The iconic rowing battle between Oxford and Cambridge began – as most centuries-long rivalries do – as a friendly competition, between Charles Wordsworth of Oxford, and Charles Merivale of Cambridge. By 1829, it had escalated to a competition between the universities, known simply as the Boat Race. Though Cambridge were the first to challenge their rivals, Oxford were champions of the inaugural race.

Previously exclusive to the male students, 1927 saw the first Women’s Boat Race, which was met with a hostile crowd of men who disapproved of women taking to the water. Despite the initial controversy, the women continued to race intermittently until the mid-1960s, at which point they became a consistent fixture in the rowing timetable. The sport remains an integral part of the city’s heritage, and now forms a major part of Cambridge’s global reputation.

The university experience

Rowing forms a focal aspect of the University of Cambridge culture. With both the Men and Women’s teams currently holding the title over their Oxford opponents, the rowers who represent their college in the famous race dedicate much of their time outside of studying to training for the momentous event. Since its inauguration, Cambridge have pulled ahead of their rivals in 84 out of 165 races – leaving Oxford with 80 – with just one dead heat in history. The women of Cambridge also boast more wins, with 44 victories compared to Oxford’s 30.

In April 2020, the Cambridge University Rowing Club (who formed in 1828 in anticipation for the first race) decided to combine and form a single club for the women, men and lightweight athletes who compete in the races, laying down the foundations for a new era of the university’s approach to the sport. With every college boasting their own boat club, so many students are involved in the sport that it boasts a buzzing social scene of its own.

Convenience of the city

Thanks to the easy accessibility of the River Cam, Cambridge boasts the convenience of a training location on the doorstep of rowers. To further support the sport, in 2016, Project Ely was completed, building a state-of-the-art £4.9 million boathouse for the elite rowing teams. The boathouse stood as a symbol of a closer cooperation to be established between the three clubs, bridging the gap between them to achieve a more equal perception of the teams.

With the alumni of the university and friends of the three clubs providing the bulk of the funding, Project Ely aimed to create an environment for collaboration and was finally opened in December 2016, following eight years of planning and construction. The recent merging of the clubs furthers the goal set by the project to bring the teams closer together, unifying the city behind all of the rowers who go on to represent them in the races.

How to get involved as a beginner

Even if your dreams aren’t of winning the iconic Boat Race, rowing is a great way to stay fit and get involved with an activity emblematic of the city itself. While the university clubs are private to students, there are many companies within Cambridge who offer open membership to the public. Joining a club offers both the training needed to get onto the water and opportunities to compete against other rowers, providing the thrill of your own boat race. The British Rowing organisation website can direct you towards courses tailored to different abilities and experience levels, allowing you to find accessible clubs able to cater to various needs. A city renowned for its rowing scene and history, with a river perfect for practice, Cambridge is the ideal place to dip your toe in the sport.