While most of us idly check the forecast in the hope of more sunshine, Cambridge University Boat Club President Charlie Marcus focuses on one climatic element in the run up to the Boat Race.
‘I’ve got three apps that forecast wind on my phone because I need to know the detail,’ he says.
That’s because on Sunday 3 April when the starting gun fires and Oxford and Cambridge crews set off up the Thames, the wind conditions will have whipped their respective race plans into final shape. It will then be down to coxes like Charlie to lead their steeled crews through waters calm or choppy.
Imogen Grant, Olympic rower and stroke of the Women’s Blue Boat this year, agrees about windy weather.
‘That’s the vital thing. As rowers we don’t care how cold it is, we don’t care how wet it is, we just care about how windy it is,’ says the fifth year Trinity Medical student.
‘Sometimes we care about how wet and cold it is,’ says Charlie, laughing. ‘But the wind is the main thing.’
More often than not, when it is dark, cold and blowing a gale at 5.45am, the crew makes a conscious decision to ‘choose to have fun.’ Often these outings turn out to be the most rewarding training sessions of all, says the final year Engineering student who is CUBC Men’s President.
After last year’s Boat Race on the River Great Ouse at Ely, the crews are returning to the Tideway, the first time since 2019. The CUBC squad is well prepared for the weather and the challenges of the gruelling Putney to Mortlake course. They have trained twice a day, six days a week, for months.
Charlie, who coxed to victory Goldie, the men’s reserve Boat, in 2019, and the Men’s Blue Boat in 2021, says the fast tide and bends of the Thames require careful handling and clever tactics.
Your speed relative to the land is so much faster, but it also means that the tide travels along the deepest running channel of the river so both crews are fighting for that fastest running water to gain as much advantage as possible.
And you also have bends so when you’re on the inside of the bend you have an advantage so you could be in a position where you are behind by up to half a length but you’re actually ahead because you’ve rowed around the outside of bends.
‘You are far more exposed. If you have a situation where the wind is against the tide, the water gets really rough. We have to be ready to row through some pretty choppy water that looks more like a sea.
It’s these challenges that sets the Boat Race apart, says Imogen.
The Boat Race is so special because it can be really tactical. The tactics come from the bends, the changing conditions and fighting for that fastest stream. It is really exciting that we are back on the Tideway.
Charlie and Imogen will play leading roles in their respective boats on the day. Charlie will be micced up talking calmly to the crew, issuing special ‘code words’ as part of their (confidential) race plan:
It’s really important for the rowers to give their best performance that everyone is in a calm state of mind. When the situation is stressful and the crews are close, the role of the cox is to calm and re-centre the boat.
As stroke of the Women’s Blue Boat Imogen says:
As a rower you are pushing yourself towards the red line every single stroke so the cox is the only clear head in the boat. It’s their job to read the race, make the tactical decisions about when to sprint and hold and steer the boat down the course in the fastest water possible.
Imogen and Charlie began their rowing careers in different ways. Charlie learned to row at school at the age of 13 and was quickly promoted to cox of the older boys’ crews. His passion for coxing inspired his determination to go to Cambridge.
‘My reasons for coming to Cambridge were both academic and sporting. As a cox the Boat Race is a big event … I love my study of engineering and wanted to take that as far as I can. Cambridge has been a great place to do that and so has Trinity.’
Imogen didn’t row until she became a Cambridge student. She admits she went along to First and Third’s ‘Boaty Cocktails’ during Freshers’ Week just for the drinks. But since her first taster session, she hasn’t looked back.
Selected for the CUBC squad, Imogen has rowed in two victorious Boat Races, including with the 2017 crew that set a record of 18 minutes, 33 seconds. She won gold in the Lightweight Women’s Single Sculls at the U23 World Rowing Championships in 2018, and in 2019 qualified for the Lightweight Women’s Double Sculls in the Olympic Games.
Imogen and Charlie talk about the challenges of being ‘scholar athletes’: for both, study is as important as membership of CUBC squad. The demands of training and juggling academic work – and for Imogen, hospital placements – are substantial. That all makes for a relatively unusual student experience – but not one either would have swapped.
CUBC squad members forge strong bonds and supportive friendships across subjects and year groups. There are six Blues crews that race against Oxford: two openweight, two reserves and two lightweight boats. Best friends in the squad inevitably end up competing for one of the 48 places. ‘You support each other, but equally you battle each other’, says Charlie.
Cambridge won both men’s and women’s lightweight Blues races last weekend. Currently the openweight crews are in London, preparing for the big day and finalising the race plan. It’s an exciting time, says Imogen.
‘This gives us a chance to row consistently on the water that we will be racing on. The weights go and the rowing machines go. It’s really about sharpening up, making the final tweaks in those last few days, gaining confidence and really nailing the race plan ready to race.’
Crews were moved by the support of alumni, she said.
Often during race week we get letters from people in previous Blue Boats from decades ago who are still invested in the Club and how the crews do. To see that legacy stretching back is really impressive. Hopefully we are going to put down a marker as part of the legacy this year as well.
CUBC race throughout the year at national and international level; the Boat Race, watched live on the BBC by millions worldwide, is the highlight of the rowing calendar. ‘We sometimes say the reason we exist is to beat Oxford!’ says Charlie, only half joking.
And as for that race plan … ‘We won’t be posting it on Instagram’, smiles Charlie.
You can watch the Boat Race live on Sunday 3 April 2022 on the BBC. The Women’s Boat Race will start at 14.23 BST and the Men’s Boat Race at 15.23 BST.