Over the years

  • From 1829 to today
    From 1829 to today

    Since 1829 and 1927, while the essentials have remained the same, rowing races between crews from Oxford & Cambridge universities, much has changed in the Boat Races: crews have become bigger, times are faster, the technology of boats and oars has altered, training methods have become more scientific, even the course is different.

    Until 2015 the Women's Boat Race has always told a different history, a progression through 70 races which will now see the two Boat Races raced in the same time and place.

    This section explores the many changes that have happened during the course of Boat Race history.

    Blades from 1859 and 1876
  • Early Troubles for the Women
    Early Troubles for the Women

    In the 1930’s Betty Francombe, who had stroked the Oxford boat in 1929 and subsequently coached them from 1931-36, donated a cup for the winner of a race between Oxford and Cambridge University women. For a while the cup was lost but has been recovered and is currently used as the victor ludorum trophy at the Henley Boat Races.

    In the early years crews were well supported and from 1941 were awarded Blues. However in the mid 1950’s the Oxford crew went over a weir in training the day before the race and were banned from the river.

    This incident, as well as a lack of funds at Oxford, meant that there were no races for about ten years; CUWBC almost folded in the early 60’s.

    Miss Pomphrett, 1937 OUWBC cox, with the Francombe Cup
  • Revival

    The Women's Boat Race was revived by two engineering students between 1962-64, though they still faced male opposition, even to row in the inter-college bumps races during the mid-60’s.

    Canon Duckworth of Churchill College, an old Blue, gave the women much needed support at Cambridge; coaching the Blue Boat (whom he referred to as Perspiring Persephones or Swetty Bettys) to an impressive run of success.

    Once most colleges became co-educational in the early 1970’s, the future of the race was assured. After 1975 there was sufficient strength in depth to race reserve crews: Osiris for Oxford and Blondie for Cambridge.

    The 1942 Cambridge crew
  • Boats & Technology
    Boats & Technology

    For the first Boat Race in 1829 the two crews used boats based on a Cornish Gig design. The winning Oxford boat can still be seen in The River & Rowing Museum in Henley.

    These boats had no sliding seats, though sometimes the rowers would grease the seat of their trousers or use a sheepskin cover to offer some limited sliding. The oars had heavy, square shafts and narrow blades, some only about two inches wide. 

    There were no outriggers in the early boats and the oars slotted through a rowlock consisting of a couple of pins projecting from the gunwale.

    Boats were very wide, allowing the rowers to sit on the opposite side of the boat to their rowlocks and to reach past the man in front at the start of the stroke.

    Detail from an 1841 lithograph showing the heavy wooden boats of the era
  • Changing technology
    Changing technology

    1846  The first outriggers were introduced, allowing the boats to become much narrower and providing the rowers with greater reach.

    1857  Oxford used a carvel-built, keelless boat rigged with the stroke man rowing on bowside, in the 'northern' pattern.

    1873  Sliding seats used for the first time, allowing the rowers much greater drive with their legs.

    1902  Oxford were the first crew to use 'swivel' rowlocks.

    1960  Oxford abandon pencil blades for the new 'spade' blades with a greater surface area.

    1977  Oxford are the first to use a composite plastic and kevlar boat.

    The 1978 Oxford crew in one of the early plastic composite boats
  • Changing technology
    Changing technology

    1980's  Wooden oars are abandoned in favour of carbon fibre composite blades.

    1993  Cambridge are the first to adopt asymetrical 'hatchet' blades.

    2011  Cambridge use a Canadian Hudson boat after many years with both crews using German yellow Empachers.

    Cambridge in a white Hudson boat, Oxford in a yellow Empacher in the 2012 Race
  • It wasn't always Putney to Mortlake
    It wasn't always Putney to Mortlake

    The 1829 Boat Race took place in Henley on Thames, from below Temple Island to Henley Bridge, but this was the one and only time it was raced in Henley. The second race in 1836 was held between Westminster and Putney, as were the races of 1839-1842.

    The first Putney to Mortlake race was held in 1845, but it was only in 1864 that the Putney - Mortlake course, known as The Championship Course, became the fixed course for The Boat Race.

    During WWII when there were no official races, 3 unofficial races were held, two in Henley (1940 & 1945) and one in 1944 in Ely.

    The Championship Course

    The first Boat Race 1829 Henley on Thames, engraving by Pye
  • The Henley Boat Races
    The Henley Boat Races

    In 1977 the Women's Boat Race moved to join the men’s lightweight crews in Henley, scene of the first Boat Race in 1829. With the addition of women’s lightweight races the Henley Boat Races have become a firm fixture in the rowing calendar.

    After the 2014 Race, the last at Henley, Cambridge led the series by 40 victories to 29.  However, the last 20 years have seen the pendulum swing from the light blues in the 1990’s to the dark blues in the 2000’s.

    Oxford: Winners of the 2014 Newton Women's Boat Race
  • A bright future
    A bright future

    The advent of sponsorship in 2010 by Newton Investment Management has allowed both clubs to invest in coaching and equipment, after having struggled with inadequate facilities for many years. With assurance of a stronger financial future, Cambridge have committed to building a shared facility at Ely, while at Oxford the clubs have shared the Fleming Boathouse in Wallingford since 2009.

    With the women's race moving to the Tideway in London in 2015, to be televised for the first time alongside the The Boat Race, the clubs built new coaching teams in preparation for the landmark change.

    The winning 2012 Cambridge women's Blue Boat
  • Records & Margins
    Records & Margins

    The current course record is 16mins 19secs set by Cambridge in 1998. In contrast, the first race on the Putney-Mortlake course in 1845 was won by Cambridge in a time of 23mins 30secs.

    The slowest winning time on the Championship Course was set in 1860 by Cambridge with a time of 26mins 5secs, nearly 10 minutes slower than the current record.

    The closest winning margin on record is just 1 foot, achieved by Oxford in 2003.

    In 1980 the verdict was just a canvas, approx. 4 foot, to Oxford. In 1952 when Oxford also won by a canvas the boats were longer and a canvas approx. 6 feet.

    The Women's Boat Race started a new record book in 2015 for the Championship Course, with Oxford winning by six and a half lengths in 19:45.

    The 1980 Oxford crew at the finish after winning by a canvas or 4 feet
  • Size matters
    Size matters

    The heaviest oarsman to compete in The Boat Race was Thorsten Engleman, the stroke man of the 2007 Cambridge Blue Boat, weighing 17 stone 5lbs or 110.8 kilos.  In contrast Alfred Higgins weighing in at 9 stone 6.5lbs or 60.1 kilos was the lightest Blue ever, stroking the 1882 Oxford crew.

    Josh West (Cambridge 1999-2002) is the tallest ever Blue at 6 foot 9.5 inches or 2m 7cm).  Since the move to the Tideway Caryn Davies (Oxford) is the tallest woman to have competed in The Women's Boat Race at 6 foot 3 inches (190cm), racing in 2015.

    Coxes are at the opposite end of the spectrum, both Francis Archer (Cambridge 1862) and Hart Massey (Oxford 1839) weighed in at 5 stone 2lbs or 32.66Kg; there is now a 55Kg lower weight limit for coxes.

    More Boat Race facts and figures
    The Boat Race results board at Thames Rowing Club, Putney