The Boat Race: Ill wind on a tide of hope

Flip of a coin could decide fate of multi-national crews as troubled waters threaten mayhem
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It looks as if the wind is determined to ruffle the surface as much as the crews in the 152nd Boat Race today. The forecast is a strong south-westerly to westerly which will make mayhem of much of the four-and-a-quarter miles from Putney to Mortlake; it is going to be a rough ride, during which the experience on board the Cambridge boat could be the trump card.

Five of the Cambridge oarsmen and cox Peter Rudge have competed in the race before. Kip McDaniel, the Canadian stroke, is a first-timer, but he is a steely competitor who has an accomplished machine behind him. Tom James and Kieran West are British internationals, West an Olympic gold medallist from Sydney 2000 who is returning for his third Boat Race. To the east of West, so to speak, is "The Berlin Wall", consisting of the "angry hampster" Sebastian Schulte, so called because he sucks his upper lip when annoyed, Thorsten Englemann and Sebastian Thormann.

Behind Thormann sits the president, the Australian Tom Edwards, and in the bow is Luke Walton from the United States. They are a precision outfit under the eye of Duncan Holland, who is from New Zealand and in his first year as chief coach. Holland is direct and refreshing, contributing to a good-humoured group where leadership qualities abound as much as jokes, academic achievement and rowing ability.

McDaniel's opposite number is Bastien Ripoll, Oxford's first Frenchman. The man from Toulouse has some way to go to emulate the career of Cambridge's first, Henri Waddington (1849 Boat Race), an archaeo-logist who became prime minister of France, briefly, in 1879. Ripoll, like all but two of Oxford's crew, is in the race for the first time, and he experienced a sobering defeat recently at the hands of the US national squad.

Behind Ripoll are two Canadian Olympic medallists, Jake Wetzel and the president, Barney Williams. In the five seat is Jamie Schroeder, a 6ft 7in American who at 15st 11lb is the heaviest Dark Blue. "There are two Cambridge guys who weigh more than me, but I still pull harder," he says.

Next is Paul Daniels, an American world champion from Wisconsin University. His coach and mentor there was Chris Clark, around whom the Oxford mutiny of 1987 revolved. Clark, who won his Blue in 1986, inspired Daniels to come to Oxford. Last year he won gold with the American eight, and his only concession to ritual is to wear the socks he wore in the world championships. In the bow is a former junior international, Robin Ejsmond-Frey, and at two and three Colin Smith and Tom Parker.

Smith stroked Oxford two years ago and Williams was in last year's heaviest crew of all time. His son Tavin, born on 14 January, carries a middle name of Hammersmith in honour of dad's win. Williams is an engaging law student who, in the space of six months, lost an Olympic gold by a fraction of a second to Sir Matt Pinsent and Co in Athens and won a Boat Race. He is aware that his boat is coming from behind, but it is not far behind.

During the past week, both Holland and Oxford's Sean Bowden, now in his ninth Boat Race with the Dark Blues (four wins, four losses), have concentrated on the first stroke. Starting from a stakeboat on a strong tide is tricky, and in Holland's words, it is the most important stroke of the race. Fluffing that first stroke can cost half a length, and delays settling into the rhythm to carry you towards Hammersmith and, maybe, clear water.

If the wind blows today, Edwards and Williams may wish to lose the toss to avoid deciding whether to choose optimum tide on the outside of the first bend or shelter on the inside of it. Either could be hell. The toss winner must take a punt anyway, because the coin flips an hour and a half before the tide is in and the wind reveals its hand. It will be a great advantage to reach Hammersmith Bridge - a third of the way - first. But the fitness and feistiness of both crews can keep it close for much further than that.