Boat Race rookies learn ropes

“Welcome to the Boat Race!” Karl Hudspith shouted as he sat exhausted in his boat, bent over his oar, in the same spot under Chiswick Bridge where he celebrated victory with Oxford last March.

Hudspith, 24, from Twickenham, accomplished a dream that day, having set his sights almost a decade earlier on winning the event.

Now he is doing it all again, leading a new group of Oxford students in search of victory over the old enemy Cambridge on the River Thames, and his experience could be invaluable.

Hudspith’s first memory of the Boat Race was in 2003, when two pairs of brothers, all former pupils at his school, Hampton, raced against each other. Oxford went on to record the closest winning margin in the race’s history, just one foot.

“We’ve got quite a few new guys in the squad this year who have never done it, so I hope they develop a taste of what it’s like.”

“I was inspired to go on and do it myself. Last year I finally got a chance, got a place in the boat, went on to win and it was fantastic,” he said.

“It’s an indescribable feeling to accomplish a dream you’ve had for so many years. I’ve got to hope we can instil that sense of desire into the rest of the squad and make sure everyone wants it as much as we did last year.”

Hudspith, who is studying for a Masters in Clinical Medicine, is the Oxford ‘president’, the captain, this year and also the only member of the squad who has competed in the race already.

Some of his new team-mates have competed at international level but none have experienced the pressure of racing at the highest level in a 4.25-mile race on a unique, winding course, with strong winds and fast tides affecting conditions and tactics at every turn.

They got a chance to try it out on Tuesday as both universities took part in trial eights races, splitting their top 16 rowers into two crews and competing over the entire course from Putney to Mortlake.

Hudspith is looking for a second Boat Race win. (Photo by Martin Gough)

Cambridge suffered rougher water in their race earlier in the day, with Hudspith’s counterpart, Australian Dave Nelson, saying the large waves reminded him of surfboat racing at home.

But Oxford’s less experienced oarsmen still endured a tough challenge, including a wash from a large boat and the clashing of blades mid-race – things that never happen on buoyed, straight, international courses.

They had named the trials crews ‘Hell’ and ‘High Water’, with Hudspith’s Hell triumphing by five seconds in a 17-minute race.

“We’ve got quite a few new guys in the squad this year who have never done it, and I hope they develop a taste of what it’s like,” said Hudspith, who stands 6ft 6in tall and weighs 14-and-a-half stone.

“The reason we put so much emphasis on this race is to let the guys know how different this kind of race is to any other racing in the world.”

Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore won an Olympic gold medal for Great Britain in Sydney 11 years ago but it his experience of rowing and coaching at Imperial College in Putney that makes his knowledge vital to the light blues.

After suffering defeat in his debut season, he has revamped their approach this year, with the squad running a “mini Boat Race” in the run-up to this trial, staying in London for six days to get used to the river and being kept apart from each other to build the sense of tension.

He was rewarded with a trial race he described as one of the best ever, as the lead changed hands three times, and the crews clashed heavily under Hammersmith Bridge.

“It’s great coming down for a weekend now and then but unless you’re here for a good chunk of time you don’t experience the changing conditions, you don’t understand how the wind and tide affects it,” said Trapmore.

“To show the resolve when you are down and being hit by waves, whitecaps when you go round the Hammersmith bend.

“It can be like that on Boat Race day and you can’t recreate that situation without being here and doing it.”

Final line-ups are likely to be decided in mid-February, after the squads have gone through further trials on training camps in Europe.

They will find out on 7 April which crew is better prepared for the unique challenge posed by the Boat Race.

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