What it’s like to row in Varsity against UWE

The after party was in Lounge

On Saturday Bristol beat UWE 3 – 1 in the Varsity Boat Race

If you asked the Club Captain of the boat club what Varsity Boat Race was and what it meant, he’d probably launch into some over-rehearsed speech about how Varsity is one of the oldest boat races in the country, second only to the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, rich with its own traditions and fierce rivalry. And he’d be right, mostly.

The 1.3km sprint regatta held on the historic Bristol Harbour is the oldest event in the Varsity series. Over the course of the day up to 10 varied races take place, with an added two this year to include another local derby. Women and men, from each boat club and their alumni, take it in turns to race each other down the course with the help of the noise from the crowds.

To crown the winner of Varsity however, four races are set out to be special. The Senior and Novice, Men and Women’s first VIIIs. Whichever university wins the most of these four, regardless of the result of the other races, takes home the much coveted Varsity Blade as well as an added tally to the Varsity Series as a whole. 

Bristol senior mens rowing beat UWE for the first time in six years (Photo Credit: Aaron Sims)

At least that’s what it started as… in recent years with the rearrangement of Varsity in the calendar, it’s just gotten in the way of much bigger rowing events. The majority of students inevitably don’t care, but what’s worse, the Bristol Boat Club don’t seem to care. John Allden (Senior Men’s 2nd VII) wrote this “@uobboatclub faces the completely refutable pinnacle of the year. Few say that there are less important events in the rowing calendar than Varsity  2016” on his Instagram.

As far as us in the boat club are concerned, UWE takes the race far too seriously. For us it’s just an opportunity to ‘ruin their year’. Varsity is considered, irrespective of the previous results, a chance for nothing more than organised abuse of the local polytechnic.

As part of the Senior Men’s 1st VIII, we isolated ourselves from the crowds to prepare ourselves for our race.  As I climbed into the boat, a wave of nervous sickness came over me. Why do I do this to myself? Put myself in incomparable amounts of pain and for what, at best a blue bathroom tile of a ‘medal’ and a pat on the back? We don’t even care. The Senior Men’s 1st VIII hasn’t been won by Bristol in 6 years.

The start came in a matter of moments and was a blur. We were neck and neck. Round the first bend, UWE had made the most of their advantage and had pulled ahead. Down the straighter section of the course, UWE continued to open up their lead, but it was a lot closer than anyone was expecting – we were within touching distance.  Emily, our cox screamed to us down the microphone, “Right boys, all the early morning starts, all the time on the rowing machines, what are you gonna do about it?!”. With the roar from the bank that betrayed a lot of bite, the boat caught a second wind and in the last 300m we clawed our way back. We crossed the line, just a nose ahead. And here is the aftermath:

Photo Credit: Aaron Sims

Are those the faces of 8 boys (and a girl) who don’t care? 

I later found out that our race had been make it or break it, the Senior Women had won by a nail-biting half a length and the margins in the other races had evened out perfectly so that whoever won our race, won Varsity. The annual Varsity Ball was a storm, and those who made it to Lounge were greeted with UWE boat club’s sketchy moves, but credit to them, they took their defeat with their heads held high and they’re going to whip up some waves on the national stage for the rest of this year’s rowing calendar. 

The Boat Club Captain had this to say: 

“The Varsity Boat Race is always close and this year was no different. Our victory this year is only down to the hard work every single one of our rowers, coxes and coaches puts in. However the season is far from over, so the hard work doesn’t stop here.”