The Boat Race

After the 2012 race I was commissioned to write a piece for Areté, a fantastic tri-quarterly literary journal. This was the final result, which received some remarkable and very touching feedback from many of Areté’s distinguished contributors and readers alike.

My 2012 crew mates have all read this article, however I was reluctant to share it with a wider rowing community as it is an extremely personal view of what happened not only on April 7th, but also in the months and years that followed. I’ve been thinking about posting this for some time, and with it being Boat Race week, the time now felt right.

It is a little longer than the average blog post probably should be, but this is the story as I saw it, and I couldn’t find a way to cut any of it out. Once again I would value your feedback on this, but please remember that this is simply my personal opinion of the events that took place, and whilst I’m sure some of you may have viewed the race differently, I ask that in your feedback you respect how difficult it was to write and to publish this piece.

NB: This piece was written for a “civilian” audience, so please excuse the obvious descriptions of the race itself, and rowing in general.


Everyone makes mistakes. Sure, of course, but how many people make theirs live in front of an audience of approximately 10 million people around the globe? That’s the position you put yourself in when you take part in the Boat Race, where to come second is to lose and, in the case of the 2012 race, where your failures become tomorrow’s worldwide headlines.

Fast forward three months from the race and it’s my birthday. I’m in a restaurant in Oxford, surrounded by my crewmates from this year and last. It’s the summer, so we haven’t been all together for a while, and new stories are mixed with old jokes as everyone catches up. Some things never change, as we quickly fall back into the same patterns, routines and roles we adopted in the run up to the race. But things are different now; we no longer have that common goal of crossing the line first on Boat Race day on 7 April. As I look around the table at these remarkable men – smart, funny, dedicated, loyal, protective – I find myself thinking back to the race day. Whilst it was a day filled with disaster, one fact remains clear. I was steering the boat, I took us into dangerous water, and it was my actions that cost us the race. It would be so easy for my crewmates to blame me completely for what happened, for ruining not only 7 months of training, but what was, for some, the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice. Yet looking round the table right now you’d have no idea what I cost these guys. They say that when you lose a Boat Race the crew tends to drift apart, but it feels like our loss this year has drawn us closer together than ever. Maybe that’s just one of the many things that will set the 2012 race apart from the rest.

The Boat Race is at heart a pretty simple idea. Two crews, 18 people, 6.8km. However, dig a little deeper and you see what is actually an extremely complex, fluctuating, malleable entity. The goal is simple – cross the finish line first – but the process is considerably more complicated. The bends of the river Thames from the start at Putney to the finish at Chiswick Bridge in Mortlake ensure that the tactics of the race are not straightforward. You must negotiate the advantages and disadvantages of your station, all the time respecting the wild conditions that the Championship course on this tidal section of the river Thames can throw at you. The race is around three times longer than the standard Olympic rowing distance, the lanes aren’t buoyed, and instead coxes fight for the best water. More notably, however, is the emotional impact of the race for those who take part. I am not one to get especially emotionally invested if I can at all help it, but this race draws you in. The simplicity of the rivalry, the complexity of the race, tradition, the overwhelming force of support from those men and women who have gone before you – all combine to make it feel as if the outcome of this race really is life and death.

