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Your Sporting Guide to… The Boat Race course!

This afternoon, a lot of terms will be thrown at you- ‘current’, ‘tide’, ‘Sussex side’, ‘Middlesex side’. What on earth does it all mean? Fear not. Sport-Matters is here to guide you through the Cancer Research UK Boat Races course.

What is the Boat Race Course?

Since 1845, this is the course on which most traditional rivalry in British rowing has taken place [except for 1846, 1856 and 1863]. On the historical stretch of the River Thames from Putney to Mortlake, Oxford and Cambridge have battled for glory every year. The total distance of the course is 4 miles and 374 yards which converts to 6.779 kilometres. The ‘Surrey side’ refers to the south bank of the river whilst the ‘Middlesex side’ refers to the north bank of the river, suitably named after the English counties on either side of the river.

So the crews can just row anywhere right?

Not exactly. There is a coin toss to define who will take the first pick of river banks which takes place 1 hour and 50 minutes before each race. Once this has been established, after a warm-up the crews will attach to two small boats to wait for the umpire to start the race. Once the race, the crews will have to stay on their respective sides of the river until there is clear water between them. As soon as one crew has moved away from the other, they will have free reign over the river. Oxford were able to do this last year as they won by 5 lengths of a boat, which is approximately 20 seconds.

Where will the race be won?

With regard to the water, there are two major factors that will affect racing: current and tide. The ‘current’ is the movement of water in a certain direction- the Oxford and Cambridge crews will be racing upstream, meaning they are racing against the current. The ‘tide’ is the rising and falling of the sea, which affects the height of the river Thames in this case. The Boat Races will be taking place in the afternoon, meaning all the crews will be racing in the coming high tide. This all creates a scenario that the crews will be racing with the fastest possible current.

However, the River Thames is rather wide and the fastest current is only on a very narrow line through the course. This narrow line occurs most frequently on the Surrey side, which has that massive bend you can see in the middle of the course- whoever wins the coin toss today, they’re very likely to go for the Surrey side!

There is a marker for this fastest current line on Hammersmith bridge. It is the second lamp-post on the left side of the bridge (as you can see indicated here). This is the area the experts will talk about today as, if a crew is ahead at this point they will win, more often than not. This is the area where the Boat Race course will be won as it is the largest turn (i.e. the largest advantage to one side) and has the majority of the fastest current.

Who’s got the advantage today then?

If I mention Storm Katie to you, it should be familiar. This is the incoming storm from the Atlantic Ocean that will blowing from South-West to North East. This means the crew will start off rather sheltered, picking up a strong pace with good rhythm, but when they come round the bend past the BandStand the speed will drop as they hit a wall of weather! From this point, the crews are racing into the wind, called a ‘head-wind’, so their oars will be going into the water faster. In a head-wind, the heavier crew will be more stubborn so the lighter crew will have to work harder to maintain their speed. The Cambridge men, Cambridge women, Cambridge men reserves and Oxford womens reserves are heaviest in their respective races.

There is not a lot of difference between any of the crews this year. In average weight and international experience, all the crews will be looking forward to a competitive race today. Should the heavier crews win the coin toss and choose the Surrey side, they will take full advantage of the current and their weight against the head-wind will hold them in good stead.

It’s all going to unfold soon, so sit back and enjoy!

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