Collegiate 'Boat Race' A British Institution

On Saturday, Britain's two most celebrated universities meet up for a battle that will be viewed by thousands — the annual Boat Race. It will be the 158th race, which was kicked off in 1829 when a Cambridge student wrote to a friend at Oxford proposing the showdown. The event takes place over a 6.8 kilometer stretch of the tidal Thames.

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Three hundred thousand people are expected to line the River Thames in London tomorrow with millions more watching on TV. The reason? The 158th Annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.

Vicki Barker reports on what has become a British institution.

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Unloading kegs and kegs of beer, Richmond Hughes manages The Ship Pub in Hammersmith, a prime viewing position for the race. Hughes expects 5,000 people to jam his riverside garden tomorrow to watch the men from Oxford and Cambridge Universities compete.

RICHMOND HUGHES: We're hiring some bands. We've got the portable toilets over there ready. We're going to get a big marquee, basically, so we're going to have a outside bar and then, like, barbecues, so it's going to be a big event.

BARKER: There are other events on the British rowing calendar. The Royal Henley Regatta begins next month. Picture champagne and strawberries among the willows, boater hats, linen dresses, old school ties, the English class system alive and kicking.

But mention the boat race and everyone from every walk of life here will know what you mean and just about everyone will have a favorite. Dan Gregory runs one of London's most ancient riverside pubs, The Dove.

DAN GREGORY: It's amazing that people who have never been to Oxford or Cambridge or don't even have friends - they still root for one side or the other. Who knows what the history is behind that.

BARKER: The two teams of eight rowers run with an incoming spring tide. The rough and tumble waters of the tidal Thames add a dimension of danger. It's harder than it looks keeping those arrow-thin craft upright.

Dozens of rowing clubs line the Thames. Liz Stoyle(ph) and Ingrid Bystrom(ph) are with the Furnivall Sculling Club, founded in 1896 for working class women.

LIZ STOYLE: It can be quite choppy, particularly when the launches go by.

INGRID BYSTROM: We're constantly trying to get the boats balanced, so that's why it becomes a bit tricky rowing out here compared to non-tidal water.

BARKER: They'll watch with a practiced eye as the oarsmen compete on the sinuous four and a quarter mile course. For rowers, the boat race isn't just about speed and brawn. It's usually won or lost on strategy: who best comes out of each bend to dominate the so-called racing line, that vector where the water is deepest and calmest.

Steve Albrecht coaches the Furnivall rowers.

STEVE ALBRECHT: Some boat races, it's over in the first two minutes, although the race is, you know, 18 minutes long. There's a moment in the race when it's lost, when one crew just gets an advantage and gets maybe a length or so lead.

BARKER: Low tide on the Thames. The women of the Furnivall Sculling Club carry their boats to the water's edge for another training session. A following tide of a different sort is carrying the boat race forward. Beginning in 2015, it will expand to include a women's event, too.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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