Where two water worlds collide From Henley to Putney: While the women home in on glory, the men take the strain on the Tideway

Simon O'Hagan surveys the shorter, but just as intense, women's Boat Race
Click to follow
The Independent Online
LET'S get one thing clear from the start: the reason the women's Boat Race is held over a two kilometre course at Henley rather than the four and a half miles of Putney to Mortlake is not because they are incapable of rowing the longer distance.

This is one of the misapprehensions that still attaches to the event, which this year will be raced for the 50th time. About 8,000 people are expected to line the banks of the second most famous stretch of rowing water in the country, the blazer-and-boater scene of the Royal Regatta every summer, and the sport's spiritual home.

Indeed, if it was not for the fact that the men's race takes place 40 miles up river in London, and has done since 1829, nobody would think Henley anything other than an entirely appropriate place for Oxford and Cambridge's best female rowers to cross oars.

The reasons why they do not compete on the Tideway are well rehearsed in rowing circles: that it would be difficult to keep the Thames closed for any longer than it already is; that by racing for 2,000 metres the women are completing an internationally accepted standard distance; that the annual Henley Races, of which the women's Boat Race is merely the highlight, is a historic event in its own right.

As it is, the politeness of all involved means that any rumblings of discontent about not starting at Putney remain fairly distant, but discernible none the less. "It would certainly help raise the profile of the race," Emma Haynes, president of Oxford, said as she and the rest of her crew, a strenuous training session behind them, recovered over tea and home- made sponge cake last Wednesday evening in the house above the river at Henley that becomes their home in the days leading up to the race.

This is where two worlds seem to collide - that of the dedicated young athlete, all self- discipline, Lycra leggings and performance monitoring, and something much more recognisably studenty in which everyone has a laugh and a silly nickname and a vague worry about missing lectures.

It is a balance which the men's race, with its older, multinational crews and rather tenuous connection with academic life, has long since lost. If there is still such a thing as pure sport, the women's Boat Race must get as close as possible to the ideal.

For a start, most of the women are undergraduates. All of the Oxford crew, in fact, whose average age is 21 years and two months. Unlike the men, very few of the women rowed at school, so the first year at least is more about learning the sport than perfecting it. But it takes a special sort of woman to survive as far as the Boat Race. "Everyone has a go," Haynes said. "We're just the ones that don't give up."

What is more, these rowersstudy as well as row. Haynes, a fourth-year medical student, had to take a pathology exam before this training session - although you would think the experience of flogging up and down the river for months on end had taught her all she needed to know about dead bodies.

It was certainly a beautiful day for it - brilliant late-afternoon sunshine and no wind. Under their head coach, Kevin McWilliams, who followed the crew by cycling up the tow-path from where he communicated with them through a megaphone, Oxford simulated race conditions as far as it was possible, concentrating on rhythm and the variations of pace that are the sport's two most important elements.

McWilliams, a 33-year-old boatman at three Oxford colleges and a former national lightweights champion, said he was pleased with the crew's efforts. "We've got a very good race plan," he said, "and we've gelled very well together. That's what matters. You saw it in the men's race two years ago when Oxford had all the stars, but Cambridge won. We've got power, but we've also got speed."

Although Cambridge have won the last three races, they have done so by ever-decreasing margins (down to one length last year), and by finishing ahead of their rivals in the women's Head of the River on the Thames last weekend, in which they were beaten only by international crews, Oxford can claim to be the crew in form. The seriousness of the contest can be gauged from the extremely low profile the Cambridge crew kept last week. Not even Mark Blandford- Baker, chairman of Henley Boat Races and a Cambridge man himself, knew the phone number of where they were staying.

So just because the women do not race on the Thames, or go round recruiting superstars, and have sponsors such as Fasta Pasta rather than Beefeater Gin, it does not mean they are any less committed to what they are doing. One Oxford crew member reckoned she spent 35 hours a week rowing, including gym work and travelling, compared with 21 hours a week study. But that sacrifice will be as nothing if the bow of the Dark Blue boat cuts through the finishing line first today.