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Rowers discontent following severe river conditions 

“At this rate novices will still be eligible for next year’s novice regatta” was a rower’s off-hand comment that inspired this investigation. Twelve term weeks into this academic year, unsafe river conditions have grounded rowers from the River Isis on 61% of days and the River Godstow on 85% of days, with novices especially impacted. Captains further expressed frustration over the unequal practice opportunities that favour colleges with external training facilities, a problem exacerbated by bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Because college boat clubs are under pressure to maintain their image of strength and concerned about speaking out against University-level governance, the majority of captains that spoke to Cherwell asked for anonymity. They will be referred to as captains of College A, College B, and College C. 

Flag Colours

Rowers are allowed on water based on different conditions signalled through flag colours that are calculated based on how fast (and therefore how dangerous) the stream is on the respective stretch. A green flag is ideal, while light and dark blue flags impose a detailed set of restrictions on where boats can spin, who can be on crew, and whether a bankrider must be present. 

Amber flags mean that only senior crews can row provided they have a senior cox, of which there are very few across the University, according to the College A captain. Red flags mean no crews are allowed on water. Black flags, which signal “do not expect to be rowing any time soon,” occurred for a dozen days toward the end of Christmas vacation when rivers around Oxford burst their banks amid severe storms.

Cherwell charted the flag colour of every day since the beginning of this school year as favourable – green, light blue, or dark blue – or unfavourable – amber, red, or black. Days that saw a change in flag colour are recorded based on morning conditions unless the change occurred before noon.

Percentages of Isis and Godstow flag colours for term days only.

During term time, Isis was unfavourable on 61% of days while Godstow was unfavourable on 85% of days. According to their respective captains, College A novices have only been on water three to four times, College B novices five to six times at best, and College C novices between one to six times.

Training during vacation was also impacted. While the flag has not typically been used during vacation time, allowing the few rowers who stay in Oxford to make their own decisions, this year OURCs kept flags up during vacation for the first time, according to College B captain. When term and vacation days are combined, Isis was unfavourable 72% of the time and Godstow was unfavourable 90% of the time.

Percentages of Isis and Godstow flag colours for all days.

Waning engagement

Notably, the majority of favourable flags took place in the first few weeks of Michaelmas, after which colleges without private external facilities were forced to seek alternatives such as a tank at Iffley, Tideway in London, or Dorney Lake, which is owned by Eton College.

College B captain told Cherwell that the tank is “very old” and in a “miserable state” with “screws falling apart” despite ongoing repairs. Tideway is “not cheap to get and arguably more dangerous than the red-flag Isis” and Dorney is “expensive and a headache to organise.”

Rowers turned to ergometers (ergs), conditioning, and group runs; College C also organised ice hockey and swimming sessions together. Still, it is difficult to maintain engagement.

College A captain said: “Enthusiasm for land training is understandably limited when the novices have barely been on the water to know what they are training for! For a sport where a lot of the teaching comes from the years above, there is also a danger that the novice year group may not be able to propagate that experience down to novices in the years to come.”

College C captain said the conditions have impacted motivation for both novices and seniors as “water time is much more fun.” The captain also said it has been harder to set crews as they haven’t seen people in a boat. 

College B captain said: “a lot of clubs almost got destroyed after Covid due to a big gap in new recruits; this will have a similar impact into the future for sure.”

Bureaucratic inefficiencies

Traditionally, Isis flag colours have been set based on the number of weir gates – sliding discs used to control water level. As the river rises, more weir gates are opened to release water, and so indicate river flow rate.

During the early January flooding, however, debris of a boat got stuck in Iffley Weir. The obstruction blocks water from flowing, allowing Isis to calm down enough that it was safe to row, according to College B captain. However, the piece of boat also prevented the weir gate from closing, so the gate-based calculations yielded a red flag.

As a result, College B missed out on six days of rowing. The captain said that while this sounds “silly to complain about,” when one accounts for the scant few days College B was able to row, this missed opportunity for “about 25% of [College B]’s rowing days,” therefore making a big difference.

