The annual Australian Boat Race between eights from Sydney and Melbourne universities is all about technique, stamina, passion, history and bragging rights – and it can all come down to a toss of the coin. Since the antipodean version of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race was revived in 2009 to mark the 150th anniversary of the first race between the two old rowing clubs in 1860, the toss of the coin to determine which station each crew takes – on the bendy Yarra River in Melbourne or crossing Sydney Harbour –has become crucial.
Melbourne University won the men’s and women’s races in 2009 when they were held as part of the annual Head of the Yarra regatta. The races proved such a success it was decided to once again make them an annual event, with the men competing for the Edmund Barton Trophy and the women for the Belinda Guerin Trophy.
Sydney University’s men’s eight took revenge in 2010 when they dominated on a 7.3km course across Sydney Harbour. Melbourne University made it two from two in the women’s eight.
Our men’s eight made it back-to-back wins in the 2011 event with a corner cutting technique on the old King’s Cup course of the Yarra in a race that sparked much drama. Melbourne University’s women’s eight, with four national A representatives on board, won their third straight match race.
In the 2012 race held in Sydney, it was Sydney University’s Fergus Pragnell who won the toss at a pre-race challenge and made the decision, in consultation with coxswain Will Raven and coach Mark Prater, to take a risk in choosing the southern station.
With the race starting at Woolwich, the northern station crew had the advantage of leading at the first left-hand bend and heading for the finish line at Darling Harbour. Melbourne University’s women’s eight had already demonstrated the tactic when they won the toss, chose the northern station, won the short sprint to the first turn, then controlled the race across the harbour to run out winners.
But Pragnell had different ideas, having also outwitted Melbourne on the bends of the Yarra River in 2011. In the short rough and tumble start, the crews twice touched oars before Sydney University emerged ahead at the first bend at the mouth of the Lane Cove River at Greenwich Point. Having come out of the Lane Cove River ahead, Sydney University responded to every move Melbourne made to run out winners.
Melbourne’s men’s eight had their revenge on the Yarra in 2013, winning the toss for the dominant station and running out winners by two boat lengths after the two crews collided 2km into the 4.2km course in a dramatic tussle of oars. The Melburnian women made it five in a row, winning by a comfortable eight boat lengths.
This year’s race, on Sunday, October 26, will be on the same Sydney Harbour course as the 2012 race from Woolwich on the north side of the harbour to Darling Harbour, so the toss of the coin will again come into play. And it could be Pragnell who makes that decision again in consultation with Coach Prater. Australian Boat Race convenor Chris Noel is hopeful Pragnell will be available after a busy schedule of regattas representing Australia in the Under 23 crews in the Trans-Tasman series against New Zealand and in regattas in Europe.
“We’re hoping to have him back for this year,” Mr. Noel said. “He has a big overseas schedule and is currently in Europe representing Australia in the coxless four. He will finish those regattas at the end of August.
“We’re also hoping other senior members, including Cam Girdlestone, who is also overseas representing Australia in the senior quad scull, will be available. And we’re likely to have coxswain Will Raven back for another tilt.” Mr. Noel said Melbourne University will be without their two Olympians from last year, with Cameron McKenzie-McHarg and James Marburg having announced their retirement from representative rowing. “But they’re expected to have stroke David Crawshay in the boat, who is an Olympic gold medallist,” he said. Mr. Noel said Melbourne University will again start favourite in the women’s eight, with a large representation of Australian Under 23 rowers in their crew. “They were led by world single scull champion Kim Crow last year and she is likely to return for this race,” he said.
Spectators at the 2014 event will be well catered for on land and water. “We are going to have live overhead coverage of the entire race on the giant screen at Darling Harbour,” Mr. Noel said. “Overhead coverage, shot from a helicopter, was trialled in Melbourne last year and was a great success. And each racing boat and some crew members will be fitted with lightweight, high resolution cameras and microphones to enhance the television coverage.
“We’ll have spectator ferries following the men’s and women’s races. The last time we hosted the race about 300 tickets were sold on one ferry. We’re planning on catering for 500 this year with two ferries.” Mr. Noel said tickets on the ferries also include post-race lunch, presentations and speeches at Darling Harbour, where spectators can mingle with the crews. The race will also be televised for a one hour pay TV presentation and screened on ESPN (Asia) which has 430 million home subscribers. A small package will also be screened on Eurosport.
The Weigh In and challenge will be held on the main quad at Sydney University on Friday, October 24. Fitting with tradition, the captains of the visiting eights will challenge the hosts to the race before the stations are drawn. And that’s where the race begins.