From Water to Wine: Watching The Boat Race With Oxonians And Cantabs

Members of the Isis crew celebrate the Oxford victory.

Members of the Isis crew celebrate the Oxford victory.

On Easter Sunday, about 200 “Oxbridge” alums gathered at The Churchill, a traditional British-themed pub in the East 20s, for a viewing party as crew teams from Oxford and Cambridge Universities duked it out on the Thames.

“It usually isn’t on Easter,” one Oxonian noted. “But that’s just an example of the heathen Anglican sensibility.”

The invite for the party encouraged all Oxonians and Cantabs—heathen or otherwise—to wear their school colors (dark and light blue, respectively) and promised a vibe that was “Less Royal Ascot Private Box, More Super Bowl Party.”

But by the time the Transom arrived, just before noon, the cheering was subsiding. Apparently, Greenwich Mean Time is less forgiving than New York Reporter Time. Oxford had pulled ahead to a comfortable victory in the 159th annual Boat Race, and the TV screens were now playing BBC World. Shots of bucolic British boat racing gave way to protests in the Arab world.

“British promptness is really hard to get used to,” noted a visiting Israeli who is currently studying for an MBA at Oxford.

Thankfully, the drinking was also on Greenwich Mean Time, where it was already mid-afternoon. (“Like all English sports, it’s really all about the drinking,” a Cantab confessed.) Pimm’s Cups and Bloody Marys were flowing, along with an assortment of British brews.

“I came for the drinking,” a London School of Economics alum said when we asked her which university she had been cheering for. She then added, lowering her voice to a whisper: “And to find a husband.”

Despite what she called a “roomful of potential,” most of the eligible Oxbridge men dispersed soon after the race ended, leaving only committed day-drinkers in their wake. “You should have seen the two hunky guys who looked like the Winklevoss twins,” noted an American who went to law school at Cambridge in the 1970s.

Despite all the Briticisms, many of the alums we spoke with were from this side of the Atlantic. Anglophiles, it seemed, are not confined to Downton Abbey and Savile Row.

Betsy Mortensen, who earned a master’s degree at Cambridge, was—in New York caloric fashion—eating a salad at the bar, though both she and her friend drank Pimm’s. As for the race, it was “exciting, but depressing.”

Ms. Mortensen said she was not surprised by the outcome, having watched the event next to a muscle-bound man who used to row for Oxford. (He expertly called it early on.)

Basie Gitlin and Emma Griffin did grad work together at Cambridge, but knew each other from their days at Yale, where they presumably rooted for the Bulldogs.

“For a while it seemed like we had a prayer,” Ms. Griffin said, pointing to a prominent eponymous bust. “At least, with Churchill watching over us.”

They began to wonder whether the former British prime minister and the bar’s namesake was a Cantab or an Oxonian. The pair concluded that Churchill must have been a Cantab, because Churchill College is named for him. (It is, but Churchill was actually an alum of Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy.)

The Transom had a question of our own, then: why were the majority of lingering revelers Cantabs?

“That’s because we stay and we’re awesome. Oxford people suck,” Mr. Gitlin said.

“Cambridge was better organized,” said an admittedly biased Cambridge alum. “And we are better-looking and smarter overall.”

Or perhaps they simply needed to drink away the sorrows of defeat.

“When Oxford won, there was a fair amount of cheering,” said Dhaval Patel, an organizer of the event who got an MBA from Oxford.

He said that graduate students had outnumbered the undergrads, and that there had been a much higher turnout than expected—possibly due to the event being listed on Guest of a Guest. This had not pleased Mr. Patel. Much like the universities, it seemed he wanted to keep attendance to a small, select group.