Almanack: The Boat Race and comic relief

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The Independent Online
TO THE Design Museum at London's fashionable Butler's Wharf for the Boat Race Challenge, a sporting event entirely devoid of sport. No Boats. No Race. But a series of challenges. The first is locating London's fashionable Butler's Wharf, a task which defeats Almanack's elderly taxi driver. 'Ah, it's changed, the old wharf,' he wheezes, zooming expertly up another cul-de-sac.

Oxford also get lost. They arrive 40 minutes late, sprinting en masse into the museum's elegant Gents' to relieve bladders. All except the cox, Elizabeth Chick, who teeters towards the Ladies', almost coming a cropper on the marble floor in her high heels. Sky TV finds all this too good to miss, and bystanders are dragged out of the way to give their camera a clear view of the oarsmen emerging from the lavatory.

The crews arrange themselves photogenically in front of the sponsor's logos for the real challenge. Kingsley Poole, the Oxford president, strides to the mike and, battling a wail of feedback, pronounces: 'On behalf of the Oxford University Boat Club, I challenge the Cambridge University Boat Club to race for the Beefeater Gin Trophy on Saturday, March 26th. Do you accept my challenge?'

Jon Bernstein, Cambridge's American president, smirks at his crew, and one can imagine the response running through his mind ('Aw, no, March is so damn cold. Can't we do it July?'), but in the end he shrugs and drawls: 'On behalf of the Cambridge University Boat Club I accept your challenge.' The world can breathe again: the Boat Race is on.

The press are unleashed. German and Norwegian television crews jockey to interview Holtzenbein and Streppelhoff of Cambridge and Snorre and Sverke Lorgen of Oxford respectively. English crews zoom in, with awful predictability, on Elizabeth Chick. Almanack decides on a further challenge: to find an interviewee who is (a) British, (b) an undergraduate, and (c) not the only competitor wearing high heels. Luckily there is one.

Last year Will Mason, then 20, made his Boat Race debut at stroke in Cambridge's victorious eight. He is currently studying psychology. Does he use his academic insights to gee up his fellow rowers? 'No, no,' he says. 'It's very theoretical stuff. The other guys are mature enough to have their own psychological approach to races.' And are they bursting with confidence after last year's win? 'Every year's a new year,' Will says, in true professional-

sportsman style. 'We'll get more confidence from how we row in practice this weekend than we will from last year.'

(Photograph omitted)