Every year, alumni in cities across North America gather to cheer Oxford on in the Boat Race. Here, the long-time organiser of the New York City Boat Race Dinner gives the lowdown on a grand tradition.

Putney on the Potomac

By John Tepper Marlin (Trinity, 1962, as John Anthony Marlin)

The number one pretext for Oxonian alumni to get together across the globe — usually with Cantabrigians — has been to watch the annual Boat Race from afar. It’s a fitting tribute to the huge contribution made to Oxford’s achievements on the river by international rowers such as American Caryn Davies (pictured below left), who will act as stroke against Cambridge in the historic upcoming women’s race on 11 April. The viewing of the Boat Race is usually accompanied by a formal dinner. More than 70 Oxford-Cambridge committees worldwide are dedicated to running such dinners — about 20 in North America and 50 in the rest of the world. In addition, some Oxford University Society branches sponsor Boat Race Dinners (BRDs) just for their members.

Oldest: Vancouver, British Columbia. The oldest Oxford-Cambridge BRD on record was in Vancouver in 1929. Current organiser Tony Knox and his predecessor Robert Dunn report: ‘British Columbia has been a colony since 1858, luring Oxford and Cambridge alumni as settlers, administrators, Anglican clergy and civil and military retirees. Two men from Peterhouse, Cambridge, founded a cattle ranch at Ashcroft, BC, in the 1860s and were visited by the first chief justice of the colony, also a Cambridge man. The first dinner for which we have found a record was in 1929.’

Putney on the Potomac

Oldest uninterrupted: New York City. Vancouver’s BRD skipped 1932 and 1933. New York started its dinner in 1933 and has never missed one. The city is also the home base of the current sponsor of the Boat Race, wealth-management firm BNY Mellon. Alumni boat races were held in New York City in 2006-2010, one year on the Harlem River and the next four years at the Saugatuck Rowing Club, when Oxonian Saman Majd was commodore.

Best-attended: Washington, DC. Washington’s BRD had the largest attendance ever, a reported 329 people in 1993 — the first year of President Bill Clinton’s term. George Keys is the organiser of the dinner. Prince Charles once spoke at the National Press Club — I was able to attend but many who signed up late were turned away.

Longest run for a BRD organiser: Chicago (John Morrison). The first Chicago BRD was in 1934, a year after the New York City dinner. It has been continuous except for six years during and after the Second World War. This year, Oxford University Pro-Vice-Chancellor Nick Rawlins is speaking — at the 50th dinner organised by John Morrison (Univ), a Rhodes scholar. He reports: ‘In 1965, Charles A Bane (Queen’s) handed me a tiny, thin folder and said: ‘It’s now yours!’ Happily I have a volunteer successor, another Chicago lawyer, James Dunlop (LMH) of [law firm] Jones Day.’ Morrison says he is proud of the local ‘cordiality all these years between the two universities’.

Oldest continuing alumni boat race: Boston. The well-organised website provides historical information about the BRDs, which were from inception in 1955 intended to be low-key. The Boston Oxbridge branch was renamed the New England branch in 1973. The secretary, David Manns, reports: ‘We have held a formal dinner each year since 1976. For many years, the BRDs (and our alumni boat race) were held at the Noble and Greenough School on the Charles River. In recent years, the BRD and race have been held at the Cambridge Boat Club, home of the Head of the Charles event.’

Oldest Boat Race brunch: Los Angeles. The Boat Race Brunch has been held every year since 2005 in Pasadena. It has always been a brunch rather than a dinner, held on a Sunday after the Boat Race, usually at a private club on the beach. For several years it has been at the California Yacht Club in Marina del Rey — champagne, brunch, conversation, and video of the boat race. Cambridge alumni are invited. Bea Hopkinson organised this event for ten years and was recently honoured for her service.

Oldest Boat Race breakfast: Portland, Ore. The branch is credited by Vancouver with inventing the Boat Race Breakfast to watch the race live on television. Participants wear what is still left, and fits, of their university or college boat club gear. 

Strongest Cambridge leadership: Montreal. Usually Oxford alumni dominate the BRDs. In Montreal the prime organisers have been Cambridge alumni. The Oxford representative on the combined Oxford and Cambridge Society of Montreal is Catherine Gillbert. The main organisers include McGill Professors Gerald Ratzer, Branch Secretary, and John J Jonas, who reports that in 1960 the BRDs were very popular — black tie, men only. After a hiatus in the 1980s, the BRD reconvened and has been held recently at the McGill Faculty Club, ‘with a high-water mark of close to 100’, says Professor Ratzer.

John Tepper Marlin, PhD, is principal writer at CityEconomist and president of Boissevain Books. He recently handed the reins as organiser of the New York City Boat Race Dinner to Hervé Gouraige (Merton, 1972), Rhodes Scholar from New Jersey.

Photograph of Oxford University rowing team preparing for training © Oxford University Images / Rob Judges. Photograph of American–Oxonian Olympic rower Caryn Davies by Adrian Krajewski for Jack Carlson’s Rowing Blazers (Thames & Hudson), © Jack Carlson. All images reproduced with kind permission.


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