Picture by WL

All you need to know about the Boat Race 2021

The 166th University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge will be held on the River Great Ouse instead of the Thames. There will be no spectators present, but here's how to watch the men's and women's races live on Olympic Channel.
By Olympic Channel

One of rowing's traditional showpieces, The Boat Race 2021, takes place on Sunday (4 April).

Also known as the University Boat Race or Varsity Boat Race, crews from England's Oxford University and Cambridge University will battle it out for the 166th time, but this year at a new location.

Some of the top male and female competitors in the history of the sport and the Olympics have previously taken part in the event. Find out which student-athletes are aiming to add their names to the list of winners this year, why actor Hugh Laurie has bad memories of the event, and why it's been moved away from the River Thames in London.

Concerns over the pandemic mean the event will not be open to the public, but you can watch it live on Olympic Channel. Details below.

Boat Race 2021 format

The Boat Race sees openweight eights from two of the world's top educational establishments - Oxford University (dark blues) and Cambridge University (light blues) - go head to head.

Each rower has one oar and 'sweeps' as opposed to sculling with two oars.

As with the eights at the Olympic Games, each boat has a coxswain (commonly shortened to 'cox') who sits in the stern and shouts orders to keep the crew in a straight line, control the tempo, and urge them on to greater efforts near the finish.

Boat Race 2021 venue

The race is traditionally held over a 6.8km (4.2 miles) course along the River Thames in London, starting at Putney Bridge and finishing at Chiswick Bridge (Mortlake).

The grand Hammersmith Bridge is a recognisable landmark the boats usually pass under just before the midway point, but with the ageing structure closed for safety reasons, the men's and women's races in 2021 have been moved 120km (80 miles) north to the River Great Ouse in Ely, Cambridgeshire.

Ely also staged the Boat Race - albeit an unofficial one - back in 1944 with Oxford taking victory.

This 2021 renewal will see the rowers travel in the opposite direction to the previous clash, starting at Queen Adelaide Bridge and finishing just before the Sandhill Bridge at Littleport.

It is also considerably shorter than the London course at 4.89km (3 miles).

The Cambridge crews often train on the Adelaide Straight, with Ely Cathedral providing a stunning backdrop, but the Oxford boats will relocate there days ahead of the contest.

Cambridge University Boat Club women train in Ely ahead of the 2016 Boat Race
Picture by 2016 Getty Images

Boat Race history

The first University Boat Race was held in 1829 when Oxford's men easily defeated Cambridge at Henley-on-Thames.

It was soon moved to London with the crews rowing from Westminster Bridge to Putney Bridge and occasionally having to avoid river traffic.

The Championship Course, from Putney to Mortlake, was inaugurated in 1845 with the University Boat Race becoming an annual event in 1856.

The races were then only interrupted by the two World Wars, until 2020 when it was cancelled due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The first women's race took place in 1927 further along the Thames at Oxford, also known as the Isis.

According to The Times, "large and hostile crowds" of men gathered to protest women rowing although the first few events saw crews race separately with the winners decided by "time and style".

From 1935, the women raced side-by-side like the men at a number of venues with the contest switched to Henley in 1977.

It was not until 2015 that the Women's Blue Boat Race joined the men on the Championship Course.

Oxford won that historic contest with Caryn Davies, a two-time Olympic gold medallist as part of the USA women's eight, in the stroke seat.

Caryn Davies (second from right) and Oxford celebrate their victory in the 2015 Women's Boat Race
Picture by 2015 Getty Images

The history of Oxford and Cambridge affords the annual contest a privileged space on the sporting calendar, but superior crews are often found at other British universities.

The annual Head of the River race, which usually takes place one or two weeks before the Boat Race in the opposite direction on the Championship Course, attracts some of the top university programmes and occasionally rowing clubs from overseas.

As was the case 12 months ago, the HoRR has been cancelled this year due to the pandemic, with Oxford Brookes University the reigning men's champions and Leander Club the women's holders.

That said, the University Boat Race has seen its fair share of elite rowers down the years, with Matthew Pinsent on two victorious Oxford teams (1990 and 1991) before winning his first of four golds at consecutive Olympic Games at Barcelona 1992.

Pinsent was on the losing side in the 1993 Boat Race while president of the Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC), and has also umpired the race.

One of his Great Britain team-mates in the coxless fours at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, James Cracknell, helped Cambridge to victory in 2019 as the oldest rower in Boat Race history aged 46 after enrolling in a Masters degree as a mature student.

That was Cambridge's second consecutive men's triumph and completed a second straight clean sweep of wins for the light blues in the Blue Boat and Reserve races.

There will be more history at this year's Boat Race with Sarah Winckless becoming the first female umpire of the men's race.

Winckless helped Cambridge to three consecutive victories (1995-97) and won bronze at Athens 2004 in the double sculls with Elise Laverick.

This will be the 166th men's boat race, with Cambridge leading 84-80 with one dead heat recorded in 1877.

One of the most famous races was in 1978 when the Cambridge boat sank in choppy waters with Oxford securing their third of 10 consecutive victories.

On the wrong end of that Oxford winning streak was probably the most famous Boat Race participant, House actor Hugh Laurie, who rowed for Cambridge in 1980.

Actor Hugh Laurie, pictured in 2019, who was on the losing side in the 1980 Boat Race
Picture by ERNESTODISTEFANO

Cambridge also hold the upper hand in the women's race, leading 44-30 over Oxford going into the 75th meeting.

They have won the last three contests after a run of four in a row for dark blues Oxford.

This year's change of venue means there will just be the two elite 'Blue' Boat races on Sunday with the Reserve Races taking place at a later date.

Boat Race 2021 athletes to watch

Most of the rowers taking part in this year's contests would have raced 12 months ago but for the event's cancellation.

Cambridge's women are bidding for a hat-trick of victories and seven of their rowers, and cox Dylan Whitaker, were named to last year's team.

The new face is Australian Sarah Tisdall who has Olympism in the blood with her grandfather, Bob Tisdall, one of Cambridge's most famous athletes.

According to the Cambridge Independent, Tisdall won the 120-yard hurdles, long jump, shot put, and quarter mile in the 1931 Varsity Match against Oxford.

A year later, the Irishman won gold at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games in the 400m hurdles.

Tisdall, 22, graduated from Harvard and is studying for a MPhil in education.

Oxford will be desperate to stem the tide of Cambridge success in recent years with OUBC President Alex Bebb taking a scenic route to the Boat Race.

Born in Vancouver, Bebb rowed at high school and as an undergraduate at Cornell University in New York before being selected for the 2018 World U23 Championships.

He is now in the second year of his Masters at St Peter's College, Oxford, and will hope to succeed where his hero Tim Foster failed.

Foster, who won gold for GB at Sydney 2000 with Pinsent, Cracknell, and Steven Redgrave, was in the losing Oxford boat in the 1997 Boat Race.

How to watch the Boat Race in 2021

The Boat Race 2021 will be streamed live on Olympic Channel on Sunday 4th April (geo-restrictions may apply - times local - British Summer Time/BST):

15:50 - 75th Women's Boat Race

16:50 - 166th Men's Boat Race

Viewers in the UK can watch via the BBC.