A century ago the omens didn’t bode well for a classic race. Both crews had been affected by a ‘flu outbreak in the weeks prior to the event; Cambridge lost two of their experienced rowers to the illness leaving an already weak line-up 7lbs a man lighter than the Dark Blues. Then as Boat Race Saturday arrived a strong north-west wind began to blow over a slack tide, creating dreadful water conditions that were to have a profound effect on the result.
Ignoring the rough water, both crews set off at their normal high rate and Cambridge briefly held the lead before catching a succession of ‘crabs’ shipping a substantial amount of water. By the Mile Post Oxford lead by three lengths, while Cambridge continued to ship water until at Harrods, nearly completely submerged, they had to stop.
In the meantime Oxford persevered, hugging the Surrey bank trying to find clean water. Pulling in to the rough water to shoot the central span of Hammersmith Bridge they too started to take on a large volume of water. Unaware that Cambridge had abandoned The Race, the Dark Blues struggled on, now almost completely waterlogged themselves, but eventually had to pull in to the shore opposite The Doves public house.
Intending to tip the water from their boat and carry on to the finish stroke Bob Bourne chose to ignore umpire Frederick Pitman who arrived in his launch declaring he was calling the race off. Bourne however re-boated his crew and paddled off, though whether this was to demonstrate that the race could have been completed or to gain access to their dry clothing at Mortlake is a matter of dispute.
Oxford cox Bensley Wells remembered the awful conditions and also how one of the crew went missing as they re-boated, “When the turn came for number two to get into the boat he was nowhere to be seen; just as we were wondering what happened to him he suddenly appeared from the crowd and apologised for keeping us waiting, explaining that he had spotted a New College friend named Boswell in the crowd, and had gone over to have a chat with him!”
The Race was re-rowed on the Monday and while the wind was as strong, if not stronger it had changed direction causing less disruption to the water. Both crews none the less chose to hug the Midllesex bank, and with Oxford having the advantage of that station they went into an early lead.
Despite the exertions of the Light Blues, who at times over rated their rivals by as much as six strokes a minute, Oxford continued to pull away. In the better water after Hammersmith the Dark Blues lead became unassailable, eventually going on to win by 6 lengths in a time of 22 minutes, 5 seconds.
Two weeks after the sinking conditions on Boat Race day, disaster struck the SS Titanic when the ‘unsinkable’ liner went down after hitting an iceberg with the loss of over 1500 lives.