The lightweight men take on water during their raceKathy Baines with permission for Varsity

On 13 December 2023, the Trial VIIIs of the 2024 Boat Race campaign were held.

Trial VIIIs is a series of races held each year by CUBC, in which two evenly matched Cambridge boats race each other on the Thames from Putney to Mortlake. The aim is twofold: first, to provide data for the coaches to decide who will have a seat in the Boat Race against Oxford, and second, to provide crews with a chance to experience side-by-side racing on the full Boat Race course.

To spice things up, the crews are given different names each year. For example, this year the women’s boats were all named after four lions from The Lion King (Mufasa, Sarabi, Nala and Simba), a nod to Cambridge’s symbol of the lion; the lightweight men’s crews were named Greatorex and Bates (two influential figures in lightweight rowing at Cambridge); and finally the openweight men’s crews were named Zoolander and Hansel, because why not.

This year’s Trial VIIIs was slightly different because the Thames woke up on 13 December and chose violence. There were significant waves, many of which breached the saxboards of the boats or splashed off riggers, thus soaking the rowers in icy river water. One rower described how the conditions left her “gasping for air”, as the water was so cold that each splash knocked the air out of her lungs.

The event began with the openweight women’s race, in which both crews pushed determinedly through the rough water. Mufasa gained an early half length lead, which they maintained throughout the race despite Sarabi’s efforts to close the margin. However, the very act of finishing the race was testament to the superb coxing efforts of Hannah Murphy and James Trotman.

“The actual Boat Race will take place whatever the conditions”

Conditions only worsened for the dramatic women’s lightweight race which followed. One rower in Simba recalls how her footwell was full by the 600m mark, and the freezing water meant that by Hammersmith she could not feel her lower legs. Nala led by a couple of lengths by St Paul’s; however, one of Simba’s crew members lost their seat and caused a level restart. Nala retained its lead and went on to win by five lengths. The rowers returned to the boathouse carrying a significant volume of Thames water in their footwells – useful resistance training, I am sure, and something impressive to post on Strava, so, all in all, not bad.

It seems that the Thames was determined to do its worst, and came out in full force in time for the men’s lightweight race. Like so many unfortunate boats throughout the Thames’ winding history, the two crews were no match for the river’s wrath – the Empacher of Greatorex took on significant water and was fully underwater by Barn Elms. The crew was successfully evacuated with such cheeky grins on their faces that one suspects underhand dealings with Father Thames. The sodden rowers decided to come back the next day for a second attempt in which Greatorex claimed victory, suggesting that, thankfully, no Thames water was ingested during the initial swamping.

It was decided that the openweight men’s Trial VIIIs race would start further down the course and in calmer waters, in order to avoid a fate similar to Greatorex. The two crews, Zoolander and Hansel, were lined up at Fulham Football Ground, where Zoolander was controversially given a third of a length start to compensate for the bend. Coxed by Ed Bracy, Zoolander led the race and claimed a victory of two and a half lengths, despite a stoic effort from Hansel.


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It should be noted that the actual Boat Race will take place whatever the conditions, even if the organisers know that the crews will not make it to the finish line. The challenge presented to the crews in December was thus valuable race experience. As a rower in Nala recalled: “In one word the conditions were ‘brutal’. But it’s important to state that nobody really would have had it another way due to the learning that came [from the event]. We’re a tough squad and now we know we can deal with anything that the tideway can throw at us come boat race day.”

The Gemini Boat Race will take place on 30 March 2024. Follow updates and build-up throughout term in the Varsity Sports section.