Daniel Spring |

Oxford and Cambridge contest the 2021 Boat Race at Ely on Sunday

With the rowing world finally emerging from lockdown the first major event to be held in the UK for over a year – the Gemini Boat Racetakes place this weekend. Daniel Spring previews the races

This year’s Boat Race is going to be a very different affair to normal. For the first time since 1944 the race is being held away from the Tideway. COVID restrictions and the closure of Hammersmith Bridge sees this year’s races held on a shorter three-mile course on the Great Ouse at Ely in Cambridgeshire. This year will also make history with Sarah Winckless becoming the first woman to umpire the men’s Boat Race while Judith Packer will umpire the women’s Boat Race.

So, who do I reckon will have the upper hand on Sunday afternoon? Will Cambridge’s home advantage pay off? Without any form to go on (there have been none of the traditional pre-race fixtures) it’s difficult to judge crew form. Instead of current form therefore, it’ll come down to the rowing pedigree of the various crews to establish who are the favourites.

In the women’s race, Cambridge, pictured above and led by President Sophie Paine, look to have the edge. Coach Rob Weber has a crew that is almost the same as that selected for the 2020 Boat Race. Among the crew is U23 medallist, Sarah Tisdall of Australia. President Paine is also an U23 world championship medallist and Ireland’s Caoimhe Dempsey raced at the U23 European Championships.

In the men’s race it is the Dark Blues who look to have the edge in terms of rowing pedigrees

Oxford, below, have four of the crew that were selected for last year’s race but surprisingly the President, Kaitlyn Dennis, has not made the boat. Unlike their Light Blue opponents, the Dark Blues have no international representative honours, but they do have several athletes with experience of racing in the fiercely competitive US collegiate scene. Anja Zehfuss rowed for Stanford and Katherine Maitland rowed at Duke University.

Coach Andy Nelder has also included one athlete, Martha Birtles, who didn’t pick up an oar until going up to Oxford in 2018. Nelder has tweaked the line-up of his crew just days before the race, with none of the bow-siders staying in the seats they were originally selected in, quite an unusual move so close to the race.

In the men’s race it is the Dark Blues, pictured training below, who look to have the edge in terms of rowing pedigrees as coach Sean Bowden seeks to deliver the first Dark Blue victory since 2017.

Oxford’s crew contains the only senior international athlete in the race, Canadian Martin Barakso. Barakso raced in the Canadian men’s eight at the 2019 World Rowing Championships and was U23 world champion in 2014. Fellow Canadian, Alex Bebb – this year’s Oxford President – is one of three other U23 internationals in the boat. Felix Drinkall won gold for Great Britain at the U23 World Rowing Championships in 2019, and Tobias Schröder raced for GB in the U23 Worlds in 2018.

Cambridge President, Callum Sullivan, was another member of the GB U23 gold-medal men’s eight boat and he’s joined by fellow U23 international, Garth Holden of South Africa. There is a strong US collegiate feel with four of the crew below having previously studied – and rowed – in America.

Regardless of whoever emerges victorious on Sunday, it will just be great to see crews out on the water racing!

How to watch it

This weekend’s race is a closed event so there will be no spectators. We encourage all Boat Race fans – local or further afield to stay at home and follow all the action on BBC1 where live coverage will start from 3pm.

The women’s race begins at 3.50pm and the men’s race follows an hour later at 4.50pm.

Read more about the crews on the Boat Race website.

Photos: Benedict Tufnell/Row 360 courtesy of the Boat Race