A Tale of Two (Univer)Cities:
The rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge Universities has existed for centuries. The bitterness between the two institutions could have led to many things, each presenting a terrible fate: awkward shyness at academic conferences, overly intense punt debates or heated discussions over shades of blue. To avoid these world-threatening consequences, in the 1820s, two Charleses, both alike in dignity, first dreamt up the little thing now known as the BNY Mellon Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge. One, Charles Merivale, was at Cambridge (booo); his schoolfriend, Charles Wordsworth (the nephew of William of ‘Daffodils’ fame), at Oxford. So, one (probably very rainy) day in March, in 1829, was the first Oxford and Cambridge Men’s Boat Race.
Since then, there have been 164 more Boat Races. This year’s, the 165th, will take place on Sunday 7th April 2019. The races set off from Putney Bridge, and finishes just over 4 miles and approximately 20 minutes (depending on the speed of the boats, the weather, and all manner of other things) later, at Chiswick Bridge. The official Boat Race website has this handy map of the event, as well as suggested watching spots, and nearby cafes and pubs.
Hundreds of thousands of people turn up, so get there early and spend the day staking out your claim of a handily-sheltered pub bench or similar. Or, Bishops Park in Fulham, or Furnival Gardens in Hammersmith have big screens showing the event up.
The coin tosses - when the Oxford and Cambridge boats toss a coin to decide who gets to choose which side of the river they want to race on - take place earlier in the day, with the coin toss for the reserves (Isis vs. Goldie and Osiris vs. Blondie) races first, followed by the coin toss for the Blue Boats races. The Isis vs. Goldie race takes place first, and the Blue Boats will races follow, so unless you're a hardcore rowing enthusiast, those are the key times to be watching a screen!
So, has anyone ever died?:
Don't think so. In 2002, however, Cambridge were winning with only a few hundred metres to go (around a minute, in usual rowing times) when Sebastian Mayer of the Cambridge boat collapsed from exhaustion. He went on to win 2 years later, so the guy was fine eventually!
There have also been a couple of mutinies - both famous ones at Oxford. In 1958 there was a failed mutiny against Ronnie Howard, the Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) President; an 'opposing team' refused to row unless they were allowed to race the Blue Boat, coached by Hugh Edwards (who allegedly also collapsed in his own Boat Race, in 1926), saying that if they won they would overthrow the President and install a new coach. Luckily for Ronnie H, at a meeting of the College Captains (apparently how these things are decided), a vote decided the issue: Ron Howard and Coach Edwards were to continue as before, and everyone was to relax and get on with the 1959 Boat Race.
In 1987 there was a much more famous Oxford mutiny involving, as Michael Suarez (played by Dylan Baker) presents him at the beginning of the 1996 film, "Donald MacDonald: an honest and god-fearing Scot." The film (based on the book) isn't the most unbiased work in the world, painting the Americans as ambitious and unfair, and Donald MacDonald, the incumbent President who faced the mutiny, as hard done by. However, it was written by the coach involved (who was chosen by MacDonald and nearly replaced by the mutineers), Dan Topolski, so we probably can't expect a nice, balanced account. It's a good enough film, though (very funny, people hiss "Yank!" at one another like it's actually offensive) and roughly accurate: the mutiny was not successful, again because college Captains voted against its success, and the Oxford boat went on to win the Boat Race in 1988.