The 7 most controversial Boat Race moments

Jon O'Brien

BY Jon O'Brien

23rd Mar 2023 Sport

The 7 most controversial Boat Race moments

The Boat Race has been running for 167 years, with plenty of strange occurrences to keep things interesting

Perhaps the most exclusive event on the UK’s sporting calendar, the Boat Race might not be able to throw up any shocks in its victors. After all, it’s always going to be either Cambridge or Oxford who crosses the River Thames’ finish line first. But it has occasionally thrown up the odd surprise elsewhere during its previous 167 contests. From sinkings and snowstorms to revolts and restarts, here’s a look at seven times the rowing spectacle made the front pages as well as the back.  

1. The lone protestor 

Two boats collided, breaking one of the rowing blades

In 2012, Trenton Oldfield somehow concluded the most efficient way to protest government spending cuts was to enter the Thames and swim in-between the world’s most famous boat teams. Oxford and Cambridge had already completed nearly 75 percent of the race before umpire John Garrett was forced to halt proceedings. The drama continued after the restart when the two boats collided, breaking the blade of Oxford crewman Hanno Wienhausen’s oar in the process. Cambridge subsequently eased to victory, and despite an appeal from their rivals, were confirmed as the first ever team to win without an official time. Oldfield, meanwhile, received a six-month jail sentence for causing a public nuisance. 

2. Both teams sink 

Due to treacherous weather conditions, two boats sank in one race

There have been five mid-race sinkings in Boat Race history, with Oxford succumbing to the waters in 1925 and 1951, Cambridge in 1859 and 1978, and both teams suffering the embarrassing fate in 1912.

"By this point, their rivals had also been forced to surrender having sunk near the Harrods Depository"

Staged in treacherous weather conditions, the latter contest first saw the Dark Blues get into difficulty, with an attempt to empty their boat of water at Hammersmith Bridge proving to be futile. By this point, their rivals had also been forced to surrender having sunk near the Harrods Depository. Oxford saved face a little two days later when they stormed to victory in the re-run.  

3. The pre-start collision 

It’s embarrassing enough getting into difficulty during the Boat Race. But Cambridge outdid themselves in 1984 when they managed to cause an accident before the starter gun had even fired. Yes, in the 130th annual event, cox Peter Hobson somehow steered the Light Blues’ boat into a barge, and a moored one to boot, destroying its bow and forcing the rest of his team to paddle or swim to safety. Cambridge had to borrow a boat from the Amateur Rowing Association for the next day’s rescheduled race which to add insult to injury they lost by 12 seconds.  

4. The American mutiny 

Whilst an entire team revolted, they were simply replace by their coach and the race continued

“Next year we're gonna kick ass... Cambridge's ass,” rower Chris Clark remarked in 1986 after Oxford’s first defeat in 10 years. “Even if I have to go home and bring the whole US squad with me.” Well, he got the go-home part right. Following several disagreements with coach Dan Topolski over training methods, Clark and four of his American teammates mutinied ahead of the 133rd Boat Race. Calling their bluff, Topolski banished the troublemakers entirely and brought in several reserve oarsmen to take their place. Remarkably, Oxford still managed to kick Cambridge’s ass and romped home 12 seconds ahead. 

5. The dead heat 

There were no finishing posts until 1878

Decades away from any kind of photo-finish technology, the 1877 Boat Race had to rely on a partially blind septuagenarian to call the shots.

"Despite rumours to the contrary... John Phelps wasn’t inebriated under a bush"

To make his job even more difficult, the event was also staged a year before finish posts came into the equation. Despite rumours to the contrary, reportedly started by Oxford supporters aggrieved with denying their team a win, John Phelps wasn’t inebriated under a bush at the crucial point. But understandably, the fact that he called the race’s first, and still only, dead heat means his umpiring skills are still up for debate.  

6. The same-day restart 

Oxford hadn't noticed a red flag and started the race alone

Although The Boat Race had been re-run on several occasions, it had never been done so on the exact same day until the controversy of 2001. Umpire Rupert Obholzer had repeatedly warned both Cambridge and Oxford to move apart before a blade collision forced him to wave the red flag. Unaware of this signal, the latter continued to row, and although they retained the lead after the restart, their tiredness soon got the better of them. Oxford President and future TV historian Dan Snow later claimed they’d been screwed by the system, while Cambridge coach Robin Williams, unsurprisingly, argued that Obholzer’s call was brave.  

7. The snowstorm 

A snow storm caused the narrowest margin in 75 years

Oxford and Cambridge’s rowers have had to deal with all sorts of adverse weather conditions over the years. None more so than in 1952 when they raced on the Thames in a snowstorm which came complete with winds of 70mph!

"They raced on the Thames in a snowstorm which came complete with winds of 70mph"

As you would expect, visibility was poor for both the competitors and commentators, with the BBC’s John Snagge famously declaring, “I don’t know who’s in the lead... it’s either Oxford or Cambridge.” In the end, it was the former who won, and by the narrowest margin in 75 years!

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