The most-read post that I have ever written on this site was this one following the 2012 Boat Race – the one famous both for the swimmer and for the fact that Oxford finished with seven oarsmen after a clash.
Dad, who is involved in broadcasting on the race for a 20th year this year (he commentated for the BBC from 1993, then was roped in by LBC during the ITV years, and now covers it for the BBC for their World feed), rang me from the Tideway earlier to alert me to the fact that Zoe de Toledo, whose unfortunate role in the calamity I wrote about at the time, has written an excellent and honest take on it, two years on. If you haven’t seen it and are interested in the subject, you can find her blog here. Good for her, is my view – and good on her crew for their response. I can think of plenty of coxes and oarsmen who would not have been as tightly-knit.
Meanwhile, as those of you who are regular readers know I go all gooey at this time of year (22 years ago today was my first Goldie race!), and her piece brought to mind two other pieces I have written on the Boat Race in the dim and distant past. I thought I might as well reproduce them, since they are relevant to the topic today. The first was written for one of the nationals in 2000, but as you can see could well have been written last year, after Zoe’s race. It was entitled In, Out, In, Out? There’s a lot more to it than that: What a Boat Race cox actually does.
They know who was the tallest, the smallest, the fastest and the slowest, but there’s one thing that the Boat Race statisticians cannot tell you: how many Boat Races have been won or lost by a cox.
Won, probably not very many. I can think of only one occasion in the last ten years when a cox can really be credited with having had the major impact on his crew’s victory. But lost is a different matter. It usually goes unnoticed by the watching public, but coxing has frequently played the crucial part.
Take Oxford’s demise last year. A clash of blades caused by over-aggressive coxing knocked them off their rhythm, and allowed Cambridge to find an extraordinary one of their own. The Light Blues powered away so impressively that they showed themselves to be arguably the greatest Cambridge crew of all time. But the brilliance of their rowing in the second half of the race disguised from most what many an Oxford man will have thought: that six months’ work had been thrown away by a suicidal steersman.
The same was true for the other side in 1992. Then, Cambridge came into the Hammersmith bend about half a length up, and should have come out of it with a clear-water advantage. But anyone who saw the angle of the crews from the helicopter picture as the two boats shot Hammersmith Bridge could see the game was up for Cambridge, a full six minutes before Oxford took open water.
The point is not whether a crew is tight to a bend, or wide. It is a classic error of observers that they judge a cox by his overall position on the river, when capricious umpires largely determine that. What is important is his position relative to the other crew and his angle to the stream. A cox who gets that wrong risks losing a length in the flick of a rudder.
Boat Race coxing is a different art from coxing a straight-line course, or even a Head of the River Race: it combines both the side-by-side racing of the former with positional sense needed in the latter. What defines the good Boat Race cox is the ability to know instinctively when he should be wearing which hat. It is no good trying to steer your course from behind, but you can shout all you want to no avail if you have made a mess of your line.
So the classic steering markers on the course – the second lamppost on Hammersmith Bridge, for example – are actually far less important to a Boat Race cox than the twenty strokes before and after them. An advantage of only a few inches gained vocally on a straight allows you to steer both your own crew and your opponents round the bend. In contrast, if you are a few inches back, your opposite number should be able to force you to slew across the tide. The blades on either side of the boat consequently find different resistance from the water, and it becomes considerably more difficult to establish a rhythm. In your principal job as a cox – allowing your crew the best opportunity to apply power more efficiently than their counterparts – you have failed.
Of course, once you have clear water, your task becomes a whole lot easier – as it does for the oarsmen. Any fool can steer the Championship course with a little practice. But while the crews remain level, it is the little men, and not the oarsmen, who can lose the race in the blink of an eye.