Choosing a University Boat Club 2019/20


The 2019/2020 University Rowing Almost Season Review

It was a real shame that there wasn’t much of a rowing season at all this year, with events cancelled across the board due to bad weather long before the onset of the current pandemic. Back at Pairs Head in the early part of the season, university entries were few and far between, although Reading University took the overall headship ahead of their win in college doubles at Head of the Charles at the end of October. This really set the tone for the fantastic few months that followed for the club- they went on to take the top two placings in both the men’s and women’s academic quads at Four’s Head, with Hartpury University and the University of Nottingham coming closest to them in the men’s and women’s events respectively. 

The University of Oxford also made a good start to their Boat Race campaign at Four’s Head, taking the university pennants in the men’s coxed and coxless fours as well as the women’s coxed fours. Edinburgh University made the long journey down to London worthwhile, taking the final university pennant in the women’s coxless fours. The minor placings in the academic categories were filled mainly by Cambridge University and Imperial College London’s men and women, with the University of St Andrews taking a third place in the women’s coxless event.

All the while the GB trialling process had been up and running with the first assessment a few weeks prior in early November. It was no surprise to see Reading’s scullers out in force as they fielded the fastest U23 openweight and lightweight women, finishing with three of the top six scullers in the openweight event. While Nottingham RC claimed the top spot in U23 openweight men’s singles, it was Reading up there again in second with the fastest athlete from a university programme. Edinburgh have produced many a strong sculler over the years and they continued this trend topping the men’s U23 lightweight sculls alongside several top finishes in both the men’s and women’s sculling events. Other universities fielding scullers at the top end included Newcastle, Durham, Stirling and Nottingham.

The results in the men’s sweep were perhaps as expected given the undeniable dominance of Oxford Brookes University in the student rowing scene with Brookes fielding the quickest U23 eligible athlete in the field. However, credit must go to their neighbours from Oxford who not only finished as the fastest full U23 crew but also showed real depth. Oxford made up half of the top ten men’s U23 sweep athletes, with the remaining four split evenly between Cambridge and Imperial which saw Brookes with only the one athlete in this group. Leander Club fielded the fastest women’s U23 sweep athlete but the University of London fielded the fastest fully eligible crew, not far ahead of another fully eligible Brookes pair. With one more a little way behind, Brookes made it three athletes in the top ten, with Oxford and Cambridge making up the remaining university athletes in the top finishers.

Wallingford Head was among the cancellations at the tail end of 2019, but luckily the weather held out for the Sculler’s Head. It was Imperial who topped the U23 athletes in the field with an impressive second place finish overall for one of their lightweights ahead of Reading who added to their collection of tideway pennants with the win in the U23 event itself. An athlete from the University of York won the women’s U23 event rowing with the Yorkshire GB Start programme, with Imperial taking second as the top university programme.

While Sculler’s Head was underway up in London, a number of universities also took to the Tyne at Rutherford Head. First down the course were UL’s men’s eight who went on to top the category ahead of locals Newcastle and Durham. It was much the same story for the women, with UL taking the win ahead of Newcastle and Durham in the eights event. These three universities continued to take the remaining pennants amongst the fours and quads, with three going to UL, two to Newcastle and one to Durham.


After the turn of the new year what was unknowingly the final tideway head of the year rolled around in Quintin Head. Brookes made an uncharacteristic appearance for that point of the season to completely dominate the field, taking the top three spots. Imperial were the next fastest behind them followed by yet another Brookes crew and then local rivals UL. In the women’s event, it was UL who took the top spot just ahead of Brookes, whose women’s programme has been really growing over the last few years, followed by Oxford and Cambridge. 

Amongst the standard racing calendar, many private fixtures took place at the start of this year as part of the preparations for the Boat Race. This year these saw the men’s and women’s boat race squads take on Imperial, Nereus, Brookes and UL. Highlights included the first time Brookes had been beaten in the UK since 2017 after Oxford won one of their pieces and a nail-biting matchup between the Oxford and UL women which really resulted in a win from the tideway herself (although the social media drama makes for excellent lockdown reading).

Little would anyone have known how lucky everyone was to get the chance to race on the not-so-glassy Tyne at BUCS Head in some pretty testing conditions. The Newcastle women’s squad lead the women’s sweep categories on their home water while Reading topped all sculling events on offer (bet you didn’t see that one coming). The championship fours events were split between two Scottish universities-Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was great to see a smaller club like Glasgow showing that they can absolutely compete with some of the biggest programmes in the UK.  


