At 4.50pm on 11 April, 18 women in two shades of blue will make history on the Thames. While the men’s Boat Race along a gruelling 4.2-mile (6.8km) course on the Thames is a British institution in the spring calendar, over the past four decades Oxford and Cambridge’s female rowers have raced over a much shorter course – 2,000m – at Henley the week before the men, with little fanfare.
But that all changes on 11 April. In a watershed moment for women’s sport, both the men and women will row the same course on the same day and with the same television coverage.
The Olympic rowing gold medallist Katherine Grainger told The Independent: “This is a big change for women’s sport and women’s rowing. Probably the first way I was aware of rowing was the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. It’s an institution, like the Grand National.”
She added: “For all women involved in sport we’re very aware that the more available it is, the more people will want to be involved. This is a massive and momentous occasion for women’s rowing and there’ll be a lot of pride in seeing it.”
There has been a women’s Boat Race on and off since the 1920s but it has always been the poor relation to the men’s contest. When women from the two universities first ventured on to the Isis in Oxford to race in 1927 they were greeted by “large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath”, according to newspaper reports from the time.
Many felt that women should not be allowed to row – let alone compete – and the two boats had to be timed separately rather than side by side to protect their oarswomen from accident. When Oxford’s women went over a weir in training in the mid-1950s they were banned from the river and the race disappeared for a decade.
Sarah Winckless, who will be an assistant umpire during the men’s race today, has reason to be far more excited at the race happening an hour earlier. She rowed (and won) for Cambridge three times in the Nineties.
“Rowing in the Boat Race was one of the most exciting things I did but I can’t pretend I didn’t come back the week after and see the men doing the full race and feel jealous of them,” Ms Winckless, 41, recalls. “I will be massively jealous of the 18 women who experience this on Saturday because there’s always a bit of me that wonders if I could do that.”
The women will race on the choppy tidal stretch of the Thames from Putney to Mortlake, something that Ms Winckless believes could not have happened while they were still fully amateur. Until five years ago, the women’s team did not have proper sponsors and rowers had to pay to train and receive coaching.
Things improved after they received sponsorship from Newton Asset Management in 2010 – and the company now gives the same funding to the men’s and women’s teams.
Ruth Holdaway, the chief executive of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, said: “It’s going to be a momentous day and it’s a very important occasion for women’s sport. The Boat Race is an event that people know about and everyone watches, whether they’re into rowing or not. It’s very exciting.”Reuse content