Instead of anchoring the flag colour to the number of open weir gates, captains advocated for measuring flow rate by calculating lock differentials – essentially the difference between the height of water at the top of the river and at the bottom, indicative of flow rate. A project by two previous OURCs Captain of Coxes, Jameson Lee and Joe Hitchen, calculates the differentials and their corresponding flag colours.

Isis lock differential from the beginning of Michaelmas until now. By Lee and Hitchen.

On the Godstow, the flag was traditionally set by a St Edward’s School Boat Club employee based on long-time experience, which has worked well. Recently a new employee took over, and College C captain said that he “lacks the experience to set this more confidently, and thus was far more cautious [as of 28 January] in lowering the flag than his predecessor. While safety is a priority, this obviously frustrates clubs like our own who pay significant sums for racking.”

A notice from OURCs in Michaelmas concurs that “the new team there is not yet familiar with all the peculiarities of the [river] stretch.”

A spokesperson from St Edward’s School told Cherwell: “St Edward’s School takes the safety of rowers and coaches on the Godstow stretch extremely seriously. All flag decisions are taken by highly qualified personnel based on updates about river conditions from the Environment Agency alongside all available data about river flow and level.”

Godstow lock differential from the beginning of Michaelmas until now. By Lee and Hitchen.

Slow to change

Any change to the flag system requires multiple levels of authority to sign off. The first level, student-run OURCs, has been efficient and responsive according to two captains.

The College C captain told Cherwell: “I have it on very good authority that most of the plans ‘politely suggested’ by captains on social media [to OURCs] have already been in the works, and just can’t be made public for a range of safety and privacy reasons.”

When Iffley Weir was blocked by debris, OURCs announced on its mailing list that “it has been agreed with the University authorities that the flag can be set using a combination of several types of objective data and with the confirmation of the [OURCs] Senior Member. This temporary method takes a lot more time to confirm than the usual lock-checking and needs confirmation of data and decisions via multiple conversations which can’t always happen instantly.”

College C captain said that Oxford’s Sports Safety Officer “took a fair bit longer” and “hold ups usually come from connecting with University bodies.” The approval was given several weeks after the initial debris blockage, which includes the time it took for the Environment Agency to remove the boat.

College B captain believes that the University exhibits “massive risk aversion” but this caution should only pertain to racing, not training. The captain further notes that while Isis saw a change in system after the debris incident, Godstow initially did not. 

According to OURCs Captain’s Meeting minutes early this term, “The OURCs committee and a number of Senior Umpires are gathering data on alternative systems for setting the [Godstow] flag. Any new system will require the approval of the relevant authorities and a body of data, covering a range of river conditions, [and] will be vital to demonstrating that the new system is safe. No changes are therefore expected this term, and possibly longer, though all involved hope a solution can be found as soon as possible.”

College C captain acknowledges the importance of caution: “It’s really tough as safety must remain a priority, and it can seem nonsensical in extraordinary times like this where the river is nominally safe and yet the flag remains high. However, it is my belief that these systems should remain in place as for the most part they work well, and to change them would be to jeopardise safety in future instances.”

OURCs, the Sports Safety Officer, and the Head of Sport and Physical Activity did not respond to requests for comment.

Disparity in opportunities

While Isis and Godstow flew unfavourable flags, not all colleges were grounded: six clubs have access to external training facilities. 18 colleges (including College A) row on Isis and eight colleges (including College B and C) row on Godstow, while Christ Church, Balliol, Magdalen, Queen’s, and St Edmund Hall can row at private facilities including at Sandford, Wallingford, and Abingdon. College Captain B said Wolfson and University College have been able to arrange travelling to Dorney Lake approximately every weekend since Michaelmas.

College B captain told Cherwell: “From a competitive standpoint this will massively tear the field in half between [colleges] that have the funds and the size to go train elsewhere quite regularly versus those that [train externally] as a one-off thing.” 

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