Twenty years ago, the Men’s Boat Race delivered one of the most memorable renewals of all-time with the ‘closest race in the history of the event’.

It was a golden period of drama, intrigue and stories in the first five years of the new century, but the crowning glory remains the race in 2003.

Few would have predicted that things could get much more exciting – especially given the four-and-a-half mile Championship Course – than in 2002 when Oxford became the first crew in 50 years to come from behind at Barnes Bridge to take victory but, on reflection, that looks rather tame.

For the first time in more than a century, brothers were in opposing boats, the Livingstons, with James rowing for Cambridge and David in the Oxford crew.

This was amplified when, two days before the race, Cambridge collided with the harbour master’s launch which left Wayne Pommen with a fractured wrist, and Ben Smith having to step in at bow.

His brother, Matt, was the president of Oxford and in their stroke seat. Adding more intrigue, the Livingstons and Smiths were long-time family friends.

What was set to unfold on the Tideway you could hardly make up.

“I think when you’ve put that amount of time and effort into a race like that, you have a lot of detailed memories,” explains Matt Smith.

“It all started the day before because I wasn’t very well at all. I was in a bed with a high temperature, probably close to 100 degrees, and really concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to turn up on the day and race.”

Matt Smith: 2023 Gemini Boat Race Umpire (Photo: Ben Tufnell/Row360)

Robin Bourne-Taylor was another returnee from Oxford’s 2002-winning crew, and had also raced alongside Smith in the defeated Dark Blues boat of 2001.

“It was a tough year but we had a great team and from every member in every boat we had formed a strong bond and belief,” explains Robin, when reflecting on 2003.

“We knew we were significant underdogs because of our weight disadvantage so we had prepared in detail for all the scenarios that may happen.”

Cambridge had been made favourites, weighing 7.25kg per man heavier than Oxford, and such a weight advantage had never been overcome before in the Boat Race.

“Having done some tough Boat Races before this one, the 2003 race certainly took me to new physical and mental boundaries,” says Robin, who was in the No 5 seat.

“I think that is true of our whole boat and we had to get through some pretty dark patches of the race before things started to turn in our favour.”

Matt takes up the story after Oxford had used the Middlesex station to their advantage through Fulham Reach.

“I remember rowing into a headwind in the run-up to Hammersmith and being very concerned that Tim Wooge, who was in the stroke seat of the Cambridge crew, was going to do what they had done to us in 2001, just slip away on the inside of the Surrey station,” he says.

“What probably gets lost in the TV is that we had a big call in our crew which was just after the Hammersmith Bridge, when the wind went from a headwind into a tailwind.

“It was called 1963, which was the last time that anybody had overturned anything close to the weight disadvantage that we had – we were about a stone a man lighter than the Cambridge crew, if not more.

“We put in the most almighty piece of rowing there, almost as if the race was going to end in 15 to 20 strokes, and we were only halfway through the race. I think that was what really swung the whole race.

“People talk about the closeness of the finish, but that was the inflection point and it took a lot of courage to put everything on the line right in the middle of a 16 to 17-minute race.”

Having been in quite a weak position at the time, perhaps two-thirds of a length down, going up to 38 strokes a minute turned the tide, and as they came round Barnes Bend, Oxford had the lead.

However, Cambridge upped their stroke rate on the outside of the bend, and by the time they crossed the finish line, to all on the river it seemed too close to call and all eyes were on umpire Boris Rankov and finish judge Ben Kent.

Matt, however, was confident of the outcome.

“I was pretty convinced we had won, but the issue with the finish line on the Boat Race is that it is at a slight angle to the river, so you have to be a bit further ahead than you think you are or you think you need to be on that station in order to win,” he explains.

“You’ve got to be a little bit further ahead but Acer (Nethercott, Oxford’s cox) was concerned that we had lost. To be honest, everybody was so tired that there were not a lot of constructive thoughts going around peoples’ heads, I don’t think.

“There was a period of quiet. Some people talk about it going on forever, I think that is probably the coxes’ view rather than those who had just done a 17-minute flat out race.”

Robin’s memories of passing the finish encapsulate just how much the two crews had to extend themselves physically, and how fine a line it is between hanging on and everything falling apart.

“I remember feeling a moment of utter relief that the race was done,” he says.. 

“I thought we’d won but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just wiped out and the others were all pretty quiet. About 20 seconds after we crossed the line I went very dizzy and it felt like the boat was rocking from side to side. Then I started to black out. 

“At some stage the umpire announced the verdict but I didn’t really give it much thought because of how I was feeling physically. 

“I think I put a hand on Dave (Livingston) and Scott (Frandsen) for a moment in front and behind me in the boat but that was as far as celebrations went.”

There is a strong bond between that crew which remains to this day and, as Matt points out, is no doubt prevalent among most crews from both Oxford and Cambridge, most years.

The rowers have been best men and ushers to each other at weddings, and godfathers to children, which highlights the strength of the relationships and bonds created through the Boat Race.

“Sporting moments are made epic by the sacrifices and tenacity of those athletes and coaches who lay the groundwork and built a legacy in the years before and after a race,” adds Robin.

“I have never been in a more epic club than the OUBC of that generation.”

Cover photo: Ben Tufnell/Row360