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That’s Weird: The 1912 Boat Race fiasco

This rowing race got even more aquatic than usual

The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities holds a bizarre grip on English collegiate athletics. It is astonishingly popular. In one instance, 15 million people tuned into the BBC to watch the Light and Dark Blue mens’ teams do battle, with almost 300,000 live spectators along the river itself. From afar, it is difficult to see the appeal of watching 16 dudes rowing up the Thames while their coxes shout (presumably) helpful things at them, but it’s clearly there.

The Race itself is a little more than four miles long, starting at Putney in southwest London and ending at Chiswick Bridge upstream (the Thames is tidal in London, so the Race is timed such that the flood tide pushes the current in the direction of rowing). Modern crews can manage this in under 17 minutes, and the universities have had a lot of practice to get to those sorts of times. The first Boat Race was held in the 1820s, and barring wartime and pandemic interruptions it’s been an annual institution since the mid 1850s.

If you are like me and not particularly taken with the sport of rowing, the most interesting* of these Boat Races came more than a century ago. It was 1912, and the outcome was that everyone sank.

*The second-most interesting, at least from my point of view, was when Oxford recruited half of the American national team, who ended up mutinying against the rest of the crew and had to be replaced with reserves. This would, of course, have been a more interesting story had it occurred mid-race.

Sinking an eight-person racing shell is reasonably difficult. In the history of the Boat Race, it’s happened six times: Cambridge sank in 1859 and 1978, Oxford in 1925 and 1951, and, as previously mentioned both contrived to do it in 1912.

How? Terrible, terrible weather. The whole year was weird. Two weeks after the Boat Race fiasco, a rather more notable sinking took place in the North Atlantic, thanks in part to a weather-related increase in iceberg activity. A little later on, England would get its wettest summer in 200 years. Like I said: weird.

On March 31st, the weirdness manifested itself in what The Observer described as a “keen and hard south-westerly wind which drove down the Thames between Putney and Mortlake,” raising the river into whitecaps. When Cambridge, the first team out, took to their station, “many old watermen shook their heads and expressed the opinion that she could not weather what was, for the Thames, a heavy gale.”

The skeptics were correct in their assessment of this particular teacup tempest. Cambridge got off to the faster start, which only meant that they got in trouble more quickly. By the time they were off Chiswick, a little more than halfway to the finish line, it was apparent that their boat was quickly becoming swamped by waves coming in over the sides. Shortly thereafter, it turned one-way submarine, its crew newly aquatic.

Let’s check in on Oxford, who, uh:

With water half-way up the gunwales of the boat, the sliding seats moving backwards and forward in a puddle, and legs nearly up to the knees in water, the craft became unworkable. Bourne and his men travelled on bravely, but they could only go a few yards farther before shipwreck overcame them at Chiswick Eyot.

Somehow the Oxford crew managed — apparently with the help of some spectators and a police office — to haul their boat out of the river, turn it upside down to dump all the water out, get back in, and pull like hell to finish the race. Cambridge, wrecked against the embankment at Harrod’s Wharf, had no such opportunity.

But as it turned out, the fact that Oxford completed the course didn’t actually matter. Mr. Pitman, the umpire, was of the mind that a race which saw both competitors sink ceased being a race at all, and declared the whole thing void and in need of rescheduling.

As The Times pointed out the next day, the delay constituted another hardship for the teams, who had to maintain their literally grueling training diet for another few days while everyone else got to go to the post-Race party:

The crews deserve considerably sympathy, not only for the excessively aquatic nature of their pasttime as they pursued it on Saturday, but on the compulsory prolongation of their training period under singularly ironical circumstances. Over the black broth of the training-table at Putney they must have turned with mingled feelings to the thought of the customary banquet in their honour which was being held, without them, in Trafalgar Square.

Is this all far, far, far too English? Yes, obviously. But they’re probably very sorry about it. I am well positioned to know that the English are sorry for everything.