Boat Race: Crash puts Cambridge crew plans in doubt

Light Blue boat is damaged and bow man is taken to hospital after collision with launch during practice session on Thames

Just as everything was shaping up for a fine race on a fine day for the first Boat Race scheduled for a Sunday, it all went pear-shaped for Cambridge yesterday. They ran into the harbour master's 15-tonne launch, Westbourne, while at full speed when warming up for a practice start off the stakeboat. Three oars were shattered, two riggers bent, the bow shoulder of the boat damaged, Matthias Kleinz in the two seat received a blow on the head and the bow man, Wayne Pommen, sprained his left, inside wrist.

Pommen was dispatched to Charing Cross Hospital for X-rays to confirm that the damage is confined to overstretched ligaments. If no bones are broken, he should be fit to race tomorrow – with the caveat that it is the inside wrist that grips the oar and turns it at the beginning and end of each stroke, and oarsmen in the Boat Race have to do this over 600 times.

The boat has been sent to Weybridge for repairs.

Cambridge were doing their last high-speed run-in when the incident happened. Robin Williams, the coach, hit full throttle in his launch and yelled "Stop! Stop! Stop!", when he saw the impending disaster, but was 10 seconds too late. He said his men had taken it stoically, although cox Jim Omartian was "a bit quiet". "I am sure we'll come out of it all right," he said.

The harbour master, Christopher Mendoza, was on board the Westbourne, which was towing a small boat very slowly and saw Cambridge too late to move out of the way or send a warning signal. In a statement the Port of London Authority said: "We understand that one member of the Cambridge team suffered an injury to his wrist as a result of the collision. We sincerely hope that he will be fit to row." The Kent division of the PLA is investigating the incident.

The only other time that the race has been held on the Sabbath was in 1984 after Cambridge wrecked their boat on a barge just before the Saturday start. The time (4.30pm) and date is the result of a matrix between university terms, the BBC's scheduling of sport and, crucially, the time of high tide at Putney. Traditionally, it starts an hour and a half before the top of the tide, when the current is strongest.

With a forecast of windless sunshine, weather is at the bottom of the list of variables. Coxing and umpiring are near the top after some interesting decisions and apparent confusions by the umpire Boris Rankov during encounters he has presided over in the build-up to the race. Rankov won the race with Oxford six times consecutively from 1978-83 and is now an international umpire, but he has never before tackled the two-horse race on the giant tidal S-bend from Putney to Mortlake.

Basically, he has to preside over a 4.25 mile course where the centre of the tide demarcates the Surrey and Middlesex stations, and the centre of the tide is for him to judge. Once the race has started, he is effectively powerless if a cox does not respond to warnings unless he has to reach for the ultimate sanction, disqualification. So the umpire lives on a knife edge, but a recent innovation is an umpires' panel to improve communication and understanding with the crews.

The other trumpeted factor this year is Cambridge's huge weight advantage, but both sides dispute the significance of this. Williams says: "I still think that what matters is how the two crews row. These days the quality of the programmes is such that you are able to train around these kinds of problems. They are super fit and mentally extremely tough."

The Oxford coach, Sean Bowden, whose men are younger as well as lighter but include several top level American college oarsmen and a couple of British junior internationals, also dismisses the weight difference. "For us power has not just to do with size, it has a lot to do with speed of movement, speed of application and co-ordination. So those are the things we've worked very hard at."

Before yesterday, I would favour Cambridge for their maturity, efficiency and power. But now much rests on whether Pommen stays in the boat, for a change now is bound to be disruptive.

Cambridge have 77 wins to Oxford's 70, with one dead heat. For only the second time in the race's history, brothers oppose each other, with James Livingston in the Cambridge crew and his younger brother, Dave, with Oxford.

Oxford narrowly averted their own disaster when boatman Iain Watson was spotted painting their oars from a can of Oxford Blue. "That's not our proper colour," he was told. So now it's official – Oxford blue is actually Azure Mauritius, British Standard No 018.

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