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The Cancer Research UK Boat Race: epitomising British heritage and steeped in competitive traditions.

Posted on by Lizzie Watson

You can’t get more of a British tradition than that of the excitement and competition that occurs when team sport is involved; whether you’re at the side of the river, on the touchline or in the stalls; whether you’re in the pub, on Henman Hill, or in the comfort of your own home, British sport is enjoyed by the masses – whatever the weather. 

Every year the call of spring brings one of my most favourite sporting days – The Boat Race - and it’s much more than the trend for brightly coloured socks!
This annual contest between two rowing crews from Oxford and Cambridge Universities takes place close to Easter each year on the River Thames in south-west London between Putney and Mortlake. Thousands, upon thousands, gather bankside, and millions on television across the globe, to cheer on their favourite side and immerse themselves entirely in team spirit.

The first Men's Boat Race took place in 1829 in Henley on Thames following a challenge between old school friends. Two friends from Harrow School, Charles Wordsworth (nephew of the poet William Wordsworth), of Christ Church College, Oxford, and Charles Merrivale of St. John’s, Cambridge, met during the holidays, and the two schoolfellows decided to set up a challenge.
So, on February 10 1829 a meeting of CUBC requested Mr Snow of St John’s to write immediately to Mr Staniforth of Christ Church stating ‘that the University of Cambridge hereby challenge the University of Oxford to row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation.’ Staniforth and Snow had been schoolfellows and boating comrades at Eton - the rest, as they say, is history!

Since the second Race in 1836, the contest has taken place in London. The Boat Race course, known as the Championship Course is 4 miles, 374 yards or 6.8 km long. The crews who win the coin toss before the Race chose which side (or station) they will race on. The stations are known as Middlesex and Surrey, with advantages and disadvantages for each side because of the bends in the river. The Race starts downstream of Putney Bridge and passes under Hammersmith Bridge and Barnes Bridge before finishing just before Chiswick Bridge.


The first Women's Boat Race took place in 1927 and was held on the Isis in Oxford, with (according to The Times) “large and hostile crowds gathered on the towpath” as the men objected to women rowing. Once the Race moved to Henley in the late 1970's there was a noticeable improvement in standards and the rivalry become a permanent feature of the Oxbridge sporting landscape.

The Boat Race has seen some ground-breaking firsts, most notably the move of The Women's Boat Race to The Championship Course in 2015 with equality in stature and funding. They have been making great shifts in how the future of rowing is shaping the evolution of sport; it’s about passion, performance, and teamwork with one aim – ‘one day, one goal, one race.’


Both Cambridge crews (CUBC / CUWBC) wear light blue, whilst Oxford crews (OUBC / OUWBC) wear dark blue, and British brands have been invited to partner with the Boat Race over the years.
Last year Hunter created an exclusive collection of boots bearing the emblem and deep navy blue of Oxford and the vibrant mint green of the Cambridge University Boat Clubs. Hunter traditionally provides wellington boots for the Oxford and Cambridge crew, protecting them from the chilly waters of the River Thames as they endure grueling winter training sessions – the cold, as any hardened rower will tell you, is as traditional as the race itself.

Through the #PullTogether campaign in 2016, BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management made a landmark gesture in donating their title sponsorship of The Boat Race to Cancer Research UK, thereby creating The Cancer Research UK Boat Race in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
This year, British university clothing label Rupert and Buckley are the Cancer Research UK Boat Race official leisurewear partner for the next three years. The deal, which was last held by Hackett Clothing, will incorporate a retail element, includes all the out of water leisurewear kit for the crew, stewards, volunteers and all staff related to the event.  

Alex Newman, the chief executive officer of Rupert and Buckley said: “The Rupert and Buckley team are absolutely over the moon about this new partnership and we’re really excited to be working with the Cancer Research UK Boat Race over the next three years.   
“Rupert and Buckley has rowing at its heart so it couldn’t be a more perfect fit for us. We can’t wait to reveal the Boat Race range and to get fully immersed in this wonderful British institution, one we couldn’t be prouder to have been selected to work with.”  

Rupert and Buckley was founded by James Buckley Thorp, who had the idea of creating high-quality socks for his university’s rowing team with a vintage 80-needle hand-weaving machine.  Soon the word, and socks, spread from town to town and James in one week had produced 500 pairs for five universities. At this point, the realization of what had been created set in and the range expanded with the help of some of the country’s most well-known clothing designers.   


Mr Newman said: “This grassroots ethos of hard work and a good idea is what has grown the brand to this day. The Rupert and Buckley team are busy with lots of projects from opening new sites across the UK within the wholesale market and launching five new stand-alone stores by the end of the year, so to become the Cancer Research UK Boat Race leisurewear partner has made all the hard work worthwhile and given the team well-deserved recognition of how much of their time and passion they bring to the company.”  


The teams compete in eight-oared rowing boats, each steered by a cox who sits in the stern or back of the boat, facing in the direction they are moving, conducting proceedings. All four Clubs train and select the rowers and cox for their university's crew and all the crew members are students.

The Boat Race is a popular regatta that remains at the top of the sporting event leadership board, along with the competitive times set by past crews; the record time over the course in The Men's Boat Race is 16 minutes 19 seconds, set by Cambridge in 1998 and for The Women's Boat Race is 18 minutes 33 seconds set by Cambridge in 2017. For many, this is one of the most prestigious annual events in the event calendar, because it epitomises British heritage and is steeped in competitive traditions.

Tune in on Saturday 24th March 2018
The Women's Boat Race 4.31pm
The Men's Boat Race 5.32pm

(With many thanks to theboatrace.org for their use of content and images.)