The things you never knew about the Boat Race

You know you’re part of the national furniture when the name of your event enters Cockney rhyming slang.

This Sunday, the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities sets off down the Tideway of the River Thames, in a tradition that dates back almost 200 years.

But how much do you know about the annual watery stand-off? We’ve gathered some facts and figures for you, including that bit about rhyming slang.

It began with a pair of Charlies

Or two young men named Charles, to be more polite.

In 1829, Cambridge student Charles Merivale challenged his Oxford pal Charles Wordsworth to a river race involving crews of eight from their respective seats of learning. The race was to take place in Henley-on-Thames.

Oxford won easily, although it would be another 27 years before the Boat Race became an annual fixture.

One tradition was firmly established in this inaugural race: Oxford rowed in the dark blue colours of Wordsworth’s Christ Church College.

Regardless of which college where the members of Oxford’s team study, those colours have stayed since day one. Cambridge's team row in light blue.

While the first women's race was in 1927, it wasn't until 1964 that it became a regular fixture. There was hostility in the early years from those who saw it as an 'unladylike' event, but the women's crews now compete on the same course as their male counterparts on the same day.

An illustration of the Boat Race in full flow, circa 1884.

The current route

The women's race took place in Henley from 1977 to 2014 while the men's course has always been on the Thames. The course rowed today is 4 miles and 374 yards (6.8km) long, beginning at Putney Bridge in London.

In recognition of history, a sovereign from 1829 is tossed to decide which side of the river (known as a station) a crew will row on. The two stations are called Middlesex and Surrey, and each has its own perks and pitfalls regarding the bends that must be navigated.

The finishing line is at Mortlake, close to Chiswick Bridge.

The crews neck and neck with each other during the 2002 race.

The records

Although the Cambridge men didn’t have the best start to their Boat Race story, they’ve made up for it since, and lead the table with 83 victories to Oxford’s 80. Cambridge’s women are even further ahead with 43 wins, 13 more than Oxford.

The fastest finish time is 16 minutes and 19 seconds by Cambridge in 1998. In 1860, the same university recorded the slowest time so far, taking 26 minutes and five seconds to cross the finish line.

Grand National winner Bob Champion presents the trophy to Oxford at the end of the rescheduled 1984 race.

Abandon boat

Unlike many other regattas, the Boat Race goes ahead whatever the weather. Such hardy nature is admirable, but can lead to crews sinking when the elements get too much.

In 1912, exceptionally poor weather led to both boats disappearing below the surface and the race being abandoned. In 1978, Cambridge were on their way to victory when the boat started taking in water. It sank before the finish line, allowing Oxford the title.

In 1984, the Cambridge crew collided with a barge before the race began and sank, so the event was rescheduled to the following day. They still lost.

Before they were famous

Over the race’s history, there have been some famous names wielding those oars. Blackadder and House actor Hugh Laurie was in the 1980 Cambridge crew, and historian Dan Snow was in the Oxford boat from 1999 to 2001. Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent rowed for the winning Oxford crew in 1990 and 1991.

Historian Dan Snow, left, poses with the trophy in the run-up to the 2001 Boat Race.

Another record will be broken in 2019, as 46-year-old former Olympian James Cracknell becomes the oldest ever member of a Boat Race crew. He’s rowing for Cambridge, where he is currently reading Human Evolutionary Studies.

The most controversial finish ever

No boat race was more frustrating for fans than the 1877 event. Staged in shocking weather conditions, the race judge John Phelps was reportedly a poor choice for the job. History has since come out more sympathetically to Mr Phelps, who had to declare the race a dead heat.

Both crews were said to finish in 24 minutes and eight seconds, with Phelps adamant they nosed across the finish at exactly the same time. There were claims Oxford had finished ahead, witnessed by hundreds of spectators. But in more recent years this has been debunked as an optical illusion, as Phelps had by far the best vantage point from which to judge the result. Regardless, finishing posts were introduced the following year.

The 2019 Boat Race crews, pictured here at the press launch, include Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell.

With today’s timing and broadcast technology, it is unlikely the race will finish in the same circumstances ever again. But with Oxford nipping at Cambridge’s heels, they would surely have loved one more victory to help close the gap.

And that rhyming slang? ‘Boat race’ means ‘face’, so if someone mentions you have a nice boat while you’re on a trip to London, take it as a compliment and don’t start wondering where your oars are.

Dr Alex on exam worries
Six stories behind horse racing jargon
The origins of football jargon