In the quiet press office before the racing started, we had a rare opportunity to speak to this year’s men's reserve umpire, Boris Rankov. Perhaps one of the most well-known rowing umpires there is, his boat race history is outstanding. He raced with Oxford for 6 consecutive years and won the race every year, which led to the “Rankov Rule” being implemented, limiting an athlete to race 4 times as an undergraduate and 4 times as a graduate. He has also umpired the men’s blue boat race 4 times previously, including the incredible 2003 race which had only a canvas between the crews.
What does the role entail?
In the words of Boris: “Nothing hopefully!” As reserve umpire his role is to follow just behind the umpire’s launch and be ready to act if anything catastrophic happens which would mean that the umpire cannot be present or conduct the race. The most likely event is that both engines on the Ecocat chase boat fail just before the start, in which case the reserve’s launch will take over. The Ecocat can run on only 1 engine, so there is a very low likelihood of this happening. (This is for Blue Boat Races; Reserve Races use launches with only 1 engine, so the reserve umpires are much more likely to be needed in case of failure.)
With the boat race, every single umpire on the panel can take the role of any other at a moment’s notice, ensuring that there is never the problem of having the wrong person in the right place. Boris was in Thames Rowing Club at 7:30 this morning for the cox’s weigh-in. He also had to carry out boat checks at 11:15 and ensure that the cox’s weights are returned to him at the finish. As reserve he is the very last umpire of his race to go afloat, so anything that might need doing last minute is down to him.
How do you prepare?
Boris says that there isn't a huge amount of exertion or stress involved, it's all about being confident in your knowledge of the rules.The fixtures during tideway week are the key preparation for the umpires as it allows them to learn which lines the coxes are likely to take and what to expect on the day. Most umpires will try to make themselves present for vets races as well, to refresh themselves with umpiring. There are also regular meetings of the umpires panel to discuss various race protocols, so they can try and brainstorm what could happen in every possible eventuality. The panel is currently comprised of 8 members, 3 men and 1 woman from Oxford and Cambridge respectively.
Even with this elite panel, almost every year something goes wrong or happens which throws everything off. For example in 2012 with Trenton Oldfield swimming into the path of the boats to protest class elitism, there were protocol changes that were needed to happen as the designated launch for picking up swimmers was chosen in the case of a boat sinking as it can carry comfortably lots of people, while the main launch was better suited to picking up an individual person, so he was brought aboard the umpires launch and thus broke protocol. “There’s always something quirky”, he said, “you can never know”.