For the first time since 1944 The River Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire hosted the Boat Race 2021 between Oxford and Cambridge universities on Easter Sunday.
The event moved to a 3-mile course between Ely and Littleport due to Coronavirus restrictions and maintenance work at Hammersmith Bridge. The bridge is part of the usual 4-mile course between Putney and Mortlake on the River Thames in London.
With the event on ‘home turf’ for Cambridge, the light blues responded with a double victory. The women’s and men’s crews held off the challenge of Oxford.
Organising the Boat Race 2021
The new location and the fact the Boat Race 2021 was held behind closed doors represented a huge logistical challenge for both the organisers and the local community. Roads between the start at Queen Adelaide, Ely and the finish at the Sandhill Bridge, Littleport were shut. So, too, were the footpaths on the riverbank. Lucky local residents saw the climax of the races from their homes on the riverbank near the finish line. This was in stark contrast to the 250,000-strong crowd who would usually line the route on the River Thames.
Instead of the famous London bridges and landmarks, it was Ely Cathedral, the Ship of the Fens, that was the stunning backdrop as the crews made their way down the River Ouse on a perfect spring afternoon.
The Boat Race 2021 Winners
Cambridge won the women’s race by less than a length and the men won their race by the same distance. Notably, Sarah Winckless became the first female umpire of the men’s race. Winckless competed in rowing at three Olympic Games. She won a bronze medal in Athens in 2004 with doubles partner Elise Laverick. Some leaves caused an obstruction in the river midway through the contest, but thankfully both crews managed to avoid them.
With Cambridge winning both races, the light blues breathed a sigh of relief as they avoided embarrassment on their own patch of river. The organisers will also be breathing a sigh of relief that the event went off without any problems. In fact, it was quite interesting to see the transformation of the river that formed the course. The Swan on the River pub in Littleport, just past the finish line, was the base of the national media and presentations to the winners. Sponsors’ banners were displayed on the Queen Adelaide and Sandhill bridges. The start and finishing posts were visible on the surrounding riverbanks.
Away from the course, the Babylon Gallery in Ely showcased some beautiful illuminated displays in their windows. Local artist Clare Barry designed them to celebrate the boat race coming to Ely for the first time since 1944.
The Future of the Boat Race
If Hammersmith Bridge remains closed next year, we shouldn’t rule out the event returning to the area. There is also talk of Ely hosting the event in 2024. This would be 80 years since the event first came in 1944, and 50 years since the Queen formally granted City status to Ely. If this did happen it would give the area a tremendous tourism boost with spectators.
The 2021 races belonged to the light blues of Cambridge. The Oxford men went home thinking about how they can win next year for the first time since 2017. Meanwhile, the Cambridge women start planning for next year to make it five wins in a row.
WORDS Andrew Dunn