Trying to Understand the Britishness of the Boat Race as an American

I thought I'd just see posh boys making fun of poor people while two teams raced, but walked away bizarrely humbled.

by Drew Schwartz
28 March 2016, 2:34pm

Drew, knee-deep in Boat Race regalia. All photos: Chris Bethell

At 12.30PM on Easter Sunday, a block away from the starting line of the annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, John Bevan pulls a tallboy of Fosters from the pocket of his jean jacket. Standing outside a pub on the north bank of the Thames, he discreetly pours the beer he's brought from home into a plastic cup. In a few hours, the women's and men's rowing squads from Oxford and Cambridge will tear past him. He eyes a 50-something-year-old man in his "best gear" – a shirt and tie, tight-fitting blue blazer, and pink, pastel chinos – as he waltzes past the pub.

'Best gear' guy, John explains, is one of countless diehard Oxford or Cambridge alums at the race who's chosen to establish the fact that he's got a good reason to be here, by dressing like a jabroni. John won't watch the race. He, like a majority of the 250,000 people who will eventually line both sides of the Thames today, is here to get drunk.

"They look down on us," John says, nodding towards the man.

John Eagen, a young, bearded guy in a flannel shirt, smokes a cigarette and shrugs. "I'm not interested in anything the alums are interested in," he says. "And they're probably not interested in what I'm into. So there's no point in trying to find a common ground. Because you're not going to find one."

One of the Johns calls the pink-pants guy a "complete wench" – the most British insult I've ever heard. Fifteen minutes into my first time at the Boat Race, and three months into my first trip to London I think I've figured out something big. Since the first race in 1829, a handful of posh boys have insisted on sticking to themselves while the rest of the city gets wasted somewhere else. Two worlds coexist, but don't collide. Like John number two says, there's no common ground. The Boat Race is a sort of microcosm of London itself: fragmented, stratified, defined by class. Right?

Abso-fucking-lutely wrong.

After a brief tour of the enticingly advertised but bleak "Boat Race in the Park Festival" – it's raining, I'm not allowed to ride the merry-go-round and it's a muddy wasteland – I stumble into one of the many pubs along the portion of the Thames home to the Boat Race. And here I begin to change my mind about the iron divide between the Oxbridge crew – your British version of America's Ivy Leaguers – and us lowly plebs.

The Crabtree is packed wall-to-wall. Young pros in Oxford jackets and scarves stand shoulder to shoulder with greasy people like me, and everyone chain smokes cigs and eats cheap sausage rolls. It is, quite simply, fucking awesome. There's no weird class tension, no difficulty getting along with the jabronis, who in reality seem to care just as little about the actual race as we do.

I ask Allister Hudson-Kirkham, a kid in a dark blue suit jacket with two friends rowing today, why the Boat Race is such a big deal.

He pauses for a moment.

"Excuse for the blokes to get pissed," he says, and sips his beer.

I work my way towards Hammersmith, and shuffle into the Fulham Reach Boat Club, a rowing program run by an inordinately friendly dude named Steven O'Connor. He and a friend change my day drastically: they manage to make me care about the actual race.

"In a football team, you can have one star player that'll take the ball, run, and score, and the team wins," Steven says. "But in a rowing boat, if one person decides, 'Right, I'm gonna really go for it,' and goes on their own rhythm out of time with the rest of the group, the boat will stop dead in the water, and you'll lose the race. So it's the only sport where everybody in the crew has to be inch-perfect with each other."

I walk down the south bank to the Blue Anchor pub, and hop onto a rowing machine to see what the sport – or, at least, my weaker version of it – is really like. Sitting in the sliding seat, holding what you guys call an "oar," I'm told I have 16 seconds to cover 300 cyber-metres.

I fall off the seat three, maybe four times. Apparently I'm not using my legs at all? Enough? I can't tell. The woman who helped strap my feet in is yelling at me, as are dozens of people surrounding the machine, and now I fall off again. And then, 25 seconds later, it's over. Like that.

I walk further down the riverbank to watch the last race of the day. The big event. Eight, massive dudes (and one tiny dude, the cox, who screams at his rowers to keep their strokes in sync) float on the freezing, choppy waters of the Thames in 60-foot-long boats barely wider than their bodies. It is 4.10PM. The race should've started by now.

The flag waves. The cox screams. The boats surge forward.

At least a thousand people are gathered around a massive screen in Furnivall Gardens – yelling, chanting, clapping – and watching the boats from an aerial view, I start to see what Steven might have meant earlier: how a boat full of men move as one machine, almost. As the boats pass us on the river, the crowd pushes towards the bank, goes wild, and the cheers for Cambridge mount as they pull ahead.

In 18 minutes and 58 seconds, it's over. Cambridge glides across the finish line. As soon as they do, Luke Juckett, an American on their crew, stands up and screams: "This. Is. Cambridge."

And it may be the greatest moment of his life.

We will all forget it. We'll forget about him, about how many boats ahead his team was, how hard he worked to get there, the hours spent training for this moment. This race has gone on for more than a century, and his name, like those of so many years past, will fade. We will forget him.

Anyway, I've been drinking.

There will always be another Boat Race, for more first-timers to watch. The chance encounters, the temporary leveling out of London's social stratum, and the easy excuse for all-day booze.

@drewjschwartz / @CBethell_photo

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