A ten minute walk down from Putney bridge, the end marker of the infamous Oxford-Cambridge boat race, lies the University of London boathouse, home to the UoL colleges’ rowing teams and the Varsity rowing event. Clear skies and a brisk western current awaited those having chosen to brave the trip to Putney, with six races on the agenda in what was expected to be a very tight affair between London’s premier Rowing squads (and their UCL counterparts).
Despite a delay to the start of the day’s business, the lively venue was promptly ready for the first race of the day: The men’s senior fours. Even though all races are equal in the eyes of the scoreboard, this one was certainly one of the most important. The Strand’s boys lined up for a quick start but scuffed the opening strides to UCL, who set the pace in this intense sprint. Despite the white-and-reds keeping good pace for the following yards, a small boat in the middle of the river forced an adjustment and put it out of their hands, handing their godless rivals the first win of the day by two seats.
Next, it was the women’s senior fours’ opportunity to level the field. Arguably the most hotly anticipated race of the day, the clubhouse emptied and the riverbank readied themselves for the two boats. Rain suddenly started to fall, seemingly an omen that it was God’s own university who would strike next. The KCL ladies, in the middle and pushed on by tailwind, kicked off the race one stroke behind but made up ground quickly, disappearing past the boathouse neck and neck to the riverside cheers before finally emerging victors. The scoreboard now had it at 1-1, with all to play for in the eights races.
Now the long boats. The women’s fresher eights lined up to do battle in the now blistering wind, the Strand faithful ever-present on the riverbank. The girls set off and immediately the Reds went half a length behind, answered by groans of despair in the clubhouse. Yet, hope was not lost as an unfortunate UCL soul seemingly had a cramp as she laid down in her boat, seemingly putting on the brakes for her team. Gower’s misfortune gave our ladies the edge to creep into the lead, one they maintained to the finish line. Yet, in one of Gower street’s few traditions, the race was stopped and had to be restarted, understandingly dejecting our girls in red. No need to commentate this one, UCL took their win and the overall advantage.
The tide had now turned (literally) meaning that races would start off at Chiswick bridge and end in front of us at the boathouse. The men’s fresher eights had the chance to make amends, lining up far out of view, now rowing towards us. By word of mouth we heard word of a catastrophic start, a whole length behind. Heads eagerly turned to the river and eyebrows lowered as we awaited to see the boats appear. Suddenly, they came into view. Practically a whole length ahead, the KCL boys now led and soared past the crowds at speed to float in for an impressive win that levelled the scores at two apiece. Game very much on.
Now it was time the women’s senior eights, already victorious as fours, emerged from the riverbank ready for duty. Tension built as they awaited the UCL boat for a race that could set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Hidden in the distance behind the trees, time passed as we awaited their arrival until finally they appeared. A length and a half ahead. The women’s boat flew past with swagger to audible shock and awe from the riverside and boathouse, where a tight affair was expected. They had jumped KCL into our first lead of the day- a 3-2 advantage that now put Varsity in the men’s hands for a make-or-break affair.
Finally the men’s senior eights, looking to make up for their earlier loss, took to the river for their revenge. A chill descended on Putney, the day’s spectators now lining up on the far left of the riverbank to see who would pull it off. Suddenly, silence. People pulled their chairs out and stuck their faces to the window as those outside waded ankle-deep into the river to catch the two boats finally pulling into view. Neck and neck. Even from an angle you could see them pulling into view perfectly level. The Reds pushed and pushed in full view of a bewildered audience before edging into a half-seat finishing line lead on the second-to-last stroke.
A photo finish worthy of the day’s excitement that gave KCL a 4-2 win on the day and a vital Varsity point on the scoreboard.