There are no fat ladies in the Women’s Boat Race, but if there was one, she would have been singing within a few strokes. As the umpire’s flag fell, the four-seat of Oxford’s Blue Boat caught a boat-stopping crab which instantly demolished any chance they had of beating Cambridge. That their reserves, Osiris, did almost exactly the same 15 minutes later will have been no consolation at all.
The smart money had always been on a large Cambridge win, but as Oxford scrambled to recover astronaut hopeful Rebecca Esselstein’s lost oar, the Light Blues sped away to a lead of nearly two lengths, which doubled over the first two minutes.
“Obviously it’s quite disappointing, it’s not what we prepare for,” said Dark Blues coach Ali Williams. “Everyone knows the start is difficult in the Boat Race and we’ve practised a lot - it’s not a thing that’s been a concern for us. Once they got going they had a great row and I think it was a gallant effort from them to keep it together and race the way they did, but it’s a bit hard to come back from that far down.”
The accident happened as Oxford were taking the first, crucial stroke from the moored stake-boat. On the Tideway the water moves past so fast the first stroke cannot be rushed. Esselstein’s oar dug too deeply in the water, and the handle flipped back over her head, an ‘overhead crab’ which effectively stopped the boat since the other rowers were impeded. Oxford rapidly restarted, but by that time the damage was done.
The Dark Blues pushed hard around the Fulham Football Ground, doing well to cut the gap back down to three lengths by the Milepost, but the energy they had to put out to do it cost them dearly, and after that Cambridge drew steadily away.
The margin was 11 lengths in a new record time of 18 minutes 33 seconds, and for Myriam Goudet and president Ashton Brown, survivors of the 2016 swamping, it was a deeply-satisfying win. “It’s a new record? That’s amazing, so fantastic,” said their cox, Matthew Holland. “It’s been an eight-month slog, we’ve done it the hard way. I felt we owed the girls from last year when they sank, so setting a record is brilliant.”
“It was only after two or three minutes that we realised they were quite far back,” said Goudet, “but we just had to carry on, that’s all. I was thinking, ‘keep going, keep going, don’t mess it up’. After Barnes, I knew we were doing it.”
“I was focused on making sure my crew didn’t get too excited,” said Holland, shortly before suffering the traditional cox’s baptism in the Thames. “Oxford are such a strong crew, we had to keep the pressure on so there was no coming back. But the part which was difficult was containing my excitement at the fact we were in such a strong lead.”
“I watched them both do practice starts on Friday and it looked like Cambridge were better prepared for what it might feel like on the Tideway,” said Sarah Winckless, the first woman to umpire a televised Boat Race. “But it’s just really unfortunate. It’s a big, big day for those women and people want to see a closely-contested race and they haven’t been able to.”
“I said at the beginning of the year we were going to win both races,” said Cambridge president Ashton Brown. “To be honest my first thought was, ‘we’d better make it a huge margin so that nobody’s talking about it being a loss just based on [Oxford] messing up the start’.”
“My fingers were crossed for a long time in that race, we could have hit something, something underwater could have hit us,” said her coach Rob Baker, wearing his first Boat Race victor’s medal. “We’ve worked very, very, very hard the last few years, but haven’t had the results we wanted. It’s been tough, and we’ve had to be really resilient. I think today shows the work that’s gone in.”
After losing in 2016, Goudet sympathised with her beaten rivals. “I know what the Oxford girls will feel, but you learn, you move on, and you set other goals. This is not fit for ever, everything moves on.”