Until a few months ago, that question didn’t ring any bell for me, however after being a member of Oriel College Boat Club since September last year, this is now a question I am proud to answer.
Before explaining the technicalities of Summer VIIIs or telling my experience rowing for my college, I would like to explain how any MFE (or graduate students in general) can get to row at Oxford. As you might probably know by now, every student in the University of Oxford belongs to one college, among many other things, each college provide students the opportunity of joining their Boat Club.
During the first week of Michaelmas term (October to December), almost every Boat Club hosts a taster session in order to attract new members from the college’s freshers. Training will begin a few days later and on week 5 of Michaelmas Term, the Christ Church Regatta takes place – this is the most important rowing event for novices in Oxford. Once the Christ Church Regatta is over, each member of the boat club starts competing for a seat in the college’s boats that will take part in the bump races next year: Torpids (Hillary Term) or Summer VIIIs (Trinity Term).
Bump races are a special type of regatta, almost exclusive to Oxbridge. Due to the limited width of the Isis (The branch of the Thames that runs through Oxford), it is impossible to have more than two boats racing side by side. To solve this issue, bump races were introduced. In bump races, all boats start one after the other, with a distance of one and a half lengths between them. The objective is to bump the boat ahead of you, before the boat behind you catches you. Most of the time you get a bump by making contact between any part of your boat with the boat you’re chasing or by having the cox of the boat you’re chasing conceding before any contact is made. If you bump, the starting order for the next day is inverted, with your boat starting before the boat you were previously chasing. The objective is to go as many places up as possible in four days, as next year starting order will be the same as the finishing order of the current year. The boat that finishes on first place of the top division is called Head of the River.
Summer VIII’s is arguably the most important collegiate rowing competition in the world (sorry Cambridge), with more than 200 years of history, the first edition of this event was held in 1815. As the boat race (Oxford vs Cambridge) has already taken place by this time of the year, all the best rowers and coxes from all across the University are able to compete for their colleges in this prestigious event, so it is not rare to see Olympic medallists in the competition.
Oriel, my college, has a successful history at Summer Eights, finishing Head of the River on 2015, it tailed Christ Church (until last Friday) for the most Head of the River titles at Summer Eights – 32 to 31. It is important to note that 26 of these 31 titles were won in the last 50 years. This dominant tradition of the first men’s boat is also reflected in the quality of the women’s boat and in the lower boats, with Oriel’s W1 being second in the River in the last edition of Torpids and Oriel M2 starting this year’s Summer VIIIs better ranked than the first boat of 17 colleges.
The competition for places in the boats is incredibly fierce in Oriel. After attending long training sessions early in the morning for three terms, measuring my fitness level against 19 year olds with more rowing experience and edging at least 4 days per week while still training to run the Paris Marathon, I managed to secure the seventh seat in Oriel’s 3rd Eight, a boat that aimed to regain a place in fixed place in the top five divisions.
Oriel M3 was lucky to be coached by Wilf Stephenson, Oriel’s treasurer, who rowed for St Catherine’s College in the other place, and who was even in the same crew as Sean Bowden, Oxford blue boat coach. Being coached by him was really interesting, our times were measured with George Moody’s stop watch, on every correction exercise we were told how rowing was done “back in the day” and we even got to listen to his rowing anecdotes during the debriefing of our training sessions at breakfast. We really improved our individual and collective performance thanks to Wilf and I am honoured to be able to call him my coach.
After qualifying for Summer Eights on Friday May 20th, we started our Eights week last Wednesday as the second boat on the sixth division, we knew that by getting two bumps on the first day we could get the dream place in the fixed divisions. We had a strong start, we were less than a canvas away from Somerville II at the top gut (300 meters after the starting line). Unfortunately LMH II gave a strong power ten and managed to bump off before we could get Somerville.
Thursday and Friday weren’t good days either, on Thursday, while putting all in to escape from Mansfield II, one of my crewmembers caught a crab, which made it easy for Mansfield to bump us and on Friday we hit the bank while rowing away from a strong Keble crew. Almost every other Oriel crew had a similar fate, with M2, M3, W2, W3 being bumped on every of the first three days. On the bright side, M1 was able to retain the headship for the first three days and W1 managed to recover their place in the women’s first division.
We started Saturday trying to avoid getting “spoons”, the inglorious distinction given to a crew that is bumped in each of the four days of competition. Our stroke had to go to London for personal reasons, so we had to get a last minute sub. After having an encouraging team talk and promising my crew mates a pint if they helped me to avoid getting spoons on my last day rowing for Oriel, we pushed off the raft with our minds set in one goal, rowing over Teddy Hall in order to avoid the bump.
In an emotional and exciting race, in which we had overlap with Teddy Hall at least three times in the course, thanks to the determination of my fellow rowers and the combination of amazing coxing skills and fearless racing strategy by our cox, we managed to get some distance between our boats, after more than four minutes of excruciating pain, we were able to row over. This performance was emulated by three out of four Oriel crews that were up for spoons, with M2 giving a heroic performance rowing over St Anne’s after having overlap beside Boat House Island.
After seeing Oriel W1 securing their place in the top division, it was time to see if Oriel’s first boat was able to defend the headship and bring the trophy back home. It was incredible to witness how the Christ Church crew, with three blues rowers (the first boat of the University of Oxford) was held back by the Oriel crew that just had, besides full time college rowers, a lightweight blue and one Isis rower (Oxford’s reserve boat). At the end of the day, the tortoises were able to retain the headship title, tying Christ Church for most Summer Eights Headships.
There are many memories I will cherish from my year in Oxford, however, few of them are as special as seeing people I know well, winning this prestigious title. These are the people I did winter in-land training with, people whom I had breakfast with after training sessions and people whom I even made crew date history with.
After the boat landed, the celebrations started. It is a tradition to carry the cox of the headship crew back to college in a wooden boat, having all members of the boat club and many members of the college carrying the boat and cheering for Oriel, while tourists either looked at the procession with amusement or discretely took pictures or video of us.
Once we got to college, the wooden boat was placed in the first quad and all members of the Boat Club proceeded to the hall for Eights dinner, an event that would deserve a blog entry on its own. After the dinner, the wooden boat was ceremonially burned.
Going back to the question I opened this blog entry with, if you’re asked “Who is Head of the River?” I’m proud to tell you, the answer is Oriel.
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