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The Other Boat Race

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Annabel Vernon | 19:26 UK time, Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The University Boat Race between the men's crews of Oxford and Cambridge takes place on the River Thames in London on Saturday, amid much pomp, circumstance, celebrity commentators and a breathtaking amount of column inches compared to those for other rowing events.

But the 'other' Boat Races, for women and lightweights, take place a week earlier in Henley (Oxford won the women's Boat Race, and those for women's reserves and lightweights last Sunday).

Being a proud veteran of these 'other' races, competing for Cambridge in 2003, I've been asked to give my opinion on the differences and similarities between the races, and the position of the Boat Races in the national rowing calendar.

Having since been to one Olympic Games and four World Championships, the days training at Ely with the Cambridge University Women's Boat Club seem a long time ago.

The Henley races are a wonderful event: the banks of the river are lined three to four deep right down the course with our friends, family and supporters; there are busloads of students from each university, and the day is a true festival of rowing.

The men's Boat Race has been going on for longer, having first been contested in 1829, but the women's race has a strong tradition of its own, with a battle that has been raging since 1927.

Cambridge are exhausted while Oxford celebrate victory in the 2010 women's Boat Race last Sunday - Photos: Peter SpurrierCambridge are exhausted while Oxford celebrate victory in the 2010 women's Boat Race last Sunday - Photos: Peter Spurrier

The race I took part in came just at the beginning of an Oxford resurgence following a period of Light Blue dominance throughout the 1990s.

We lost. In fact we didn't just lose, we were absolutely thumped, walloped, thrashed, call it what you will.

The thing about the Boat Race, and in fact all Varsity matches, is that it really gets under your skin. Once you embark on the six month journey to the Boat Race, it begins to eat away at you and by the time you sit on that start line, the desire to win the race has overtaken all the rest of your person, your identity, and your senses. So to lose really kicks you in the gut.

Of course, it's nothing compared to winning or losing at the World Championships or the Olympic Games; but the Boat Race is very different. At that stage in my career, I was unused to the rollercoaster of sport, and also it was a very personal thing.

These ancient rivalries, much like the Ashes in cricket, take on a whole new level of emotion. There's no consolation silver medal so if you lose, it feels like you've completely and utterly failed.

My experiences in the Boat Race were absolutely pivotal to my development as a rower. It taught me so much about myself, about the nature of sport, about winning and losing, and most importantly I made some of my best friends during my year at CUWBC.

The standard of rowing and racing in the men's race is far higher. Crews are filled with internationals, they have full-time coaches of the highest calibre, and a huge budget to spend on training costs each year.

When I competed, we shared our coach and one of our boats with one of the colleges, we paid for all our costs from our own pocket, and all of us had been rowing for less than five years.

The men had an enormous, purpose-built boathouse, branded minibuses and launches, and three full-time coaches; we had a lean-to shed for our boats and relied on the generosity of a gym in Cambridge for our land training.

Annabel Vernon and Anna Watkins went from the women's Boat Race to the Olympics and a silver medal together at the 2009 World Championships - Photo: Getty
Annabel Vernon and Anna Watkins went from the women's Boat Race to the Olympics and won a silver medal together at the 2009 World Championships - Photo: Getty

We were training for a university event. The men's race is not a university event. Yes, there are 'genuine' students and the Boat Race is a great development path for aspiring British rowers; but I don't think it's controversial to say that overall it has become a race for internationals who wish to take a year away from their national rowing programmes, have a good time and new experiences.

We are not talking about a men's and a women's version of the same event, we are talking about two completely different events which can't really be compared.

The women's event is representative of student rowing up and down the country, and is an absolutely incredible day for those lucky enough to be involved.

Finally, the question of moving the women's race to join the men's races on the same day on the Thames is often brought up. My opinion is, why would you change a successful format?

Moving from Henley would lose that unique and special quality and instead the women's Boat Race would become a poorer version of the men's.

We shouldn't snipe at the differences between men's and women's race, but celebrate the positives and applaud those who are willing to put pride on the line and gamble it all on one race just for the chance of saying, I am a winning Blue.

Watch the men's Boat Race this Saturday on BBC One and the BBC Sport website or listen on BBC 5 live sports extra. Rowing coverage on the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    A closely fought 2 lengths in the Boat Race looks like a boring formality to anyone outside the sport. To be brutally honest there's a high chance of the women's race becoming processional over a longer course with long distance wins - so it could do more harm than good.

    BBC trailer for the boat race is abysmal by the way....reinforces all the upper class prejudices against rowing and as this blog accurately articulates - the Boat Race really isn't about that anymore. (To be honest, it lost all meaning after the German Engleman, dropped out of his studies at Cambridge after completing the race a couple of years back).

  • Comment number 2.

    As a veteran of the women's boat race, this article really captures what it feels like to take part in the Henley Boat Races and also the very different experiences for the men's and women's crews in terms of profile and resources.

