Rowing can, believe it or not, take many guises...
One is sculling (two oars, usually smaller boats, and often without a coxswain or ‘cox’ for short). Another is what most people at the University of Oxford refer to when they talk about ‘college rowing’, say, or ‘the Boat Race’: they mean rowing sweep. Each person in the boat gets an oar each, timing one’s rowing with that of the person sitting in front of you becomes of paramount importance, and there’s usually some kind of steering mechanism built into these boats (otherwise going around corners, can be a nightmare. A very leafy, muddy nightmare, depending on what you hit).
In a larger ‘sweep’ rowing boat, such as an eight, in which most Oxford and Cambridge college races take place, and the size of boat that races at the Henley Boat Races each year, there is room for a 9th member of the crew: the cox. The cox doesn’t row, but steers the boat, being the only one facing the right way, and tries to keep (in an eight), 32 limbs broadly in time (this usually means a faster moving boat!) with technical and motivational calls over a microphone. These people are useful. And usually very small (especially in lightweight boats) to minimise the extra weight the rowers have to carry.
Differences between ‘openweight’ and ‘lightweight’ boats are quite straightforward: lightweight crews must weigh in 2-4 hours before the race, there is a maximum individual and, for the Men’s race, a crew average weight. The men must weigh an average of no more than 70kg (not including the cox, who has a minimum weight of 55kg) and have an individual maximum weight of 72.5kg. The lightweight women, on the other hand, have only an individual maximum weight, of 59kg, at the Henley Boat Races (and their cox must weigh a minimum of 50kg). This means that the women are racing at ‘winter weight’, slightly heavier than the 57kg average they would need to meet in summer months, whilst the men’s race is classed as a ‘summer’ event, so they must weigh in lighter than they would have to in the winter. Presumably the men find this mildly infuriating.
Whilst the annual BNY Mellon Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in London every year has been running in some form or another since 1829, the Women’s and Lightweight Boat Races are a relatively recent addition to the program of Varsity boat races. The first Women’s Boat Race was in 1927, but for some years they weren’t races as you and I know ‘em; they were ‘judged’ on style of rowing and the crews from Oxford and Cambridge weren’t allowed to be on the water at the same time (presumably to minimise unladylike competition!). 1935 was the first actual side-by-side race on the Henley Reach, downstream (the opposite of the way the Henley Royal Regatta course goes, and a strange feature of the race which means that it finishes behind Temple Island - so none of the spectators can see the finish).
Overall, there have been 70 races: Cambridge have won 41 times and Oxford 29 (including the last three). In 1966, a Women’s Reserves race was added to the program, in 1975 a Lightweight Men’s Race, in 1984 a Lightweight Women’s Boat Race and in 2000 a Lightweight Men’s Reserves race (although this stopped running officially in 2009).
2011 Henley Boat Race:
This year marked a historic change when the Oxford and Cambridge University Women’s Boat Race was moved to the Tideway, merging with the men's event. The Henley Boat Races are now exclusively for the lightweight teams, racing each other over a (roughly) 2-kilometre course.
Races start at 12pm, with two Oxford- and Cambridge- colleges races (one men’s, one women’s) between boats at or near the top of each University’s Spring bumps races (See our feature on Torpids linked from the bottom of the page).
The race course is nearly 2km long, so good places from which to watch are:
- outside the Upper Thames Boat Club, which the boats will approach about a quarter of the way through the race. This is traditionally where Oxford’s support gathers and usually coffee and snacks are for sale.
- from outside Remenham Barn, approximately 1200m through the race; there are usually picnic tables, drinks and snacks for sale here, also, in a slightly less informal way than closer to the start. Whilst you can’t actually see the finish from here (or indeed, most places on the bank), the river is more or less straight until the finish, so depending on your eyesight, you can probably get a feel for how the race is going to end without moving from your seats. Unless it’s a really close one.
- You can walk all the way along the course on the same side of the road as the Upper Thames Boat Club and Remenham Barn, as well. The river is about a ten minute walk from Henley-on-Thames town centre, where coffee shops, cafes and a Waitrose provide potential access to a picnic lunch, so there’s always that option!
See our page on the BNY Mellon Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.