Outstanding Cambridge Women defeat Oxford in the Boat Race

Image credit: Moni Zolczer

It was a truly resounding success for the Light Blues on Saturday on the Tideway, with all four openweight crews crossing the finish line ahead of Oxford. Both CUBC and CUWBC popped open the sparkling wine and raised their respective trophies.

The Women’s Blue Boat achieved a remarkable victory against Oxford with a time of 19:06, seven boat lengths ahead of their opponents, to secure the Boat Race for the 43rd time and a back-to-back win after last year’s triumph. CUWBC President Myriam Goudet-Boukhatmi, who rowed in her third Boat Race and is part of the ‘two-in-a-row crew’, summed up the big day: “Everything went really well! Every year it’s different – it’s a different crew, it’s the same challenge but you have to start again [because] the challenge is still there. It was hard to come back, but thanks Rob [Baker, Head Coach] – it was worth it, definitely!”

For the women, the race-day luck began at 2:48 pm when OUWBC lost the coin toss and Cambridge could opt for the Surrey station – with its advantage of the big corner linking the Crabtree and Chiswick reaches. The crew left Thames Rowing Club at 3:46 pm for their pre-race paddle before rowing up to the start-line and racing the four-mile course at 4:31 pm. Coxswain Sophie Shapter recalled how CUWBC patiently sat on the start, waiting for OUWBC to attach themselves to the launch boat: “It was nice for us because they messed it up”, she laughed, “it gave us a little bit of confidence, knowing that they were going to be feeling quite tense and nervous.” The Cambridge women, by contrast, were as cool as you like. “There was nothing going on that was particularly uncomfortable – we were calm, we were relaxed.” Umpire Sir Matthew Pinset called “Attention, Go” and CUWBC promptly pulled away from Oxford within the first 10-15 strokes. OUWBC had looked tentative off the start, perhaps because of a dodgy practice start on Friday, proving to be no match for Cambridge’s powerful crew. As the Cambridge women settled into a nice rhythm down Fulham Reach, they continued to pull away from Oxford with each stroke.

It was clear that CUWBC had the stronger and more experienced crew, with four returning Blues (OUWBC had only one returning athlete). By the Crabtree Reach, Cambridge had a boat length on Oxford and, with each stroke, drew further and further away from OUWBC. Their early lead was encouraging but Sophie’s relentless call for focus rang out across the water: “Through the heels!”.

Rowing up to Hammersmith Bridge, the women settled at 34-35 strokes per minute and continued to pull away from Oxford, taking total control of the race. Chiswick Reach saw CUWBC enter a period of sub-dominance whilst their rivals tried to chase down a tough lead. Despite Oxford coxswain Jessica Buck’s attempt to cut into the Surrey bend, Cambridge had momentum on their side and pushed hard to make it as big a win as possible, widening the gap between them and Oxford as they passed under Barnes Bridge towards the finish line.

After the race celebrations and trophy ceremony, Sophie discussed the triumphant victory for CUWBC from a cox’s perspective. According to her, the only time that Oxford presented a challenge was in the first mile. “They had a little bit of a push round the Middlesex bend, which is their advantage coming into the straight line,” she said. “But the crew responded really well to all my calls. It was incredible. By the time we got to the mile post, it was ‘let’s just push this clear water out’ and ‘let’s go!’”

She was not even worried when Jessica took the inside line and tried to cut into the Surrey bend. “I noticed that they came on my inside and I thought ‘It doesn’t matter because even if they come close, they have to go all the way round me' so I stayed on my line,” she remarked. “They came round, they had the advantage to take with them, and they had a little bit of a comeback but that was it, we were off!” CUWBC had expected Oxford might do this and, in turn, planned a powerful push round Harrods Depository. “We had a big move from the mile post,” Sophie said. “We knew that coming into that Surrey bend, we had to take advantage of it as much as possible and just go for it.”

She said that the whole experience was awesome. “It sounds really cliché, but it was a dream come true!” she admitted. “I never thought I’d do The Boat Race and be on that stage spraying champagne everywhere; that’s something I’ve always watched people do and thought ‘wow, that looks pretty awesome’ and now I’ve done it!”

Chief Coach Rob Baker was also on a post-race high, basking in the glory of ending his CUWBC coaching career on a comprehensive victory. “We’ve got some momentum on our side and people believe in what we’re doing,” he said. “That’s part of a strong program. It’s a powerful thing for us.”

Of course, it’s a relief, for both Rob and the crew, that all the hard work has paid off. “From Hammersmith on, it was quite clear to me that our boat speed was still greater and we were moving away so I felt pretty good,” he smiled. Despite being labelled as favourites to win, the unpredictability of the race ensured that CUWBC had their feet on the ground: “When the crew’s out and in front, pushing away in The Boat Race like it was today, it actually feels very simple, but it never feels simple before that point! It’s a nervous time leading in [to The Boat Race]. In the end, however fast we think we are, that’s what we have to manage.

“You never know it’s in the bag. I think their cox tried some steering [manoeuvres] and ducks in a few corners to see what they could get, which is what you do when you’re a bit down, but Sophie kept a really smooth line the whole race”. Cambridge simply rowed really well against a truly strong opponent: “Oxford dug in well and raced a really good race, but I think we executed really well.”

So, what now for CUWBC? “A break”, said Sophie, “This could be the end of my coxing career for a while. To be honest, I don’t want to go do any GB stuff. It’s an intense career and not what I want to do for the rest of my life so I think this is it. I’m going to go back and play some football and get a bit of exercise going again.” Recently-married Myriam, too, said that she will prioritise her PhD in Plant Sciences so will retire from the Blues Squad. Indeed, it looks as if none of the rowers will be returning next year as they are either graduating or giving up rowing to focus on their studies. Rob said that it will be a whole new crew in 2019, with maybe only one or two athletes staying on: “I’ve already started to think about it. I think we’ll have a fresh crew next year and we need to evolve. If we try and stay the same, it won’t be good enough. I’m sure we’ll have some strong people next year. It will be a fresh set of challenges for us. It’s an opportunity for us to evolve a bit and change. That’s what I’m looking forward to. Give it a week and we will definitely be moving on.”

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