    One technical point though.... Cambridge did indeed dominate the 1990s but the Oxford resurgence started in 2000 (not 2003 as the article suggests) and, I'm pleased to say, has been going strong ever since.

  • Comment number 3.

    Annabel - thank-you for such an honest and intersting article. I have the utmost admiration for you and your team. But I can not for one moment understand why we don't have the best women and men from both colleges rowing on the same day. From the outside looking in this looks really bad...well sexist ofcourse. I have previously rowed for an oxford college 1st team and run several marathons but I know that my training effort doesn't come close to the mammoth effort that Oxford and Cambridge female blues put into the boat race. Annabel - you are an Olympic medallist - you are a super hero and true role model to many young women. I can not comprehend Rob's comment at all - indeed some of the mens' boat races are boring becasue they are not close enough - this applies to any sport. A race is relative - women racing against women has exactly the same chance as being exciting compared with men racing against men. We are not racing women against men here!! I love rowing but I can not stand to watch the mens' boat race when women are absent. My daughter is two - I hope one day we will be going to the Thames together to watch the Womens' Boat Race. And when finaly the women get the press coverage they deserve, the sponsorship will come pouring in and the women will get the training support and resources they deserve. I believe it is only a matter of time before this change will happen. Thanks to change, the iconic Paula Radcliffe has achieved all she has over a marathon distance.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Annabel

    Thanks for your interesting post. My cousin rowed for GB in Atlanta '96, but didn't go to Oxbridge. I think it annoyed him slightly that this one event seems to get more publicity than all the others. Is that a common thought among international rowers? Millions of people watch the Boat Race, but many (big) international races don't even get on the main channels, and if they do, there's often very little hype surrounding them.

  • Comment number 5.

    nice post rachel, keep em coming!!
    Before this year (being Canadian), I’d never heard of ‘The Boat Race’ or ‘Xchanging Boat Race’ and from what I understand it’s literally a race held between two boats. Crazy. This is an unbiased, factual, and comprehensive guide to the 2010 Boat Race I found:

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi Annabel,

    This is a very interesting post. It fails to mention that Cambridge has the lead on every extent Boat Race (men, women, and their reserves, lightweights), though.

    I try to go to Henley every year for the Henley Boatraces, it is always a great day of rowing. I was commissioned to take pictures of the 2004 or 2005 Henley Boatraces by CUWBC. For the nostalgic people among you, they can be found on my website ( at:

    I agree with you that the Women's Boat Race should not be moved to the Tideway. The day in Henley would be incomplete & it would not help the Women's boat club. I am just surprised that some of the money that CUBC/OUBC (the Men's heavyweight clubs) receive, is not shared with the Women's boat clubs (and perhaps the lightweights?) In days of equal opportunities, this is quite surprising - especially as CUWBC could do with a very small portion of the money the men's boatclubs receive.

    In order to promote the Other Boatraces, I am quite a fan of the idea of producing short summaries of the Henley boatraces: a 1-2 minutes summary could be broadcast in the build-up to the main event ; or a 6 minutes summary could be sold (given ?) to other/smaller channels, focusing solely on sport.

    In any case: it's great to hear about these other boatraces more often. I was about to say: GDBO, but I guess this would be censored, so I won't!

  • Comment number 7.

    You're absolutely right! The funding/sponsorship for women's rowing pales considerably to the heavyweight men's. I guess that's a lot to do with the international attraction and huge publicity it gets... May be if the races were recorded and screened before the men's race, rather than the awful rubbish the BBC put together for 2010, then this might help women's rowing and also improve the BBC's rowing-coverage credibility...

    I also agree that putting the races together on the same day would be difficult. Not only is the distance significantly different, the women's races would just seem out of place if not done in Henley; after all, it really is just a university-level competition. I guess this is the crux of the funding problem - it is specifically a competition that would only interest those from Oxbridge... The "good" side to this is that the Henley races are more intimate and genuine - every spectator knows at least one person in the crew, there's space along the entire length of the course for people to stand and watch, and you can hang-out/watch the crews prepare/celebrate at their boathouse!

    BTW, I think you gave a great speech a year or two ago at the award ceremony at Henley. It was a bit of a shame that the crews were not more respectful... Also, I am somewhat bemused as to why the Oxford lot (most of my rowing friends) dislike us "tabs" but not vice versa? I was quietly pleased that the men's heavyweight boat did a good job this year; although the women's (stronger) dark blues did trounce the light blues again...

    PS. Skeay, you said you rowed for a 1st boat - which year/college? Like most other sports, the men's and women's competitions take place on different days and are slightly different - the women's races are 2K-long and take place in Henley a week before the men's heavyweight ~6K race in London, but you would already know this. So, there is no reason why you and your daughter should not watch either of the races...


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