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By Jonathan Tomlin
Rowers are concerned that the recent closure of river stretches in Oxford will give an “unfair” advantage in Summer Eights to boat clubs with training arrangements outside the city.
Oxford University Rowing Clubs (OURCs), the confederation of college clubs that oversees competitive events, closed the Isis and Godstow stretches of river on Saturday of 1st week, which have not reopened since.
The high water level poses a risk to crews who train on the river.
The annual Summer Eights competition, which is the main intercollegiate rowing event of the year, is scheduled to take place in 5th week. Boats have to qualify to enter on Friday of 4th week.
Most rowing teams have turned to off-river training as a substitute, with many replacing planned outings with gym and ergo sessions.
But some teams have been able to continue having outings by training outside Oxford.
One first boat rower, who asked not to be identified, said: “Two weeks of extra preparation time is a lot, and it’s especially unfair given that many people come to train over the vac at their own expense. The colleges that pay for [outside training] are wiping out all that extra effort.”
Many colleges who have paid for access to the Thames at Wallingford have continued to send stronger boats there for river outings as normal, despite the stretch being ‘red-boarded’ by the Environment Agency.
The warning means that the Agency advises against unpowered crafts, including rowing boats, using the river.
But the rules agreed by college captains allow crews to do their own risk assessment for training, in accordance with Environment Agency standards, on river stretches away from the city.
By contrast, once OURCs set a red flag for the Isis or Godstow stretches, no boats are permitted to use them.
The disparity in on-river opportunities has drawn criticism from rowers that it will distort the competition and favours wealthier boat clubs.
Jennifer Butler, a lightweight blue rower and President of the Somerville College Boat Club, which does not have access to the river at Wallingford, described the river situation as “massively frustrating”.
She added: “[It’s] especially frustrating for those who took up rowing this term and hence haven’t really done much on the water, but at least almost all of the colleges are in the same position!”
The St Anne’s rowing captain said: “Essentially, the problem is that we haven’t been able to have outings on the water. This makes setting crews – particularly in the case of lower boats – tricky. It’s also frustrating because that’s the best bit of training and it’s easier to lose motivation when we can’t get on the water.
“The club has responded really well so far though and [the crew] are all turning up to the extra land training sessions and making the most of sliding ergos and the tank where possible.
“There is a lot of collective rain hating though!”
Tom Hilton, a first boat rower at Teddy Hall, was more relaxed about the situation, saying: “We’ve been doing a lot of land training to make up for it. I’m not really worried about the competition being disrupted.”
One Lincoln rower disagreed that increased fitness training could easily make up for lost river time. He said: “The river closure has prevented us practising as a team and will mean we’re less experienced at working together in the boat.”
Jennifer Hegarty, a John’s rower, said: “It’s hard on the men’s crews that haven’t arranged to train off the Isis, or those that train at Reading.”
But she drew attention to performance in the lower divisions in particular, warning: “The competition is going to be much weaker. The top divisions will be fine, as most of the crews rowed together in Torpids and anyone who’s new in the boat will still be a reasonably experienced rower, but the bottom divisions are going to be carnage.”
OURCs strongly denied any suggestion that Summer Eights might be called off as a result of the weather conditions. A spokesman said there was “no chance” of it being cancelled based on current forecasts.
Phil McCullough, Secretary of OURCs, said: “We have a range of contingency plans to deal with high stream, and racing is able to take place with stream speeds faster than we have experienced over the last 24 hours.”
He added: “The rules of Summer Eights each year are agreed upon by the captains of each college boat club. Our rules ensure that we treat each and every club equally.”