Coxes ready, hands down, off you go… The 2014 Oxford-Cambridge boat race takes place on Sunday 6th April, covering 6.8km from Putney Bridge to Chiswick. In order to start, both coxes line the boats up, get them balanced, and only when they're entirely happy will they put their hands down. When both hands are down, the starter gun can fire.
From start to finish the course is an intense mix of skill, stamina and strategy. Coxes toss for which 'station' they'll choose, Middlesex or Surrey. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and the coxes will have to plan carefully. Often they'll steer a careful course down the middle of the river, and if the race is as close as it often is, this risks oars clashing, and the umpire has to pay careful attention to prevent accidents.
Avoiding a clash of blades, image credit Pointillist
It started just as a challenge between old school friends in 1829, but this year sees the 160th race and it has become an international phenomenon. Cambridge have won 81 times, Oxford 77, with one 'dead heat' in 1877.
Joy for the light blues, despair for the dark blues. The 2007 finish, credit MykReeve
Today such a dead heat would probably not be called, as the race is tracked with the latest technological sporting software. Cameras monitor the boats' every move, and throughout the race statistics are broadcast to tell us average stroke rates and a host of other information, comparing this race against others.
Does it matter how heavy the team is, for example? Power versus weight, it's a difficult balance to strike. This year the Cambridge team is smaller and lighter, which means they're more streamlined, but have less brute force to put behind the oars. Coxes will roar through the microphones, with calls such as 'up 3 on the slide' raising the stroke rate along with the pressure, counting down the strokes in each extra push, motivating and directing their rowers for all they're worth.
The eight male students participating in each boat have trained at international competitor intensity for months, alongside their rigorous academic studies. These are seriously committed people. The record time is 16 minutes and 9 seconds, set by Cambridge in 1998. The race time will depend on the state of the river and weather as much as the teams, but this is a short event with immense effort.
The rivalry extends beyond rowing, with inter-university matches in a whole range of sports, for example a rugby match at Twickenham each December. People who play in these matches receive what's called a 'blue', a hard-won honour. Oxford will row in dark blue, Cambridge in the light blue whose shade bears their name.
Going to London is always a treat. The Thames route is packed with supporters, and big screens will show you progress along the river. Colleges and societies from both universities host parties on the banks, so you're very likely to see a range of students and alumni in their finest blazers. You'll only glimpse the boats themselves for a few seconds, as they speed past you, but the atmosphere is wonderful.
If you can't make it in person then it is well-covered by the BBC. Watching it on television, for example, means you'll get the interviews, full length of the course coverage and statistics / commentary along the way. It now has a corporate sponsor, in BNY Mellon, whose name and emblem adorns things associated with the race. There are other official partners and suppliers, but this is the name you'll find broadcast.
There is also a women's race, which next year will be raced on the same day for the first time, on the Tideway. The reserve boats (Isis and Goldie) also race before the main event, so you're guaranteed a mass of sporting excitement.
In 2012 the race was memorably disrupted by protester Trenton Oldfield. He was protesting against elitism. One might question how effective this strategy was, endangering his life and others' for a cause which he himself could not define when asked. It did catapult him to notoriety though, as well as a court case which led to his potential deportation to Australia. He was jailed for six months, but won an appeal against the deportation on the grounds that his Indian wife faced undue racism in Australia.
The winning cox finds themselves thrown into the Thames. The river is so revolting no normal person would want to take a dip, but this is no normal event, and for many people the dunking is a lifetime dream.