The 23rd annual Standard Bank Schools Boat Race takes place on Friday and Saturday, 8 and 9 December, on the Kowie River at Port Alfred.
The race is for 1st Eight (boys) and 1st Quad (girls) crews and it is unique in a number of ways. It’s the longest race on the calendar. The boys’ course is 5.4km long, while the girls’ race is over 4km.
It takes place on a river, with bends, bridges and sand banks, and it’s close enough to the sea for the tidal conditions to play a major role.
It’s a “head race“, which means that, instead of the crews lining up six- or eight-deep and racing against each other, they go off in pairs on the final day. Before that, in the preliminary rounds, they race on their own in individual time trials, 20 seconds apart, to determine which final they will row in on the last day.
The Friday starting order is based on the final placings from the 2022 race, and the pairings for day two are based on their times – the two fastest boats go through to the A final, the next two to the B final, and so on, all the way down to the two slowest crews facing off for the last two places in the early final on Saturday.
There are no river courses that are perfectly straight for those sorts of distances, so the races typically have to navigate multiple bends, making the role of the coxswains who steer the boats, crucial. That makes for exciting racing as choosing the best line and executing the tactics correctly can be the difference between winning and losing.
The best-known river race is, of course, the University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, over 6.8km on the Thames in London. It’s been going since 1926 and this year 270 000 spectators watched the race live, and over 15 million saw it on TV. The SA Schools Boat Race consciously follows many of the processes and traditions of that event.
As far as tactics are concerned, the crews all arrive in Port Alfred on Monday or Tuesday and they spend the next three or four days getting used to the conditions, with one eye on the Tidal App, training at a time that will match the tide when they go off on Friday.
And in the time trial, according to Lebo Mashiga, coach of the Jeppe crew, everyone goes flat out all the way. “It’s the most important race,” he says. “You can’t win a medal if you don’t make the A or B final. On the second day it’s more tactical as you are going head-to-head with your direct opponent, and the time doesn’t matter.”
There are 20 boys’ and 14 girls’ crews in this year’s race and the defending champions are St Benedict’s College and St Mary’s Waverley, respectively.
St Mary’s have won the girls race for the last eight years in a row and 15 times in its 21-year history. St Andrew’s of Bedfordview have been their closest rivals for most of those years, but Holy Rosary Convent of Edenvale have emerged as a major force in recent times.
Holy Rosary came second in last year’s Boat Race, and they beat St Mary’s in the 1st Quad at the Schools Championships in March, although that was over a shorter, 2km distance, on a straight course. St Mary’s avenged that defeat at the Gauteng Championships in October.
St Benedict’s have won the boys event seven times, including the 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 races – there was no race in 2020 because of Covid-19. St Stithians College came second on the Kowie in 2022, and they went on to beat St Benedict’s at SA Schools in March. Bennies beat them at the Gauteng Champs in October, however.
Both defending champions have shown, over many years, that they are masters of the river conditions and of the head race format. It’s going to take a massive effort to dethrone them this year.