The Cambridge 99 Regatta and The Mother of All Races 1996

A few years ago, when I was rowing for Churchill College, I was fortunate enough to be part of a successful crew. The crew was made up of two University trialists an experienced cox plus a bunch of freaks who to a greater or lesser extent were all inflicted with psychological scars or childhood traumas. As such they were obsessively compelled to always prove their fitness in various unreasonable and often unhealthy ways. Everyone took the crew and the training extremely seriously. We raced about every two weeks during the Easter term. One of these was the Cambridge 99 Regatta which always stands out in my memory as one of the highlights for that crew.

The race is 1100 metres on the Long Reach starting from Ditton Corner and finishing at the top finish near the Green Dragon foot bridge. Our first race in the draw was against Caius M1. We thought “Bugger it!” Caius M1 gained blades in the Lent bumps last term and had climbed up to the 2nd crew in the 1st division of the Lent bumps. We knew that literally they would rather die at the end of their oars than losing a race. They showed that on the last day of the Lent bumps where they achieved their blades. One of their crew members was taken to hospital as he collapsed after the race. So Caius had a reputation that was quite formidable on the river. On the other hand, we had one trialist who equally was a die harder and was stroking our crew. He gave us a massive improvement from his experience with CULRC. As the day came where we should race Caius, I must have been to the toilet at least three times before we all summoned at the boat house to talk things over and focus our minds in the May room. Tactics were summarised by the experienced crew members; how to keep our calm, when to have pushes, what if plan A, or plan B, or plan C.

In our small universe this race against Caius was The Mother of All Races. I still recall nervousness moisturizing my armpits with sweat and the adrenalin tickling in my fingertips. Out we went on the river; marshalled up to Plough Reach and practised a few starts, concentrating on not looking at our opposition who already were there. Our starts had been well drilled by our coaches. We knew that we had fast starts in part because we were a light crew. The draw had given us the tow path side and Caius the meadow side. Our weakest point was the railway bridge were the river bends about 11.36 degrees towards the meadow side thus giving Caius a significant physical advantage of about two sevenths of a canvas length as they would be on the the inside of that corner. Later on, just before the Pike and Eel the river would bend again to the other side slightly negating their advantage.
Off the start we immediately gained on them and quite unexpectedly got clear water somewhere before the railway bridge. We were still fighting hard as Caius inch by inch reeled us in. Them being a heavier crew they were bound to have more stamina than us. However, at the finish we won by half a length. Both crews were absolutely knackered at the finish to the point of vomiting, but at that moment the pain felt like pleasure. During our race we were rating 37 strokes/min and had lots of cover. I remember that we were so happy and cheered many times at the Caius crew.

We had two more races against Pembroke M1 and Fitzwilliam M1 to finish off before we eventually won our cup from the Cambridge Regatta. We won both of them fairly easily, but what made our day was definitely winning The Mother of All Races, the one against Caius M1! The local tabloid newspaper quickly commented on our victory suggesting we were sending out warning messages to other crews before the May bumps. Unfortunately, this never materialised. But we did have another close call with Caius M1 during the May bumps.

In the wider picture our victory had a profound impact on Caius Boat Club as well as on Cambridge University Boat Club. The Caius M1 crew was so shaken and distraught by their defeat to us that three of their oarsmen in repentance went on to trial for CUBC the following year. Two of them won their respective races against Oxford. In the following years Caius gained headships of the Lent and the May bumps, sometimes just for the men both in the Lent and the May bumps the same year. Other years both for the men and the women. To most freshmen from Caius Churchill doesn’t register to them with any significance. However, to this day when you meet alumni members from Caius Boat Club a sense of humility and gratitude among them is palpable immediately once they learn you are from Churchill. Philosophically speaking we were the seed for their future success and victories against the dark side.

That was one of the happiest days I remember with that crew. We celebrated the victory with a beer and curry at the Maharajah Indian curry house on Castle Hill.