The Hardest Race In The World

The Boat Race is the ultimate test of coxing ability, requiring a combination of astute tactical nous, pinpoint steering ability, and flawless execution under the harsh glare of the media spotlight. And so when the Oxford and Cambridge crews emerge from their Putney boathouses on the 27th of March, few among them will shoulder more responsibility than the four slender coxes. The pressure on them will be enormous, their ability to shape (or break) the race unparalleled. Here’s what they’ll be thinking about.

Steering the Boat Race is a unique challenge. Both coxes will be looking for a strong line, dictated by two correlated factors. Most important is whether their boat is running parallel to—rather than “across”—the stream, the fastest band of water corresponding to the deepest part of the river. A crew rowing “with” the stream will be more cohesive, and thus faster, than one rowing “across” it. The difference is difficult for the untrained eye to judge. The cox must therefore develop a keen sense of feel for how his or her shell is moving through the water. Only of secondary priority is their boat’s absolute position; how close their crew is to the Middlesex or Surrey bank.

Many outside observers have a simplistic and inaccurate view of steering the Boat Race. In their eyes, the stream is a narrow band of water that both coxes must “fight” over. Absolute position of the crews is paramount and the cox’s goal is to force his or her opponent wide. In reality, there’s fast water plenty enough for two crews, and being a few yards closer to Middlesex or Surrey is unlikely to yield a great deficit in boat speed. Consistently steering “across” the stream, however—something implicit in the notion of “fighting” the other cox—will put a crew at a major disadvantage, not to mention risk clashing.

With these principles in mind, both coxes will be looking to continuously evaluate their boat’s position, the opposition’s position, and the umpire’s actions. The Boat Race is a zero sum game: deviating from the ideal line is acceptable so long as the opposition are deviating further as a consequence. The umpire, too, is a mercurial force with very human fallibilities. Like the coxes, he or she must determine the ideal line, which can be to the benefit or detriment of a crew at any particular point in the race.

Steering, of course, is closely tied to the clashes for which the Boat Race is best (or worst) known. Clashes are inherently a roll of the dice: the outcome can be beneficial to either crew.  It’s therefore almost always in a crew’s best interests to clash or to seek to avoid clashing. A cox who believes his or her crew will win the race on their merits alone should take reasonable steps to avoid clashing. A cox who finds himself in dire straits might be best served by taking any reasonable opportunity presented by the umpire to steer at the other crew. Such decisions need to made instantly, as much depends on the second-by-second actions of an unpredictable opposition and malleable umpire.

By the time the two coxes attach themselves to the stakeboats, they will have spent months internalizing this knowledge, freeing precious mental resources for the intense tactical battle to come. Unlike a straight 2km-shootout, the 17-minute Boat Race provides ample opportunity for strategic “pushes”—moves designed to surprise the opposition, to capitalize on one’s bend, or to hang with the opposition on theirs. Conditions and an opposing cox’s steering mistakes can also provide chances for an effective push. In 2015, for example, I knew that we had handled headwind conditions particularly well in training. I also knew that we were likely to face a stiff headwind between St. Paul’s and Chiswick Eyot, and thus tried to make tactical decisions that would allow us to capitalize on that part of the river. Boat Race coxes are continuously looking for these types of opportunities to strike a tactical blow.

In the thick of the Boat Race, the coxes will face a sea of distractions—from helicopters, to the hundreds of thousands of nearby spectators, to the gladiatorial intensity of contest itself. If they can remain dispassionate and cool-headed, and pick up on what’s important and tune out what’s not, then they will be able to soundly assess the state of the race and make the steering and tactical decisions that will give their crew little slices of advantage. Do that right the way down the course and they may be the ones celebrating under Chiswick Bridge.

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