Sarah Portsmouth is wearing a necklace with a small silver pendant in the shape of an oar. This is the first thing I notice when I meet her, along with Cambridge University Boat Club Women’s President Bronya Sykes, to discuss what it is like to represent Cambridge as a female rower. Perhaps this is because she is so tall, and my eye-line meets with her collarbone, but it seems suddenly significant. Even when she is not rowing, Portsmouth carries her sport with her.

Last April, the Cambridge women crossed the line in sixteen minutes and twenty-seven seconds to win the Boat Race against Oxford. After the 2020 Race being cancelled due to Covid, it was a major comeback. Both Sykes and Portsmouth had been selected for the crew that had been supposed to race. “What was that like?” I ask. “What did it feel like to win after two years of training?”

“You can see it in my reaction,” Portsmouth replies, ’it definitely took quite a while to set in.” Sykes agrees: “People had said it’s Ely, you know it really well, it’s home water, but I didn’t realise we had crossed the finish line. You can see in the video, we keep rowing because none of us have realised that we’ve done it, that’s it, we’ve won. I think you don’t quite believe it when it happens.”

The 2021 race was very different from Boat Races that had come before. It was on home turf in Ely and hosted without spectators because of Covid restrictions. Sykes believes that this changed the spirit of the race: “From the moment we woke up that morning we were just having a great time. We obviously were so lucky that in the middle of a pandemic we were able to do that, so I think that’s what we were focusing on: the fact that we just enjoyed spending so much time together, doing something that we loved. We spent most of the time giggling, even before we got on the water. That was the biggest focus because of the situation and the circumstances.”

“In the years that we’ve been here, I think the men’s and women’s teams have slowly been becoming more integrated, up to this year where it’s the best it’s ever been”

Portsmouth also recalls the oddness of the day: “It did feel weird. I remember being on the start line and it was deathly quiet. There was no noise. I can’t imagine that’s what it’s like when you race on the Tideway. Without any spectators, it really was just us and them.”

The women’s Boat Race was only moved to the Championship Course – between Putney and Mortlake on the Thames in central London – in 2015. Before this, it was rowed at Henley and was less than half the distance. Talking to Portsmouth and Sykes, one of the things I’m most interested in is whether the merge of CUBC and Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC) into one club has made any practical difference, namely whether the women are beginning to receive the same admiration and respect as the men always have.

Portsmouth assures me the change is as good in reality as on paper: “It’s changed a lot of things. In the years that we’ve been here, I think the men’s and women’s teams have slowly been becoming more integrated, up to this year where it’s the best it’s ever been.” What the women’s side has to be careful of,” she adds, “is that it isn’t just subsumed within the structures the men have in place.” She continues: “It’s really important as well that we don’t lose the traditions from the women’s side, especially because of the lockdowns last year, which meant they didn’t happen as usual. It’s been up to people who were here two years ago to make sure that kind of thing gets carried through. There are lots of things that are unique to the women’s squad that we love and we don’t want to lose in the process of the merger.”

“When we actually start rowing, that’s when I truly leave things behind. There’s no room in your head to think about anything else. It’s quite mediative”

After rape allegations were made against an Oxford University Boat Club rower by a rower in their Women’s Boat Club back in 2020, I’m also curious whether the historical ‘boys club’ reputation of the Boat Club has any foundation. Sykes rushes to the club’s defence: “There’s a really lovely atmosphere and attitude among everyone. Everybody is so supportive of one another. I certainly feel that I can walk into the boat club and if I need help I could ask absolutely anybody. People are incredibly friendly, open, willing, and supportive.

“From my experience, that’s the essence of the club. There are these awful situations that do happen, but the club are very aware of that and want to make sure that these things don’t happen. At the beginning of the year we had these equality workshops that went down really well. We all mixed together and everyone got to talk about their experiences. It’s really good that we’re doing these things.”

Such procedures highlight the institutional rigour of the squad, and the space that the light blue women have carved out for themselves, but CUBC is not always a slick, well-oiled machine. The people in the club are real people with fears and anxieties just like the rest of the student body, and so occasional inter-crew arguments are inevitable. “The buzzword this year has been communication,” Sykes says. Portsmouth laughs, raises her eyebrows: “Issues arise when people disagree about something but they don’t communicate it. What’s important is keeping open dialogue and feedback.”


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Other times, problems originate outside the Goldie boathouse. Both Sykes and Portsmouth are finalists and feel academic stress more acutely than in previous years. “Sometimes it is tough,” Portsmouth admits, “it’s so intense for so long. It feels like a lot of pressure. I actually spoke to my coach at the beginning of the season and he was incredibly supportive. He told me to take a bit of time to reset, and when I came back it was fine. Everyone gets it because we’re all doing the same thing.”

Nevertheless, more often than not, rowing is a relief for the pair. “You come to the boathouse door weighed down by all this other stuff that’s going on and you have a bit of a meltdown. But then you’re surrounded by all these people that are so supportive, that you love hanging out with, and doing something you love. It resets you. It gets you back on track,” Sykes explains. Portsmouth nods in agreement: “When we actually start rowing, that’s when I truly leave things behind. There’s no room in your head to think about anything else. It’s quite mediative.”

If there’s one thing to take from these two young female athletes, it is that the sporting world is wide open. As Sykes so aptly put it: “there’s nothing I feel like I can’t do or I’ve been stopped from doing as a woman.”