Boat Race ‘bulk’

A quick look at some boat technology ahead of The Boat Race that adds weight to the event (and no, we are not talking about big gains in the weights room or eating too many pies).

Whilst trying to deliver something to a club at Putney today, I found my path ‘rudely’ blocked by some other club leaving their boats on trestles in the middle of the boat bays. After carefully squeezing past these important craft and bashing my shin on the rigger of a juniors boat (you’d think that after 30+ years in boathouses I’d be better at getting around without causing myself to bleed), I delivered my job and decided to have a bit of a closer look.

Custom Kit
The eights raced in The Boat Race are not standard boats. Not only are they often built to custom specifications, they are outfitted with many strange bits of equipment. The individual club boatmen have actually designed and sometimes also fabricated the more event-specific items.

Much of the special equipment is geared to performing well on the unique Tideway championship course. Some of the extra kit is geared to the whole ‘performance’ that is need to satisfy the huge media interest in the race.

This extra gear is loaded in on top of the standard weight of the boat. World Rowing rules provide for 96kg minimum race weight for eights. Most top end boats are built a little under the minimum, then have weights added.

Despite having very new and top of the range boats, the Oxford and Cambridge crews will line up with at least an extra 10kg of bulk in their boats, possibly more.

Wet and Wild
The Tideway can throw up some very exciting conditions. Crews have sunk more than a few times over the years whilst racing in this event. The general weather this year in the UK has been pretty poor and many regattas have been cancelled due to flooded rivers.

Huge wave cutters and wave breaks are needed. There are also large bolt on additions to the sides of the boats to help prevent water rolling in along the length of the hull. This hull is the Cambridge top boat which has an extra tall sax board (and custom made riggers to suit). It is also not sectioned as they were seeking to have the most stiff boat possible.

Not installed at the moment are the high powered battery powered pumps that are used to clear the footwells in the worst conditions. Each club’s boatman has their own secret ‘special sauce’ for how they set up the pumps to be light, efficient and to avoid things like air locks in the hoses.

Crew Performance
In addition to the weight of the standard CoxBox set up, this boat has a full Peach telemetry system installed. Sensors on every oarlock, data screens at every seat, lots of wiring. This is approaching 4-5kg of extra weight.

You might think the full telemetry kit in the boat on race day is not needed, but remember that this is no sprint event. These athletes need to be hitting just the right performance for over four miles, not flaming out over a short sprint.

Stroke seat with two screens (note size of saxboard extension)

Public Performance
Here is another big weight gain, luckily shared equally by both crews.

The huge interest in the race around the world means top quality media coverage. This means cameras in the boats and linked telemetry.

The tall mast contains the powerful broadcast equipment needed to reliably feed the sound and video to the land based studio from all the way along the course. I don’t know much about outside broadcast equipment, but this is a difficult event to cover and the equipment has to perform. Multiple antennae will be helping to send the images we see as well as provide the team with control over the many other functions.

When looking at the tangle of wires, crossed support struts, and big black boxes, it’s hard to imagine that this is any less than about 5-7kg of gear.

(Please see this article from last year for a more information about the broadcast team and equipment.)

Blown Away
The most interesting thing I learned today was that the cameras have a lens cleaning system.

I had wondered what the silver bottle was for when I first saw it. It clearly looked like a gas bottle but I couldn’t think what might be. Luckily the Cambridge cox came in and he explained that it was a compressed air reservoir that enabled water droplets to be blown clear off the camera lenses.

When you watch the race coverage see if you can spot when this system is activated. If the weather is wet and windy you will hopefully still see a clear picture!