A Cambridge Rout and How To Cheer Up Afterwards


One of the last great amateur sporting events is the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race held each year in April. I recently watched the 160th running of the race; and it became everything one hopes will never come to pass in a sporting event.

It so happens that four members of this year's Cambridge boat call St. Edmund's College — my present and former bolt-hole — home. This struck me from the first as quite extraordinary luck and in January, as I prepared for my trip over, I looked forward to meeting them all and enjoying some backslapping camaraderie.

(Perhaps we should take a moment here to reflect upon what modern elite male rowers look like. For one thing, they're enormous people. The average height of the Cambridge team this year, for example, is 6'6". And rowing also produces a particularly fine figure: magnificent legs, deep chests, powerful arms, with no single element overdone. They're an impressive visual; Evelyn Waugh (via Anthony Blanche) described rowers as "meaty boys" .)

The Cambridge Light Blues vs. the Oxford Dark Blues. You'd just about come up to their clavicles. No, probably lower. The two wispy coxswains are in the front.

Once I arrived in England however, I realized how naive my expectations were. Thirty years ago these four men would probably have lived in college with the rest of us.

These chaps seem much more clubbable, if a little less athletic. I'm won over by the bags alone.

Nowadays, the Oxford and Cambridge boats are enriched with young cherries from the rowing world: ex-Olympians and Ivy League rowing stars who burnish their amateur rowing careers with a few years in an Oxbridge boat. It's a little depressing. I think Oxford may have started it; but Cambridge is now an enthusiastic comrade. A very large percentage of both boats are North American.

So despite my little flutter, let me assure you the four Edmundian rowers certainly haven't contaminated the precincts of St. Edmund's. Ever since I arrived I've been asking people if they've ever clapped eyes on these men and no one has — not even the men who row for the St. Edmund's College team in intramural racing have seen the Cambridge rowers. It's all quite scientific now. The men are enclosed in their own intense and calibrated rowing worlds and don't seem to venture beyond them. The other part of it is that though both Oxford and Cambridge have their own rivers (the Isis and the Cam, respectively), the Oxford & Cambridge boat race takes place on the River Thames in London. So I was imagining that the chaps must have been spending a great deal of time plying their eights up and down that river in preparation. (Okay look, I admit I'm prepared to make some allowances for physical Gods.)

 For this year's outing the defending champs, Oxford, were heavily favored (I think they had three ex-Olympians in their boat); but at the very least I knew Cambridge would certainly give them a run for their money. I admit I was also enchanted with the idea of actually being back in Cambridge for the boat race again. And of actually being at the college where four of the Cambridge team were members, even if notionally. And further still, of actually watching the boat race in my college with fellow Edmundians around me. I have attended the race in person. But like spectating any long race, once the racers have passed your fixed location, there's not a lot to see. I was happy to stay out of the wind in the warmth and dry of the St. Edmund's Combination Room (like a large living room) watching on a giant screen.

Fellow Edmundians watching the race.

The television coverage began around 4:30 pm with heartwarming vignettes of various Oxford or Cambridge oarsmen. We watched the Cambridge team tucking into large, attractive meals and realized at once this couldn't possibly have happened at our college where the kitchen is obsessed with portion control. We watched vignettes of races past; we watched a vignette about the coxes. As the vignettes and other preparatory comments continued, I began to get the impression that the BBC's coverage seemed distinctly lopsided in favor of the Oxford boat. I began to brood.

Before the main event, there's always the race between Oxford's and Cambridge's second boats: Isis and Goldie respectively. Cambridge's Goldie boat got absolutely creamed; shockingly, spectacularly creamed. I began to think the BBC knew something I didn't.

Then it was time for the centerpiece of the day. (In the interests of clarity, there are 8 rowers in a boat plus one coxswain, who steers and hectors.) But within minutes of the off there was trouble. Though I'm not quite sure how, the two boats clashed (knocked against each other's oars) causing the No. 2 man in the Cambridge boat (a Wisconsonian, as it happens) to catch a crab and almost fly away.

You can see the No. 2 man has been nearly thrown out of the boat with the force of his oar getting 'stuck' in the water and acting like a brake. This is called catching a crab.

We later learned that not only had the poor bastard gotten a violent dunking and the shock of his life, but in the moment suprême, his rigger had broken rendering Cambridge virtually down a man. The seven others rowed the rest of the race as if their lives depended on it but it was clearly hopeless. When they crossed the finish line 15 minutes later the Wisconsonian burst into tears and fell back into the comforting embrace of his teammate, No. 1. It was touching.

No one wants to lose that way. But of course no one wants to win that way either. The reaction of the Oxford boat to winning the 160th running of the race was distinctly muted. How could it not be? The race had been a rout; a walkover. The contest for which they'd all been utterly sacrificing themselves for a year had never really begun. No sportsman wants that kind of victory.

The reaction to all this pain and drama in the St. Edmund's Combination Room during the race was also distinctly muted. It was a pity that despite our connection on paper to these men, no one knew them. We were prepared to cheer for an idea and a presumption of connection. But I thought, "Thirty years ago we'd have rubbed shoulders with these men. We'd have eaten with them, lived with them, studied with them. Their tragedy today would have been ours as well. It would have been enormously personal. As it is, today has been disappointing in the way any sporting event with the 'wrong' outcome is." And after the race was over, we all just dispersed. I felt quite sure I hadn't gotten what I wanted.

Once I got back to my room I immediately booked a flight to Amsterdam to visit my brother and his family who live there. I told everyone else who asked that I was off to ameliorate my depression with drugs and sex. I felt sure my fellow collegians looked at me in a new way. In fact my brother and his family distracted me from my disappointment in my favorite ways: through good conversation, hilarity and absolutely outstanding food. I'm happy to report that 1) I ate the most perfect cheese croissant (kaas croissant) of my life, or indeed of anyone's life; and 2) I dined at the new-ish two-Michelin-star restaurant (Bord'Eau) in the Hotel de l'Europe. We chose a tasting menu and a dazzling succession of dishes and wines appeared before me culminating in the finest lamb I've ever eaten in my life. It came, the head-waiter explained, from the northern Dutch island of Texel (in Friesland). Texel is also the name of the breed. They're medium-sized and eat the complexly-flavored grasses which grow near the sea, and inhale the scented and salty sea breezes which pervade, and taste like a fantasy of what lamb should taste like. We were agog.

Texel sheep on Texel Island, Netherlands.

I bucked right up.