Cambridge-Oxford Potomac Challenge Cup  

Cantab DC - Alumni Boat Race on the Potomac

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Several hundred Cambridge alums from the Washington DC area turned out on Saturday September 25 for a spirited resurrection of a decades-old tradition: the Cambridge-Oxford Boat Races – a men’s eight and a women’s four -- on the Potomac River in Washington DC. Upfront I have to let readers know our women’s boat won and our men’s boat did not cross the finish line first - but still won.

According to the Cantab crew’s unofficial historian, Jeff Pryce (Peterhouse), the first "other Boat Race" in this tradition took place 25 years ago, in 1985. It was a challenge between Ronald Reagan’s then Secretary of the U.S. Navy, John F. Lehman Jr. (who, as well as being a cousin of Grace Kelly, an investment banker, and author of the “Lehman doctrine” on how Soviet threats to Western Europe should be countered, obtained his BA and MA from Gonville and Caius), and the U.S. Senator Larry Lee Pressler (who, as well as being the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to the U.S. Senate, represented South Dakota as a Republican in Congress for twenty-two years, and attended St. Edmund Hall Oxford as a Rhodes scholar).

Bill Onorato (Jesus), who coxed that first race for the Cambridge boat with a Dunhill pipe clenched between his teeth, remembers: "Lehman was stroke, and a U.S. Navy helicopter hovered close overhead. I had to stop the boat short of Key Bridge and ask John politely to dispatch the helicopter, as nobody could hear anything and the prop wash was making steering difficult. He saluted them and waived them off. That was Washington security, pre-9/11."

Oxford won the first two races, and the third was declared a draw (or, as we now refer to it, "a narrow Cambridge victory"). The first official Cambridge win was in 1988. The Oxford cox steered under the wrong archway of the majestic Key Bridge, the mid-point of the race, and wound up going in a circle, while the Cambridge cox rode the current to victory. By 1991 J&B had come in as a sponsor, and the event had grown noticeably more elaborate, but sponsorship ceased after a few years. An unfortunate series of Oxford victories was finally reversed in the mid-1990s with a string of Cambridge wins for 1995, 1996 and 1997, all engraved on the first Potomac Challenge Cup. The last race before this year's was in 2000, and ended in a technical victory for an Oxford men's boat filled with ringers -- mostly former Blues flown in from New York for the occasion.

Where the original trophy is now, no-one knows, so let's just say the winning Cambridge streak continued in the ‘90s, as did the alumni spirit that powered it. In one of the Cambridge victories, an Oxford rower suffered a heart attack just as their boat crossed the finish line. Fortunately, the Cambridge crew that year contained one of the best-known coronary specialists in the country, who immediately went to his competitor’s aid and saved his life. There’s collegiality for you!

The Potomac River is now largely a pleasure waterway separating Washington DC from Northern Virginia and carries fast-flowing water from the northern Appalachian mountains to the Chesapeake Bay and eventually the mid-Atlantic. Its main historical settlement, Georgetown (named after George II), was founded as a city in the British Colonial Province of Maryland in 1751, thanks to the Maryland Legislature’s purchase of sixty acres of land for just 280 pounds. (In modern-day Washington this sum might just buy you two weeks of car parking). Georgetown thus pre-dates the city of Washington and the District of Columbia – a fact which legal scholars in our crew all agreed might give us some valid historical claim to row on the left side of the river.

Georgetown became one of the busiest ports on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. in the eighteenth century thanks to the tobacco trade. Union and Confederate soldiers taunted each other across the river there with drunken songs during the Civil War. But by the late 1800s Georgetown’s industries were in decline because the river and canal kept silting up and because of competition from the railroad. Today, Georgetown is a trendy and expensive neighborhood in the now-larger District of Columbia. The old harbor and its warehouses have been gentrified into impossibly-chic nightclubs, restaurants, upscale art galleries and clothing boutiques. It’s a place where supermodels wearing impossibly-small bikinis cavort on the decks of luxury motor-yachts belonging to millionaire Washington Redskins football team players.

In this setting, carrying our sleek men’s-eight boat and an impossibly-light graphite-composite oar to the water, with the sky a cloudless blue and the temperature over 90 degrees, it was possible for a fleeting moment to feel like a Prince in Monaco. Too bad that inside, I felt more like Prince Phillip. Four in our boat were over fifty, and several of us had not handled a blade for more than a decade. While the presence of senior hands connected us to the Race’s illustrious recent past, it also meant ibuprofen was definitely our performance-enhancing drug of choice. My own rowing experience was also limited to the Cambridge Town Bumps -- that event bringing together rag-tag teams of over-summering poverty-stricken grad students like me with inebriated local pub teams, in the nearest thing to stock-car racing on the Cam. The Oxford men’s boat, meanwhile, had an average age of twenty-something, with several Blues and Henley gold medal winners, and, rumor has it, an Olympian on board. So much for collegiality.

The Cambridge men’s boat led Oxford’s impressively from the river bank to the starting line but unfortunately could not quite keep up the challenge after that. Nevertheless, finishing fewer than two lengths behind Oxford a mile later was still a highly-creditable performance. Fortunately, the Cambridge women’s boat saved our University’s honor for the day with a spirited and deserved victory over an Oxford crew who had to stop mid-race to recover from an under-boat crab.

So with one race victory apiece, it was shared honors to be engraved on the new replacement Potomac Cup, generously donated this year by Cambridge Society of Washington DC’s President, Peter Hansen (Hughes Hall), and presented at the post-Race reception in Washington’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. Did our men “lose”? Well, we represented our alma mater in its signature sport, we re-created a regional social hub for connecting Cambs alums to each other and to their Cambridge years, we made new friends, both British and American, we experienced the skyline of the world's power capital anew from a mid-river vantage point, we made plans to keep it going for next year and also in-between, no-one got injured, and we had a great time. Sounds like a victory to me.

-Chris Thompson (Ph.D., St. Cath’s, 1984).



Men’s 2010 race roster:
Bow: Stanley Marcuss, Peterhouse
2: Chris Thompson, St. Catharine's
3: Michael Jenner, Christ’s
4: Tim Cooney, Darwin
5: Blake Driscoll, Corpus Christi
6: Dan Owen, Girton
7: Jeffrey Pryce, Peterhouse
8: David Wilson, Caius
Cox: Gabe Latner, Peterhouse
Alternates: Ken Foran, Sidney Sussex
Peter Hansen, Hughes Hall
Michael Maher, Darwin
David Walden, Christ’s

Women’s 2010 race roster:
Bow: Stephanie Hallett, Selwyn
2: Kasie Hunt, St. John’s
3: Mae Wu Peng, Queens'
4: Erin Weber, Newnham
Cox: Asha Puttaiah, Trinity Hall
Alternate: Caitlin Boston, Jesus


Click here for a list of contacts for the Cambridge Society of Washington DC