The mid seventies saw the start of an Oxford dominance that saw 16 wins in 17 years, followed in the early nineties by a sustained period of Cambridge success
It is generally agreed that crews in the late 20th Century were of outstanding pedigree, boasting an influx of both overseas and British international oarsmen plus increasingly professional coaching and support teams. Much of this improvement in standards can be traced back to the advent of sponsorship for the Boat Race, starting in 1977 through Ladbrokes, followed by Beefeater and Aberdeen Asset Management, and since 2004 with Xchanging.
The influx of sponsorship money into the clubs has enabled the investment in coaching and improvements on the water without affecting the amateur ethos of the event.
Other significant events during this period included the infamous Oxford ‘mutiny’ in 1987, inspiration for a number of books and the film True Blue, plus the advent of female cox’s and improvements in equipment.
1976 saw an easy victory for Oxford, with a heavy, powerful crew that rowed to a storming six and a half length victory in fast conditions beating the 1974 record by 37 seconds to set a new course record of 16 mins 56 secs.
The 1977 race saw the start of Ladbrokes sponsorship and the demise of the traditional wooden boat as Oxford used an early Carbocraft (a British carbon fibre and plastic boat) and Cambridge selected a prototype monocoque hull as developed by Imperial College. This time Oxford won by seven lengths and the race was in danger of becoming a procession after the early stages.
The following year was much more exciting though perhaps for the wrong reasons, as in blustery and rough conditions Cambridge sank shortly after Barnes bridge having started to take on water from Dukes Meadows. This was the first win for Oxford’s Boris Rankov, now a Boat Race umpire, who was to win in a record six consecutive races.
The 150th anniversary of the race fell in 1979. Cambridge broke with tradition though, employing the GB Olympic coach Bob Janousek. The first time since the 1850’s that a non-Oxbridge coach had been involved. It was to little avail however as Cambridge stroke John Woodhouse went down with appendicitis on the night before the race, his crew going onto lose by three and a half lengths.
Oxford had now won four in a row for the first time since 1912 and the winning streak was set to continue in 1980 all be it in a much closer race with two memorable moments. Firstly this was the light blue debut of a man now well known as an actor and comedian, Hugh Laurie son of former Cambridge president Ran Laurie. Secondly the Oxford bow Stephen Francis nearly lost the race for his crew when he collapsed shortly after Barnes bridge letting Cambridge back into the race. The seven Oxford men held on to win by a canvas and Francis was subsequently diagnosed with hepatitis.
1981 produced another procession with Oxford winning by eight lengths. Most notably they were coxed by Sue Brown who became the first woman to compete in the men’s race. It was also the first time that Oxford had won by this margin since 1872, they were truly on a roll!
Oxford success continued in 1982 and 1983 giving Rankov his sixth victory and the dark blues their eighth in succession. 1984 saw a further Cambridge loss, although it will be remembered as the race that had to be rescheduled to the following day after cox Peter Hobson hit a moored barge shortly before the start, snapping off the bow section of the Cambridge boat. The next day Oxford were clear by Harrods going on to win by three and three-quarter lengths in a record that was to stand for the next fourteen years of 16 min 45 secs.
Henrietta Shaw was the first female Cambridge cox in 1985. Her crew fought a fierce battle with Oxford as far as Chiswick Eyot where the dark blues pushed to open up a gap that Cambridge could never claw back. This was a record tenth consecutive win for Oxford.
With John Pritchard, a GB Olympian at stroke in 1986, Cambridge finally tasted victory. Taking charge from the first stroke the light blues went on to win by seven lengths. This success for Cambridge caused trauma the following year at Oxford. Prior to the 1987 race many of the Oxford squad mutinied against president Donald Macdonald and coach Dan Topolski, five Americans refusing to row, leaving a blue boat thought to have no chance.
In poor conditions including a lightning strike that disabled a BBC commentary position just before the start, Oxford’s clever tactics saw them gain an early advantage. Taking shelter under the Fulham wall they were able to watch Cambridge flounder through rough water. The light blues were never able to overhaul Oxford’s early advantage and the dark blues went on to win by four lengths.
By 1988 Oxford had implemented many of the reforms suggested by the mutineers under president Chris Penny. Topolski, the architect of so many Oxford successes had stood down and OUBC hired Steve Royle as their first managing coach with Mike Spracklen, the GB squad coach as chief coach. This was a formidable team and with some predictability Oxford went on to win this time by five and a half lengths, despite the six man breaking a foot stretcher thus delaying the start.