I have wanted to take part in the Boat Race for almost as long as I’ve known anything about rowing. As the sport took a hold of me, learning to cox on the very part of the Tideway in London where the race occurs allowed me a close-up view of the competition. Essentially, the spectacle of the Boat Race was intertwined with my own coxing career. My first year at Oxford – I was doing a Master’s in Psychological Research–  I expected to cox the Blue Boat crew. In the end, I had to settle for the reserve crew Isis, with whom I recorded a resounding victory in the 2011 reserves race against Cambridge’s Goldie crew. Inevitably, this wasn’t enough for me. I needed another chance to race in the main event, so I found a place on a second Master’s course with the intention of doing just that. I set myself a challenge for year two: this time I would not worry about selection for the boat; instead I would try to focus solely on what I could do to make the boat go faster. From the start of the season in September, through to the race in April, the squad puts their lives on hold, concentrating entirely on two things: training at the highest standard, and doing enough work to keep you out of trouble with your supervisors and tutors. For seven months the routine is well established. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday start with a 7am session in the gym at Iffley Road, followed by a brief spin in the lecture hall, seminar room, hospital or lab before returning at 1:30pm for the bus ride to our beautiful boathouse in Wallingford. Weekends are accounted for with two sessions on the water at Wallingford, on the Tideway in London, or occasionally at the Great Britain Olympic training centre in Caversham, just outside of Reading. A fair amount of travelling. More so for me because I chose to live not in Oxford with my team-mates and course colleagues, but instead a little under 25 miles away in the self-proclaimed heart of British rowing, Henley-on-Thames.

The process of trialling and training for the Boat Race is draining and challenging, but made completely worthwhile when you arrive on the start line at Easter. And there we were: I’m running through the mental checklist – warm-up complete, attached to the stake-boat, kit passed down and out of the boat so we are carrying no more weight than strictly needed. I’m staring at my own reflection in the sunglasses of Dutch strokeman Roel Haen, and after what seems an age, the umpire John Garrett is ready to go. I’m barely aware of Cambridge at this stage, all my concentration needed to make sure we are pointed straight for the start, no small feat in one of the fastest streams the Boat Race has seen in a number of years. In fact we have conditions that are going to make breaking a course record within the grasp of the winning crew today. The boat is being pulled drastically from side to side, and I’m keeping my bow pair – Will Zeng and Alex Woods, the furthest away from me in the boat – busy to make sure we start correctly. My hand is in the air to signal that I’m not ready to go, yet inexplicably I hear the umpire ‘Attention. Go!’ OK, that’s a little strange: why did he start us with my arm still up? No time to think about it now, we are well into the frenetic first part of the race and, as a consequence of not being ready to go, I am not pointing in the direction I would have wanted to be. Not ideal, but not a race decider either. I know my crew have a quick start, and I know they will keep me on track while I steer back to where I want to be.

In terms of tactics, the first part of the race is more or less textbook. Cambridge won the coin toss to choose the racing stations and selected Surrey. We race on Middlesex, so will have a small advantage in the very first part of the course, a substantial disadvantage through the middle, and a large advantage in the last quarter of the race. Both stations are essentially equal over the entire distance, but the psychological benefit of being ahead can be decisive. That’s why most coin-toss winners choose to race on the Surrey station. No matter for us, we just have to be prepared for the long haul, ready to win the race in the last part. We know we just need to get to half-way ideally level. Or, at the very worst, still in contact with Cambridge. Either is a potentially winning position. And there we are, half-way and we are dead level. We still have most of our advantage to go, while Cambridge are rapidly losing theirs, and we are rowing better than ever in this race. I can’t recall many of my exact calls during the race. I’m sure my team-mates would say the same. I have never been one for the big inspirational one liners. I tend instead to rely on making sure I get the basics right – where we are on the course, where the opposition is, what’s coming up next. However, there is one call I clearly remember, maybe 30 seconds from the abrupt and early end to what could have been an epic race. I looked over to see us dead level with Cambridge and I told the crew ‘We are dead level, right where we want to be. We are going to win this race’.

And then things started to take a turn for the worst.

The 2012 race was unique for the three distinct, devastating incidents that occurred. From the outside perspective it seems that the race was predominantly defined by the first of these occurrences – the swimmer. In the two weeks running up to the race there had been a lot of flotsam and jetsam in the water, more than I have ever seen before on this stretch. We’d been dodging around a changing obstacle course, including whole trees, old tyres, even large electrical appliances, so we were well primed for the possibility of obstructions during the race. When I first heard the umpires muttering about something in the water I therefore assumed we would be steered around it and the race would continue largely unaffected. Then I heard the word ‘swimmer’, and suddenly I realised that the obstruction was moving far too fast to be an inanimate object. I knew we had the momentum in the race at this point. And I assumed  this swimmer was either drunk, an idiot, or probably both, and would do everything he could to get out of the way. It wasn’t until he was in between the boats that I realised we really would have to stop.