Imperial really dominated the men’s sweep events in particular, medalling in every event they entered and fielding a coxed four quicker than all the coxless fours (RIP the PA 2020).  Durham took a surprise win in the champ quads leaving Reading to take the intermediate quads event- it’s no doubt a disappointment that we won’t see Durham and Reading race again this year. Edinburgh took a solid win in the champ coxless fours, while Newcastle and Nottingham won a lightweight event each.

That left the Lightweight Boat Race to take to the tideway for the first time as the last race of this ‘season’, with one win a piece for each shade of blue as Cambridge won the women’s event and Oxford won the men.

It’s hard to know where the season would’ve gone. If you’re looking to scull, it’s pretty clear that Reading is the place to be at the moment to do that. But there’s certainly a number of options if you look at the range of universities fielding some of the fastest singles results at trials and Sculler’s Head, as well as producing crew results at events like Rutherford and BUCS. There are many clubs that offer both sweep and sculling at a high level. Meanwhile, there are a number of other programmes like Hartpury and the Queen’s University Belfast with renowned sculling programmes that might not have had the chance to race much this year.


Brookes’ performance at Quintin speaks for itself and there’s little doubt that they remain at the top of sweep rowing in the UK, with their women’s squad ever growing and producing strong results. Brookes look in a stronger position than ever to strive to be the top women’s programme next season and match their men’s results, but it’ll be a challenge to get past UL, who have a long history of excellence in women’s rowing. If the season had been able to continue, it would’ve been great to see the clubs that raced Rutherford and Quintin go head to head.  Newcastle and Edinburgh have both won a number of events this year, with Durham in the mix too.

It’s a real disappointment that The Boat Race was not able to go ahead this year as it promised for some cracking racing. Race results this year hinted that Oxford may have been in a positon to turn the last few years around but we’ll have to wait another year to see. It’s great to see the highest ranked universities academically like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial proving they can balance their studies and training as their men and women consistently finished at the top end. Oxford and Imperial really stood out at Four’s Head and BUCS respectively, while all three performed very well at the first and only trials this year. These three have solidified again this season that it's possible to choose a strongly performing university academically and row at one of the top programmes.


So how do I pick?

We’ve made our university guide to try and make comparing universities easier, but it is of course a big decision with many factors to consider. Our table might give you a general idea, but the best information available will be in the individual guides universities have produced to summarise both academic and sporting life at their own institutions. Similarly, league tables in general are good but worth taking with a pinch of salt. Many are driven by the quality of research, so be sure to consider factors that might impact you like student satisfaction, teaching and graduate prospects. 

As well as the guides, boat clubs’ social media platforms and websites can give you a valuable insight into what it’s like to be a part of their club. Websites will offer information on the club, race reports and ways to get in touch with their coaches if you have an offer. Coaches will be able to advise you on how their club can best support your journey in rowing. Different programmes will have different focuses- for example, the profile of a season at a Boat Race programme might differ quite a lot from programmes' whose main focus is Henley. Coaches may also be able to put you in touch with current students if you’d like to hear first-hand what it’s like to be a student there and what the social side is like.

Rowing is great and all, but make sure to consider the course at each university, as they do differ even for the same subject. Equally, student life on a campus uni may be very different to in a big city, and cities can be expensive. London has a rep for being the expensive one, but in reality, it’s fairly comparable to other cities. For example, the cheapest halls of residence in Edinburgh start at £4218pa, while at Imperial and UCL (UL’s biggest college) they start at £4256pa and £5107pa respectively. There even appears to be a handful of rooms available at UCL for under four grand if you’re lucky! And there will be a huge range of increasingly expensive options depending on your budget.

Living in a city can sometimes mean things are spread out too, which doesn’t suit everyone, and it may be that you need to travel a long way to training. The main thing is to do your research and check how far it is from your department or college to where you’ll be living or training, as it can vary greatly. The perks of a city are that there’s often more to do compared to a quieter town, and which you’d prefer is very much an individual thing.

With open days cancelled, it may be harder to make the choice on which of your offers to firm, or for lower sixth students, where to apply in the first place. There’s a huge number of clubs in the UK that can offer you very high standards of both academics and rowing. There’s lots of information online, but our biggest recommendation is contacting university boat clubs, as their coaches and athletes will be able to give you a real insight into what life will be like even without being able to visit for real!

Our team have a lot more time to hand at the moment, so if you have any further questions just get in touch with us on social media and we’ll do our best to help!

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