The first Boat Race between Sydney and Melbourne Universities occurred in May 1860. Following a challenge by Melbourne University Boat Club the Sydney University crew travelled by rail and horse coach to Melbourne where they raced on the Yarra River.
This Boat Race was held a number of times in the 1860’s and eventually transformed into a Universities Race including initially, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide Universities. The first of these races was also held on the Yarra in fours in 1870 and this event soon became the Annual Intervarsity Rowing Competition.
In the 1870 event Australia’s, later to be, first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton rowed in the two seat of the Sydney University four.
At the 2008 National Championships Chris Noel of Sydney University and Peter Antonie of Melbourne University Boat Clubs talked about the possibility of re-introducing the head to head Boat Race as had originally happened in 1860 and on other occasions through the 1860’s.
In 2009 Melbourne University Boat Club celebrated their 150th Anniversary, and launch of their club history, with a party at Government House in Melbourne. They were kind enough to invite the President and Vice President of Sydney University Boat Club to this occasion and Chris Noel and Tom McCann attended.
In a conversation with Melbourne University Deputy Vice Chancellor, John Dewar, Chris Noel mentioned the idea which he a Peter Antonie had discussed in 2008 for an Australian Boat Race between Sydney and Melbourne Universities.
John then introduced Chris to the Melbourne University Vice Chancellor Prof Glyn Davis and as a result of discussions on the night with Professor Davis and Peter Antonie it was decided to try and make this concept a reality.
Professor Davis contacted his counterpart at Sydney University, Vice Chancellor Dr Michael Spence and Chris Noel also contacted Dr Spence. The result of a short period of discussion was that Melbourne University agreed to invite Sydney University crews to Melbourne that year for a Boat Race between Men’s and Women’s eights from the Universities Boat Clubs.
The organizers decided to make the races part of the Head of the Yarra, an annual time trial event run by the Hawthorn Rowing Club. The original idea was that the university crews would run within this regatta as a separate event – however late in the organization Hawthorn Rowing Club refused to accommodate this arrangement meaning that the both universities had to enter the senior eights time trial with nothing distinguishing this as a race other than the trial times. As the crews had to enter within this regatta's rules Sydney (not having entered before) had to start at the rear of the field for their class – a major disadvantage in a time trial. In this event both Melbourne University crews recorded better times.
The Sydney University Vice Chancellor attended and indicated that he had in mind a head to head event and wanted to see this happen.
The following year, 2010, Sydney University hosted and the event became a head to head Boat race. The course was from Leichhardt Rowing Club in Iron Cove across the inner harbour of Sydney and down the Lane Cove River to Riverview Wharf at St Ignatius College – a distance of about seven kilometres.
The same year the Universities signed a memorandum of Understanding to hold the Australian Boat Race for a period of three years initially.
In the first Boat Race on Sydney Harbour the men’s event went to Sydney and the Women’s to Melbourne University.
A video made around this initial head to head race can be seen at this link:
In 2011 the race went back to the Yarra River, this time as a Boat Race over 4.5 kilometres using part of the old King’s Cup course starting down river near the Bolte Bridge and racing up river through the Docklands, past the city and Casino and finishing at Melbourne University Boat Club.
The results were the same with Sydney winning the men’s and Melbourne the women’s race. While Melbourne women had a comfortable win the Sydney men only prevailed by the narrowest of margins in a thrilling race which saw the lead change between the two crews on a least three occasions.
You can see the video production of this race at:
In 2011 with the event coming back to Sydney and being broadcast it was decided by the Sydney organizers to seek a more scenic route and after negotiations between Sydney University Boat Club and the Roads and Maritime Services it was agreed we could use a new course from Woolwich heading to the city area and swinging south to finish in Cockle Bay, Darling Harbour.
“to be continued”