It was well after the race before I even gave the swimmer a second thought. Too much happened from this point on, far too much, taking my attention away from this man. To me, this is not what defined the race, but rather what occurred after the re-start. The incident in which I really played my part, is what I will most clearly remember. The time between the swimmer and the re-start are all a blur, just attempting to manoeuvre through the heaving water, churned up by the full speed flotilla that had also been brought abruptly to a halt and turned back all around us. The re-start was a mess, yet somehow we had another good fast start, and flew out to a solid lead.

And if I could turn back time, this is the point to which I would go.

Cambridge had a tiny bit of their bend left. Then the advantage was all ours. I knew that they would throw everything at us, but I also knew this was our race to win. I knew the line I wanted to steer. Yet the umpire was warning me. Oxford. Oxford. Oxford. And I was trying to get clear, trying not to turn out too much, not wanting to lose ground. But the boat wasn’t responding the way I wanted. Perhaps because of the rough water we were now fighting through. Perhaps because we were still in the higher tempo start phase of the race. Perhaps it was just sheer incompetence on my part. For whatever reason we ended up overlapping blades. Clashing in itself is not unusual in the Boat Race. It is of course unadvisable, unless you are trailing, about to lose, and desperate. This was not a situation I wanted to be in. In fact, it was a situation I was desperate to get out of. Unfortunately, before I had the chance, the unthinkable happened.

The oar of my six man, the big vocal German Hanno Weinhausen, snapped clean in half.

Immediately I shot my hand up in the air, as did the strokeman and our President Karl Hudspith who was sitting in the 5 seat, right behind Hanno who was now left holding a useless handle. Surely the umpire would stop the race? Yes, I had been warned, but was he really going to let this happen? I heard nothing, so turned my head to look behind me at John Garrett, the man who held the fate of this race in his hands. And he was shaking his head at me.

That was when I knew our race was over.

We were now rowing seven men against eight, with one extra passenger in our crew. No contest. The last third of the race we effectively rowed with two coxes: in fact the words Hanno was shouting to our crewmates in those minutes will stay with me forever. We limped across the finish line around five minutes later, and immediately I shot my hand up in the air to protest, all the while knowing that this was a completely futile gesture. As the umpire’s launch made its way to us, I formulated my argument, trying to stay calm and to keep the crew under control.

In the confusion and uproar of the protest none of us realised what was happening to Alex Woods, over 50 feet away from me in the bow seat of the boat. I coxed Alex in the reserve crew Isis the year before, but I’ve known him for a number of years before I came to Oxford, as part of a wider rowing circle. And I knew this was a tough man both on and off the water. Tougher than we all thought. Alex had pushed himself so hard, built up such substantial quantities of lactic acid in his system, that he collapsed, right there at the finish line.

Ask him now and the first thing he remembers after the re-start is waking up in an ambulance.

In those minutes when we waited for the safety launch, when he was hauled out of our boat, when we limped back to land with only six oars, we didn’t know what was happening to him. We didn’t know whether he was breathing, whether his heart was beating. After the numb feeling that had carried me over the last part of the race, knowing we would lose, the abject terror I felt during those minutes is something I can never forget. My overriding mental picture of the race is of my crewmates carrying Alex out of the launch on a stretcher and delivering him into a waiting ambulance, in fact, I have a photograph of it right beside me as I write these words. It is my go-to-image now when I need motivation or inspiration, a testament to what the human body can do.

I remember getting out of the boat, the Isis cox Katie there to pull me up and keep me standing. I stood there in the water with her for what seemed like hours, her arms around me. Then I heard people shouting my name and looked round to a bank of photographers, all desperate for a picture of the one person solely responsible for the outcome of the race. Katie quickly pulled me away, hiding me from the cameras.

