The Oxford women might reflect on the moment they could have won the 77th Women’s Boat Race to prevent a sixth consecutive win for the Light Blues: It was just before Hammersmith Bridge when the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club (OUWBC) cox Tara Slade called an all-out effort, intent on bumping Cambridge who had cut in front despite heavy warnings from an increasingly agitated umpire.

“We gave it a go,” said Head Coach Andy Nelder, sanguine at the finish, having watched his OUWBC Blue Boat lose by 4.5L – just inches away from a Light Blue disqualification. His opposite number, Paddy Ryan, admitted it was an adrenaline-inducing encounter especially in the rough water between Harrods and Hammersmith when the Dark Blues surged.

“I thought we were in the right place,” said Head Coach Paddy Ryan but acknowledged the umpire’s decision is final. “We were being warned and Oxford absolutely, 100% went for it. I saw them pull a big surge and then when they didn’t get it the gap really started to open up.”

It is a foible of the Boat Race that a perfectly paced a-to-b effort is not always optimal. Slade was right to go for the bump. Cambridge were six feet clear and looked ready to row away, drama-free. In the previous seven-minutes the heavy-favourites conceded two-seats along the Fulham Wall before checking Oxford’s momentum from the outside of the first Middlesex bend. From there they locked into a strong mid-race rhythm and took the lead along a choppy Crabtree Reach.

“We had a sense that it was going to be windy in that section of the race so it was important to keep calm and relaxed and trust that you are in a rhythm even if you can’t feel it in the bounce,” said Cambridge’s strokewoman Caoimhe Dempsey. She closes out her four years at the club as a winning President. “I’m so proud of the entire squad.”

Had Oxford bumped Cambridge, then Umpire Matt Smith would have been forced to disqualify the Light Blues. Smith was acutely aware of this, and made every effort to verify his initial instinct that contact had not been made. He correctly anticipated Oxford’s appeal and asked his assistant umpire, Sarah Langslow, to find and review the BBC footage before arriving at the finish.

Slade’s appeal was not upheld. It was a tough gig but the right call. A harried-looking Smith hurried for refuge once decamped at Mortlake. Next year perhaps the BBC could strap a heart rate monitor on the umpires too.

“Hopefully they won’t under-estimate us next year,” said the OUWBC cox, onshore after the race. “Everything we did, we did with heart. It was all fully planned.” 

“We were in the race for a long, long time, and that was positive,” said Slade’s teammate Alison Carrington who raced from the five-seat. “We did absolutely everything that we could. I had total faith in all the girls I was racing with. We knew we were fast and we executed everything we wanted to but at the end of the day the other crew were faster.”

With one year left at Oxford, will she return for another Boat Race campaign next year and try to end the Light Blue winning streak? “I don’t want to make any rash decisions,” said Carrington with a coy smile. “But redemption is a powerful feeling.”

Words: Tom Ransley
Photos: Benedict Tufnell/Row360