The history and heroes of Cambridge rowing

From novice to Olympian; Cambridge rowing builds champion athletes...
22 July 2022

Interview with 

Alister Taylor, Cambridge University Boat Club


As we continue our trip along the River Cam, Alister Taylor, from Cambridge University's Boat Club, hopped aboard to tell Harry Lewis about the rich history of rowing in Cambridge...

Harry - And there he is, that's Alister Taylor. He's going to be coming on board to tell us a little bit about the heart and then the tradition of rowing in Cambridge, which of course we have to touch on. He's part of the university's boat club. So, if Peter's gonna pull in for us, we'll welcome him aboard. Alister, how you doing? Have you had Alister on before Peter? Because he's nimbly jumped on; he must be a man that's used to the water.

Alister - Not at all. I think you've looked after a few of our guys and they've gone back and forth and done a few bits and pieces.

Harry - Which club have we just picked you up from?

Alister - So you've just picked me up from Downing College Boat Club, which is one of the top clubs in Cambridge. It has developed athletes from novice to Olympics in several examples -  under 23s Annabel Vernon, who is a multiple world champion, multiple Olympian, Olympic medalist - basically learned her trade there. They refined what she'd got as a school kid in Cornwall. Thea Zabell learned to row there; went to under 23s and medaled there. Truly an impressive place for development and we are very lucky as a university to have those clubs.

Harry - How many clubs and how many boats are there? Do you know?

Alister - There are 31 clubs. I would hesitate to put a number on the boats. I would say probably 500-600 just in the university.

Harry - Crikey, Wow. And of course you've got the clubs outside of the university to consider as well. Another thing that Peter mentioned was we're obviously on quite a narrow river, it definitely feels that way. But he said sometimes when all of these people come out in force, you can get up to a thousand boats on the water. I know that there is a bit of a competition coming up this week. What is it that we've got?

Alister - So we've just come off the university May bumps, we're coming into now town bumps. So we do have, I think, six divisions, men's and women's, so that's, I think, 240 boats. So we're looking at over 2000 people racing in town bumps.

Harry - And you don't often see rowers carrying out the sport alongside one another on the water, but this is gonna be slightly different, isn't it? It's quite an exciting time.

Alister - It's possibly the silliest thing you can do in a rowing boat. In Cambridge, our river is so narrow; you can't row side-by-side for more than half a mile or so. So what they do is they put 20 boats in a row, put about a length of clear water between them, push 'em out the river. And then a thumping big cannon goes off, and you try to hit the boat in front of you and not get hit by the boat behind you.

Harry - I mean, it sounds like a lot of fun, but it also sounds like you've gotta be slightly careful of that expensive bit of kit you've got. Would I say irresponsible perhaps?

Alister - I think when you're racing, you can think you're being careful, but you just want to get the boat in front of you. There are breakages, but thankfully we've advanced well beyond where 130+ years ago, Clare College had one of their coxswains killed. Trinity Hall's boat didn't stop in time because the Clare boat had made a really hard bump. Apparently, the bow went straight through his heart.

Harry - Right? I mean, things must have changed since then?

Alister - Thankfully, yes. It's been quite a safety innovation. I think immediately afterwards they started putting these rubber balls on the bow to make sure you can't actually go through people. If they fall off, it's pretty scary.

Harry - And we are just coming up, I know this college on the right hand side, that's Trinity College. That's quite a big one as well. Isn't it?

Alister - Trinity College is the biggest college in Cambridge. Again, it's another one that's been incredibly successful in developing athletes. The stroke of the women's blue boat this year Imogen Grant rowed there. She grew up in Cambridge, but had never rowed. She was a novice there, did the Cambridge university dev squad in her second year, made two university crews, rowed under 23s world championships. Now she's an Olympian, she's a world champion and she's also a med student as well. She's just an incredible all rounder.

Harry - One of those people that really puts me to shame at a pub quiz, I'd say Alistair.

Alister - In fairness, she puts all of us to shame.

Harry - And it's fantastic being in the heart of Cambridge, talking about something that is at the root of Cambridge traditions, but it'll be rude not to mention the boat race as well. For anyone who's listening who doesn't know, it's a massive event in the UK where the Cambridge rowing team takes on the Oxford rowing team. How did that all get started Alistair?

Alister - Well, there were two school boys from Harrow. Both of them were pretty certain their university was the best. So the challenge went down at the end of 1828 and the first boat race was in Henley in 1829. Ever since then, other than 2021 when it was at Ely, it's been on the river course at Putney. It is our reason to be, it is a fantastic event, And it has people who've learnt throughout Cambridge or Oxford as novices to people who've come from the Olympics as gold medalists.

Harry - And I would like to mention women's rowing in particular. It seems like you really nurture and have a lot of successful young female athletes. Where has that come from? Did that part of the club start and originate with the men's team as well?

Alister - That took a long, long time to happen. The first women's boat race was 1927 and that was a very daring thing back then. But even then they weren't allowed to race side by side. It was a processional for a time troll and style. Thankfully we've come a long, long way since then. Now we're all with the same sponsorship, and particularly in Cambridge, we now have one club which brought together the three legacy clubs - the men's club, women's club and the lightweights - all into one Cambridge club. And that's been one of our big developments and something we're very proud of.

Harry - And a real emphasis, it seems throughout this chat, has been just on novices coming through and really succeeding.

Alister - We're really fortunate. There's a stat going around, whether it's made up or not, that about 50% of Cambridge students will row at some point. There's 30,000 students at Cambridge. There are going to be a lot of good athletes. And when you combine that with great coaching and elite student athletes coming in, it's fantastic. We had one of our men's athletes break a 5k world record on the rowing machine - if you've ever been on one, it's frankly ridiculous what he did. The benchmark for elite/international for 2000 meters is six minutes. Tom went faster than that pace for 5k.

Harry - And where are we now?

Alister - So we've just passed the last boathouse on the Cam before Jesus Lock; Christ college, which is, again, one of the oldest boat clubs in Cambridge. And we're now coming past a lot of the resident barges on the river coming towards Jesus Lock and the Jesus Green Lido, which as an Australian, has really surprised me that you can have an open air pool, brutally cold and a hundred yards long. It's fantastic.

Harry - Alistair. I know you've actually got yourself a lunch on the river sorted, so let's drop you off and thanks so much for coming on and sharing a bit of history about the rowing in the river.

Alister - It's my pleasure. It's a fantastic place. And the history of it is what makes it so important and so wonderful.


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