rower. This time round…my opposition have Olympic and World Championship medals under their belt and I know that as an individual I will never reach their level,” he commented. “This really focuses the mind on putting in the best performance you can in training to be able to get to the best absolute level you can.”
In the Women’s Eights, Wadham start head of the river after their 2016 success, but the spread of the Blues boats means that the field is wide open. Oriel’s W1 cox and Women’s captain Edward Carroll told Cherwell that Wadham’s “tenacity and drive to prove themselves will result with them on top.”
Despite starting bottom of Women’s Division I at Eights, Oriel go in with a typically confident attitude having finished head of the river at this year’s Torpids. Carroll said: “It was one of the most stressful weeks of my life and we were all so proud to have been a part [of the headship].
“We are looking to move back up into the heart of the first division after many years hovering at the bottom. As we train at Wallingford, we can’t really tell how we will fare against other boats—time will tell.”
Clearly excited about the prospect of the week ahead, Carroll described Eights as “a strange and unique competition [that] you can’t help but get completely caught up in… the buzz in the air and the nervous excitement from everyone competing makes it the most memorable experience.”
Wadham’s main competition for the headship will be Univ. and Christ Church, who are both boosted by the return of a Boat Race rower. University College’s Rebecca te Water Naudé was the tallest of the women’s crew this year at 5 ft. 11½ in, and will bring some power to an already-strong boat. Christ Church are hoping that New Zealander Harriet Austin will prove to be a good addition: her crew starts fifth, so it would take a monumental effort to finish with the headship, but they will definitely put pressure on those above them.
Cherwell Summer Eights Predictions:
Men’s Head of the River: Christ Church
Women’s Head of the River: Wadham