Coxing was beginning to play a more important role in the race with frequent warnings by the umpire to move apart and even clashes of blades, especially shortly after the start. 1989 followed this pattern, Oxford’s cox Alison Norrish using her considerable Tideway experience to squeeze Cambridge off the start with repeated clashes in the first few minutes. A highly competitive race ensued all the way to Chiswick steps where Oxford slowly edged away. While never comfortable they went on to win by two and a half lengths.
Future Olympic gold medallist Jonny Searle was president for Oxford in 1990, but the outstanding dark blue oarsman was Matthew Pinsent, destined to win four Olympic gold’s. This was the heaviest crew to date averaging just under 15 stone, with six man Chris Heathcote coming in at 17 stone 5 pounds! Yet Oxford did not have an easy win, a battling Cambridge stroked by Adam Wright held them to the Chiswick reach, but the effort was too much and Oxford pulled away to win by two and a quarter lengths.
Despite being a fairly light Oxford crew in 1991 they were still nine and a half pounds per man heavier than Cambridge and boasted considerably more experience with internationals Pinsent and Rupert Obholzer on board. Yet Cambridge were acknowledged to be a more gifted technical crew with their own international Guy Pooley winning his fourth blue. Cambridge took an early lead in perfect conditions, squeezing out to three quarters of a length before Hammersmith bridge. But they couldn’t get away and Oxford with more power pulled through in a fast time of 16 minutes 59 seconds to win by four and a quarter lengths.
In 1992 both crews were inexperienced with all the internationals preparing for the Olympics, however Oxford stroked by Ian Gardner drove his crew around the Surrey bend to hold on to Cambridge’s lead and to take Oxford’s 16th win in 17 races. If they could win in 1993 they would level the series at 69 each, with one dead heat.
There was a plethora of internationals in both crews in '93, but crucially Cambridge had made some important changes to their coaching team with John Wilson joining Sean Bowden (currently Oxford coach), complemented by Harry Mahon the outstanding New Zealand coach. They had also adopted the new design ‘clever’ blades and with another break in tradition completed their training in Nottingham rather than Putney. All of this paid off when from the first stroke they pulled away from Oxford who could never claw back the lead. Cambridge won in 17 mins by three and a third lengths.
The light blues went on to win again in 1994 with German world champions Peter Holtzenbein and Thorsten Streppelhoff assisting in a six and a half length win. This crew was thought by many to be the most technically proficient ever seen in the Boat Race.
In 1995 Oxford brought Dan Topolski back into the coaching team but to no avail. Cambridge went on to win by 12 seconds. The dark blue hegemony was well and truly over and Cambridge were now in the ascendancy. 1996 produced a good race in excellent conditions but again the flowing style of Cambridge beat the punchier efforts of Oxford. This result was repeated in 1997 though a see saw race eventually saw Cambridge win by two lengths. Throughout the 1990’s races had become more competitive often with the crews virtually level as far as Hammersmith bridge, a pattern set to continue.
Beefeater’s twelve year sponsorship came to an end in 1998 with an impressive race where a fast crew from Oxford met an exceptional crew from Cambridge. It was both the heaviest at 14 stone 13lb, and the tallest averaging 6ft 5 ½ ins. With early clashes and steely determination from the Oxford crew pushing Cambridge all the way it wasn’t until Hammersmith bridge that Cambridge sneaked ahead. In good conditions and with the dark blues in hot pursuit Cambridge went on to establish a new course record of 16 min 19 secs, winning by 3 lengths and reducing the previous record by 26 seconds. This was Cambridge’s sixth successive win.
Josh West for Cambridge became the tallest oarsman to row in the race, at 6ft 9 ½ ins in 1999. Again Cambridge succeeded, producing the second fastest time ever following an evenly matched contest as far as Hammersmith.
The first fourteen minutes of the 2000 race were rowed side by side, often in atrocious conditions as rain, sleet and a vicious headwind after Hammersmith took their toll. Oxford with a shorter more aggressive style coped better with the conditions and eventually opened up a gap past Dukes Meadows, going on to their first win for seven years by three lengths.
Between 1976 and 2000 Oxford won 17 races, including 16 out of 17 between 1976 and 1992, Cambridge won 8 with a winning streak of 7 between 1993 and 1999. The overall scores at the end of this period stood at Oxford 69, Cambridge 76 with one dead- heat