Nick Townsend: Reed swaps battleship for the rowing boat

The 150th Boat Race - Oxford's power player takes a break from his naval career to take part in a grand tradition
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Oxford oarsman Peter Reed, who is preparing for a navy career, has been gratified to discover that life as an officer bears little comparison to that depicted by W S Gilbert. What were his words? Ah, yes. "Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, and you may all be Rulers of the Queen's Navee!".

Oxford oarsman Peter Reed, who is preparing for a navy career, has been gratified to discover that life as an officer bears little comparison to that depicted by W S Gilbert. What were his words? Ah, yes. "Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, and you may all be Rulers of the Queen's Navee!".

The Dark Blues' number five in this evening's 150th Boat Race has already seen service on British warships in the Caribbean and the Persian Gulf. Indeed, had it not been for the fact that the mechanical engineering student extended his education for two years by doing a masters at Oxford, there would have been "a very real possibility" that the commissioned officer would have been involved in the Iraq conflict. However, that career postponement has been to Oxford's benefit.

"I joined the navy at 18 after A-levels, in 1999, did my officer training at Dartmouth Naval College and served on a ship for a year," Reed says. "After a further three years at the University of the West of England, I expected to go back to the fleet in September, 2003. But because of my rowing performances, particularly for Great Britain in the Under-23 championships [he was fourth in the coxed fours], and because I got the chance to go to Oxford, both to row and continue my training as a mechanical engineer, the Royal Navy, who sponsor me at university, were happy to let me stay for another two years."

He adds: "I've served on a ship for two weeks every year to keep myself ticking over. I'm really looking forward to going back to the fleet in 2005 to start six years of proper career commission time."

Reed witnessed Oxford's victory last year - albeit one which they secured by only a foot - on television, along with fellow members of the UWE crew, of which he was then the president. "Some of them were joking and saying: 'that'll be you in the five seat next year', but I had no idea that it would happen. I hadn't even applied for Oxford at that time."

As with a rugby pack, weight, they say, is crucial in this four-mile, idiosyncratic, event of machismo and masochism. But last year, Oxford were more than a stone a man lighter, and still won. This time, the Light Blues again boast an advantage at the scales, but only a marginal one. The race, the last to be televised by the BBC, following the controversial agreement of a new deal with ITV, promises to be close again.

But Oxford do have the heaviest man in the race in Reed, who weighed in on Tuesday at 98.70kg (or 15st 7 1/2lb) "My role is to lay down the power and to transfer the rhythm between the bow four and stern four," he says. "It's worked well in training. Hopefully, that will continue on Sunday."

Ostensibly, there may not appear much comparison between his conveyance today and a 4,700 ton frigate, like HMS Sheffield and HMS Cumberland, on both of which he has served. Yet, Reed admits, a naval background does have its advantages on such water as the capricious Tideway.

"In my naval training, we have done a lot of work with tidal streams and how they can affect a ship, and obviously that factor is also very important in the Boat Race," he says. "Basically, Acer [Nethercott, the Oxford cox, who was also in last year's triumphant crew] has to worry about steering and our job is just to time our strokes as well as we can, but I do have an appreciation of how the stream can affect the boat and how crucial that aspect is."

Important, too, have been the leadership qualities that have been nurtured during his officer training. "The navy suits my personality very well," says the 22-year-old, whose father worked for Boeing in Seattle, where he was born. "I'm the kind of guy who likes to push myself hard, and being an offficer is all about leadership and taking control. It does all relate very strongly to a Boat Race crew, where the more experienced guys have to help bring everybody together and get the best out of people."

Nerves, he claims, have been relatively non-existent. "All the butterflies are flying in formation," Reed says. "But we've got trust in each other and in the coaches. It was a breathtaking race last year and I'd settle for a foot again, as long as we win."

The worst day had evidently been the one before the final crew selection. "There was just a feeling of relief when we heard we were in," he says. "There had been a rather uncomfortable atmosphere among us. It really is every man for himself. Once you are in the crew, though, you can relax, start to gel together, and not worry about who may be looking for your seat."

Oxford go into the race seeking their fourth victory in five years, after a period of Cambridge domination. Much, as always, will depend on maintaining the right course. The Dark Blues' heavyweight, Reed, has absolutely no doubt that he has steered the correct one.

How The Crews Measure Up

Oxford: C Kennelly (Univ of Cal Berkeley, US, and Oriel) 13st 7.5lb; B Dixon* (Bedford and Pembroke) 14:02; A Stubbs (Newcastle Univ and Hertford) 14:12; J Scrogin (Brown Univ, US, and Brasenose) 15:01; P Reed (Univ of West of England and Wolfson) 15:7.5; D Livingston* (Hampton and Christ Church) 14:06; H Morris* (Radley and Magdalene) 13:05; C Smith (Prince Edward Sch, Zim, and St Catherine's)12:04; Cox: A Nethercott* (Mark Hall Comp and Univ) 8:0.9.

Ave weight: 14st 1.5lb.

*denotes Blue

Cambridge: C Le Neve Foster (RGS Guildford and St Catharine's) 13:13; K Coventry* (Univ of Melbourne, Aus, and Queen's) 14:01; H Mallinson* (Harvard, US, and St Catherine's) 14:12; S Mayer* (Albert-Ludwigs Univ, Ger, and Caius) 13:9.5; A Shannon (Robert Gordon Univ and St Edmund's) 14:2.5; S Buschbacher (Harvard, US, and St Catherine's) 15:07; W Pommen (Harvard, US, and Pembroke) 13; N Kirk (Yale, US, and St Edmund's) 14:03; Cox: K Richardson (Bedford Modern and Peterhouse) 8:9.5. Ave weight: 14st 2.5lb. BBC2 6pm