Cutting through

How The Boat Race is
propelling diversified
routes into rowing

With The Boat Race mere days away, we explore how the rowing community is working to increase and diversify the entry points to this iconic sport.

As The Boat Race 2023 draws closer, many young people are inspired to try rowing for the first time. Being part of a team, getting outdoors, increasing fitness and growing in confidence - it’s a sport and hobby that’s overflowing with positives.

Yet historically rowing has been out of reach for many, perceived as an exclusive sport - a perception that was borne out in results from British Rowing’s 2021 Diversity and Inclusion Survey. It showed just 10% of the rowing community are from lower socio-economic groups, compared to 47% nationally and 27% of rowers attend independent schools, compared to 7% nationally.

The survey also brought interesting insights into how the rowing community views the sport compared to non-rowers. The top three words used to describe the sport by rowing community members were ‘fun’, ‘fitness’ and ‘teamwork’, in contrast to non-rowers who used words such as ‘elite’, ‘Boat Race’, and ‘Henley Royal Regatta’.

With The Boat Race evidently front of mind for people considering the sport, how can this legendary competition between Cambridge and Oxford University Boat Clubs contribute to making it inclusive, diverse and welcoming? Enter The Boat Race Fund, the charitable arm of the Race, governed and managed by Trustees from the Oxford and Cambridge Rowing Foundation. 

Since September 2021 the Fund has been working with grassroots organisations across Great Britain to remove barriers to rowing and provide opportunities for everyone to access the sport's life-enhancing, positive impacts. By funding committed local organisations, the Fund is supporting new generations of rowers from a broad range of socio-economic groups. 

From Brixton to Glasgow, The Boat Race Fund financially supports rowing instruction, mentorship, facilities and education, as well as alleviating the oft-hidden hurdles to rowing, such as the cost of travel to and from a club.

Having already supported a total of seven partners across Britain, the Fund is working to improve the visibility of rowing in communities, break down barriers and increase inclusion.

Here we take a look at just some of those local initiatives the Fund has supported who are building a vibrant, inclusive future for rowing.

A young girl in a rowing boat, smiling with her thumb up
A boy on a rowing machine with an instructor nearby
A girl in a rowing boat, coming in to the pontoon with a woman giving instruction from dry land
Five boys on the water in a rowing boat
A young girl in a rowing boat, smiling with her thumb up
A boy on a rowing machine with an instructor nearby
A girl in a rowing boat, coming in to the pontoon with a woman giving instruction from dry land
Five boys on the water in a rowing boat

Brixton Wings

Brixton Wings in south London is a parent-led organisation with an emphasis on providing After-School and Early Intervention programmes for children and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

In the aftermath of Covid-19, when offering any water experiences seemed too challenging, support from The Boat Race Fund made rowing sessions possible. Thirty novices took to the water at London Regatta Centre and received expert coaching to develop their rowing skills over a full week of activity.

Firhill Youth Project and Community Sports Hub

Firhill Youth Project is a rowing and water sports activity hub in North Glasgow. Set amongst one of the most deprived areas of Scotland, there is limited provision for any sports or physical activity for young people. Participants come from the city’s most disadvantaged communities and a high proportion of the young people who attend are classified as ‘looked after’. This means they live with grandparents, foster carers or are in temporary accommodation. 

The Hub provides local young people aged 11-25 with free and accessible opportunities to be active in their local community through rowing.

Financial support from The Boat Race Fund enabled Firhill Youth Project and Community Sports Hub to double their rowing and engagement provision for young people aged 10+.

Behind Every Kick

Behind Every Kick is a youth charity that empowers young people through a shared love of sport. They help children develop skills through playing sports and show them that these skills can be harnessed to create opportunities in their wider lives.

With a heritage in both elite & grassroots sport, Behind Every Kick uses the power of team sport as a vehicle to develop key life skills for young people aged 16 and over. They worked with School Six21 in Newham, East London and funding from The Boat Race was able to help incorporate rowing into the programme and introduce rowing to a community of young people who would otherwise be highly unlikely to have access to the sport.

Warrington Youth Rowing

Warrington Youth Rowing is an initiative set up with a clear aim, ‘to engage with local school pupils who would not normally have access to rowing and take them on a sporting journey with the ambition to change their lives.’

The rowing programme is delivered to children who are at risk of underachieving (otherwise known as the ‘Pupil Premium Cohort’). In this area, rowing is now used as an ‘early intervention tool’, enabling schools to engage and develop their most vulnerable students.

The Boat Race Fund supported Warrington Youth Rowing to expand their programme by adding an additional hub. Greater Manchester Youth Rowing (GMYR) was launched with five secondary schools. The project now hosts 36 on-the-water sessions across four hubs every week. Hundreds of young people, drawn from over thirty schools in the area, take part.

In addition to these four local outreach programmes, The Boat Race Fund has also supported successful initiatives in Leeds, Ely and along the Championship Course itself on the River Thames in London.

And The Boat Race Fund is not the only section of the rowing community playing its part in opening up access to the sport. East Anglian Youth Rowing is a charity running a combination of indoor rowing at schools, water sessions at local clubs, and holiday rowing activity camps for less advantaged young people. 

Meanwhile Love Rowing (The British Rowing Charitable Foundation) funds accessible and inclusive rowing programmes across the UK. Its focus is on getting more young people into the sport from low income backgrounds, bringing more people with disabilities into the sport and creating much better awareness around the benefits of the sport at a community level.

The Boat Race first took place 195 years ago and the sport of rowing is even older. As its history and traditions are rightly celebrated, the rowing community across the UK is also looking towards its future by encouraging the rowing generations to come, from all backgrounds, abilities and circumstances. 

The Boat Race will take place on Sunday 26 March, on what is known as 'The Championship Course' and stretches four miles between Putney and Mortlake on the River Thames. The 77th Women’s Boat Race begins at 4pm. The 168th Men’s Boat Race begins at 5pm.

A birds eye view of the oars of two rowing boats in a race

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.