‘Being a part of the 2021 Boat Race was a once-in-a-lifetime experience’

Isle of Ely Rowing Club juniors volunteered on stake boats at yesterday’s 2021 Gemini Boat Race where Cambridge beat Oxford. They share their experiences below


How does it feel as a young person in rowing to be asked to take on a role that you know nothing about – knowing that the world will be watching?

For the 2021 Gemini Boat Race, six juniors from the Isle of Ely Rowing Club, were invited to take roles on the “stake boats” which were in fact pontoons. Aged from 14 to 17, their roles were collecting the crews’ kit and running it to the waiting transport to get it to the finish and of course holding the sterns of the eights as they aligned on the start. If they got it right; no problem. If they got it wrong; millions would notice.

Their club was founded in 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1944 Boat Race, also held at Ely, so there is an historic connection with the university Boat Race, making it even more fitting for the juniors to be involved this year.

The start of the 2021 race was from the finish of the 1944 race, marked by a stone plaque on the Queen Adelaide riverbank.

This is what Eleanor, Isobel, Katie, Millie, Olive and Ted had to say about their experiences after the race.

How did you feel when it was first suggested you might like to be on the stake boats? Why did you volunteer?

When it was cold and we were all still in lockdown there was not much to look forward to.  However, being part of the group made me so excited to get back to rowing.

I volunteered because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one day I want to be in one of the boats.

“I also felt very lucky to be one of the few people able to witness the race in person”

I volunteered because I thought it was such an amazing opportunity to be able to see the start of the Boat Race from a viewpoint that few other people would have seen. To be able to play a role in the second time in history that the Boat Race has come to Ely was brilliant.

My family always watches the Boat Race, so I knew it was a big event. I was excited to be part of something that is so globally important.

How much did you know about the Boat Race history and its links to the club?

Before the Boat Race I did not know that Ely held the race in 1944.

Every Sunday morning, we see Cambridge out on the water training and it was so fantastic to see, and be part of, what they had been training so hard for.

During lockdown, our coaches had organised weekly Zoom meetings to keep up our morale. Our club president, Derek Pickersgill, gave us an interesting history lesson so we were well informed on the race’s return to Ely. He showed us some old photographs and explained how the Isle of Ely club was formed so that the local community could enjoy our beautiful stretch of river.

“I was worried that I might get pulled into the river as the boats zoomed away at the start”

How did you feel on the morning of the practice starts?

I felt nervous; I didn’t sleep much the night before, but was really looking forward to the day.

On the morning of the practice session, I was really nervous because I had very little experience with stake boating, but everyone was so patient and helpful. Once I had a few practices, I quickly learned how to do it and after that it was amazing and I loved it.

I felt nervous, but also excited to learn how to carry out the stake boat responsibility. I was worried that I might get pulled into the river as the boats zoomed away at the start. To add to my worries, it was a freezing cold day – so landing in the water would have been even more awful than usual!

What was it like being on the pontoons?

On the pontoon it was really inspiring and interesting to see how much actually goes on to prepare for such a big rowing event and to be so close to the Cambridge and Oxford crews. Holding the boat was an honour and made me feel a part of the event.

Walking out onto the pontoon was daunting, but once you focused on the task at hand the nerves disappeared and the experience was wonderful.

The water was already quite choppy because of the wind, and then when the launches zoomed past the pontoons to follow the rowing crews, their wake made the pontoon bounce around, which was surprisingly fun!

Do you have any tips for someone doing stake boat starts?

Enjoy the experience!

After my first practice, I realised that holding the bottom of the boat with one hand and the side of the boat with the other was the best way for me.

The most important thing is to not let go! Once you have guided the boat in make sure you have a firm grip. Then just try and focus your eye line on the stern and concentrate on that until you hear the word ‘Go’.

Even if you’re nervous, I would encourage you to give it a try, because although it’s a big responsibility, it’s a huge honour to participate and something memorable to look back on for the rest of your life.

“I was extra delighted that I got to hold the winning men’s boat”

What is your favourite memory of the event?

My favourite memory of the whole event was working as a team with others from the Isle of Ely Club, getting to know them better and being inspired to continue with my training and rowing by the Cambridge and Oxford crew.

It was an excellent opportunity to witness the huge amounts of organisation that goes into these events. I also felt very lucky to be one of the few people able to witness the race in person.

My favourite memory from Sunday was when I was holding the boat just before the umpire shouted go; I could really sense the tension and anticipation that the crews felt. The feeling that I was holding such a powerful boat was exhilarating.

Being a part of the 2021 Boat Race was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and something that I will never forget. However, one of the best parts was being able to meet so many different people from different walks of life and hearing what brought them to the race and their experiences of rowing.

It was exciting seeing the crew members hyping each other up at the beginning of the race. They took the race really seriously, because they had been training for this race for so long, even throughout lockdown, and they REALLY wanted to win! All four crews did brilliantly, and both the men’s and women’s races were so close. Well done Cambridge and Oxford.

I was extra delighted that I got to hold the winning men’s boat.

Summing up, Vicky Parry, a founder member of Isle of Ely Rowing Club, added: “The feedback shows how important the day was to the juniors; their enthusiasm was inspiring. They did a brilliant job and the club is very proud of them.  Young volunteers like this are the future of our sport.”

Thanks to Vicky Parry and all the juniors for the article. Find out more about the history of Isle of Ely Rowing Club here