SWXX Special Report: University Boat Race 2012. By guest editor Salina Christmas. Photography by Zarina Holmes.
The University Boat Race, it is said, is a coxswain’s race, an event by which his or her judgement, as well as the oarsmen’s speed, determine the outcome of months of training and mental preparation.
That is quite a responsibility for two very young people entrusted to captain two crews, to undertake. The race is, after all, only a varsity race. To some of the rowers, this event is the culmination of their rowing career, before they graduate and retire, or go on to compete at amateur level at local rowing clubs.
The 2012 event saw the Cambridge coxswain, Mr Edward Bosson, holding his line and steering his crew to victory at the final stage of the race, even after a clash of blades with the Oxford crew. A strange turn of events saw the race being disrupted at Hammersmith by a protest swimmer, who did it to oppose the “elitism” associated with rowing.
The University Boat Race is a free event that attracts about a quarter of a million spectators every year. For the inhabitants of Putney, Fulham, Hammersmith and Chiswick, the race is a day for parents and children to go out and enjoy the pomp and ceremony. Nobody has to pay for a season ticket to watch the race.
I began coxing and rowing some years ago in Putney and Hammersmith to save money by doing a sport locally. A neighbour saw me sparring at a taekwondo interclub competition and asked if I could cox her crew. It was not as expensive as I thought it would be, and all I needed was to wake up earlier than normal and walk to Putney. After another sparring event, in which I ended up with two broken fingers and two hours at the A&E, I decided that early mornings were not going to be so bad after all.
As a novice, I would often gawped at the Cambridge team when they came and left the Cabtree boathouse next door. I used to marvel at the size of the oarsmen and wondered how it was possible for some men to grow that big and heavy, and how the fine boat, within a few decades, became even lighter and slimmer in design.
In that period, the rudder morphed from a wooden keel-like object to being no bigger than a credit card, making the boat faster to row, but less stable to sit in. In fact, a fine boat floats nicely on its own on the water – until a human being sits in it. How is that so?
My curiosity of the rowers’ genotype, and the material culture of the sport, led to me to taking up photography – initially for portraiture, but later, for anthropology. UCL anthropologist Ludavic Coupaye, who teaches Anthropology of Techniques and Technology for my alma mater, told me recently that the way the boat is designed is like that of the bicycle – it has nothing to do with comfort but all to do with winning a race.
The University Boat Race falls in early Spring to mark the beginning of the regatta season.