Picture Credit: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Going deep on the river

Make no mistake, the boat race is a blood sport

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Boat Race is coming home. For the first time since 2019 this year’s contest will take place on the Tideway, which is as integral a part of the race as the crews themselves.

In 2020 the event was cancelled because of Covid: last year it was rowed at Ely, a perfectly serviceable location but rather like running the London Marathon on a track. There is no magic on a long, straight stretch of Fenland waterway. On the Tideway there is plenty.

When you see a rival down, you kick the shit out of him

It is four-and-a-quarter miles from Putney to Mortlake on the Thames and the river is a living thing, offering challenge and intrigue in spades. The stream runs fastest where the water is deepest, testing a coxswain’s skill in finding that line and determination in preventing their rival from sharing it. On a blustery spring day the wind can gust and eddy, catching crews unaware.

Most of all, the course itself twists and swoops in the shape of an ‘S’. The Middlesex station on the north side gets the short first and third bends: Surrey on the south gets the long second one. A crew which chooses Middlesex will try to be clear before Hammersmith Bridge where the Surrey bend starts: a crew which chooses Surrey will hope to stay in contact, oars perhaps interlocking with those of their rivals like a penitent’s praying fingers, before putting the hammer down round that long bend.

It is psychology as much as physiology, and the combination is what makes the race such compelling viewing. The race is rowing’s Thunderdome: two crews enter, one crew leaves. The oarsmen train six hours a day, six days a week, for six months with one aim. The wooden panels of previous crews on the boathouse walls have a one-word coda: won or lost.

Brutally simple, then, but also simply brutal: and few more so than the race which took place 20 years ago. With four minutes to go, Cambridge are half a length up as they approach Barnes Bridge. Ahead at Barnes means you are home and hosed: in almost 150 editions of the race only two crews have come from behind here to win.

It’s hard to see at first. One of the light blue oars is a little out of sync with the others: skying a bit higher at the catch, not as crisp through the water. The oarsman gets back in time, loses it again, gets it back, loses it. It’s the man in the four seat, Sebastian Mayer of Germany: a world silver medallist and Olympic finalist, one of the best rowers in either crew. He is, though we don’t yet know it, having an asthma attack. He has rowed himself to exhaustion, but the race is not yet over.

Victory over the old enemy always tastes sweet

The crews flash under Barnes. Mayer is by now barely conscious, just about sliding in time with the others but getting no purchase in the water. An oarsman who stops rowing is catastrophic for boat speed in three ways: 12.5 per cent of forward propulsion is suddenly gone, the other seven rowers are carrying a deadweight of two stone each, and the cox has to use the rudder to keep the boat straight.

Mayer’s head is down, his shoulders slumped. It feels faintly voyeuristic even to be watching. James Livingston, sitting directly behind him, says “Oxford can smell blood. Their cox can see the disaster unfolding in our boat and soon they
are on us like ravenous dogs. They pull level with us. This can’t be happening.”

It is happening, of course. This is competitive sport, and when you see a rival down you don’t reach out a hand to pick him up. When you see a rival down, you kick the shit out of him. Oxford approach, draw level, take the lead, win. Afterwards their stroke Matt Smith says: “our coach told us to imagine our eight was hanging in there to make one Cambridge rower crack — and I guess Seb was that guy.”

Sebastian Mayer of Cambridge (centre) stops rowing through exhaustion in the 2002 boat race. Picture Credit: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

These things hit deep in the places a man hides from the world. Rowing is one of the purest team sports there is: a crew is only as good as its weakest link. Before the race, an oarsman will squeeze a crewmate’s leg, ruffle his hair: these are the men accompanying him into hell, and he needs to know they’ll be there for him and vice versa. No oarsman wants to be the link that breaks.

But by the same token there is the chance of redemption. Mayer spent two more years at Cambridge. In 2003 he chose to concentrate on his PhD and not compete for selection, but the following year he was back and leading from the front when it came to ergometer scores, pairs tests and other measures.

“I remember absolutely nothing of the race between Barnes Bridge and the finish,” he said. “What I do remember is sitting at the finish having lost. I know now the pain is something exceptional — but I want to do the race again.”

Rowing in the same seat as before, he was part of the 2004 Cambridge crew which won by six lengths. Victory over the old enemy always tastes sweet, but especially so when one has conquered not just one’s opponents but also one’s doubts, fears and demons in such a profound and piquant way.

Forget the history, the hype and the hoopla, forget the 250,000 watching from the banks and the several million glued to their TVs. It is men like Sebastian Mayer who make this race what it is.

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