Cambridge coach Rob Baker: Great Ouse boat race will be ‘true test of endurance’

Jim van Wijk, PA
·3-min read

Cambridge men’s chief coach Rob Baker feels the University Boat Race crews must gear themselves up for “a big grind” when they go flat out on the Great Ouse.

Easter Sunday will see the annual contest switched from the Thames and staged in Ely for the first time since 1944.

The decision, taken because of the challenges posed by coronavirus restrictions as well as uncertainty over the safety of Hammersmith Bridge, will see the remote Fenland location host a ‘closed event’ over 4.89 kilometres.

It will be almost a straight course from just north of the Prickwillow Road bridge, finishing at Littleport ahead of the Victoria Street bridge.

Ely is the location of the Cambridge University boathouse, and while they may be set to race on ‘home water’, Baker knows it will still take a huge effort to last the distance.

“The course is just perfectly straight, with just a very tiny kink in it,” Baker said.

“It is going to be just a big grind really, getting your boat speed up and running, then just seeing who can maintain it through the course of the race.”

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Baker said: “It is going to be a fascinating race to watch, to see how the crews cope with that, without any other interference thrown in, like when you come to a bend on the tideway.

“Here, it is just going to be purely about the boat speed and what the crews can deliver, about that true test of endurance.”

Baker is determined to play down Cambridge’s favourites tag in their own backyard.

“I don’t know if it can be a disadvantage but, at the end of the day, it is a pretty sedate piece of river,” he said.

“There is not a lot to learn about it, so if you come here with a very fast crew, you could win the race.

“But we are happy it is here and will try to make the most of our home advantage, if there is one, and do the best we can.”

Sarah Winckless
Former Olympic rower Sarah Winckless is set to become the first female to take charge of the men’s University Boat Race (Kevin Quigley/PA)

Both races will be umpired by women, as Sarah Winckless is set to become the first female to take charge of the men’s event, which is in its 166th running.

Sarah Portsmouth will be part of the crew looking to deliver another victory for the women’s Light Blues.

“It (the course) is a bit bleak, with very few landmarks, but I think it will be really exciting,” said the 19-year-old, who is in her second year studying Architecture at Newnham College.

“The boats are going to be a lot closer together than they would be on the tideway, so it will be even more intense.”

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Oxford men’s chief coach Sean Bowden accepts Sunday’s encounter on the Great Ouse will certainly be something different.

“It is definitely going to change the nature of the racing to some degree,” said Bowden, who has guided the Dark Blues to 12 victories, including three in succession up to 2015.

“The unique nature of the race with bends and changing conditions where you can go from flat calm to almost unrowable rough later does shape the race, particularly with that extra duration, which in recent meetings has been over 20 minutes.

“That unpredictably is something which crews have had to prepare for in a particular way.

“The more sort of ‘shot-from-the-gun drag-race’ feel to the Ely race will certainly change the way the crews will approach it.

“There will be something different about it because it will be a flat-out long sprint.”