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
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.