The rest of the day was a blur, strange moments and encounters punctuated by long periods of silence and utter grief. Shame, despair, guilt all rushed in, clouding my perception of the events. The only clear memory is going to see Alex in the hospital that evening, of holding his hand as he lay in his A&E bed. Still clutching his race shirt that had been cut off him earlier. A bruise was already forming under his eye from where the medics hit him in the ambulance in an attempt to keep him awake. All the while knowing I could have prevented this – if only I had steered a little earlier, been just a few feet to the right, delayed my turn a little bit. Later that day, I started receiving emails from all over the world, from people I didn’t know, most of whom had no connection to Oxford or even rowing at all. Almost all of these were incredibly supportive, but the odd one quite vile and destructive.

That night, before bed, I emailed my crewmates. I’m so sorry. I could have avoided this. It’s all my fault. When I woke up I already had replies from them. No, I’m sorry, I should have rowed better in the first half of the race, then we would have been ahead. No, I’m sorry, I should have pushed harder and got us out of the clash. Zoe, we live and die as a team, one person’s error is the error of the rest. I don’t know if they will ever realise what this compassion meant to me, what it still means to me today.

So why did this mistake happen? In the media furore of the next few days and weeks much speculation was made by those in the know. Many thought I was on a mission to prove myself in some way, or to make a name for myself. Some argued that I wanted to be the macho character who single-handedly won the race for Oxford. People called for me to admit my mistake. What they didn’t understand was that I couldn’t admit my mistake, at least not publicly, because of an order given to us by the media company who manage the Boat Race. This was one of the hardest experiences in the following months, hearing the opinion of those individuals who, for whatever reason, thought they had the right to speak for me, who thought they knew exactly what was going through my head.

Perhaps I was overcompensating, hardly surprising for a female cox in a severely male-dominated environment. It seems that female coxes in the Boat Race are neatly placed in one of two categories, either calm, cool, collected, or over-aggressive, loud and foul-mouthed. Evidently I fell into the latter category. Perhaps foolishly, I think I can play either of these roles depending on the situation. In the highly masculine world of the Oxford University Boat Club I clearly felt the need to tend more to the aggressive side. However, it was never my intention to try and win the race by steering that way. I would rather have had the most tedious, dreary, forgettable race since 1829. But I made a mistake, one error that cost us everything, and that served to make the 2012 race even more dramatic than it was already turning out to be.

I wish I cared less about the Boat Race, and could let my failure sink away into the past, and to never look back. It is, after all, only sport. But the experience of the 7 April, and the aftermath of the event, has had such a profound effect that I can see quite clearly how much I have changed since the race. The lingering emotions, of guilt, shame, despair, have encroached into all other aspects of my life, often emerging at unexpected times. And even outside of our crew feelings about this race are complicated and conflicting. Despite recording an official verdict of four and a half boat lengths, I have no doubt that Cambridge will not take the pleasure from winning the Boat Race that they deserve. Just as we did not want to lose under those circumstances, they equally would not want the unusual events of the 2012 race to define their win.

In the months after the race so many people contacted me about the race, in person, in letters, in emails. But to me there is one message that stands out from all of these, a message that I received in a letter from someone who rowed in the losing 1949 and 1950 Oxford Blue Boats. In an eloquently composed note one thing stood out, some advice that he had previously received from another former rower: ‘Remember that when you’ve been an oarsman you know that nothing you do in life afterwards can ever be as bad.’ I hope he’s right.



6 thoughts on “The Boat Race

  1. I coxed the Aberdeen version of the Boat Race one month ago this weekend and lost after a ridiculous four month PR and training build up; still in the post traumatic stress stage of recovery! It’s been a huge help to hear someone’s account of going through the same thing (though you on a much bigger scale) and your account and grace of dealing with your experience have definitely put things into perspective for me. In my sixth and final year of studying so can’t do it again but you’ve inspired me to carry on after university when I feel like giving up. Thanks for putting your story out there!

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