Women's University Boat Race turns tide with historic first Thames race

(CNN)For more than 150 years, men's rowing crews from Oxford and Cambridge have battled it out for supremacy in the annual University Boat Race on London's River Thames.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the race was first contested over the four-and-a-quarter mile course between Putney and Mortlake in 1845, but never have two women crews from the UK's oldest universities raced on that same famed waterway. Until now.
On Saturday, in a long overdue break with tradition, two female teams will compete in the Women's Boat Race on the route and on the same day as their male counterparts for the first time.
"We are all really excited about it happening. It's a really major step for women's rowing bringing the Women's Boat Race to the Tideway (the part of the Thames subjected to tides)," said David Searle, Executive Director of the Boat Race Company, who organize the annual event.
    "It's been on people's wish list to happen for a very long time. It's really very exciting and the fulfillment of loads of different people's ambitions and the efforts of a vast number of people from the organizers to women's clubs to the men's clubs as well who have been very accommodating."
    The women's race started back in 1927 and during the early years the two crews of eight would race separately down a route with judges marking rowing style as well as speed.
    Since the 1970s, the race has been run a week before the men's event over a course at Henley-on-Thames, 40 miles west of London.
    Searle says moving the race to the UK capital this year is the result of several years of planning and a cash injection from boat race sponsors BNY Mellon and Newton.
    "They realized they couldn't just plonk them straight on the tideway. So they invested in them in total for four years, but really seriously invested for two years," said Searle, who made two Boat Race appearances for Cambridge during the 1970s.
    Head coach of the Oxford woman's team, Christine Wilson says the cash injection has been invaluable.
    "What the sponsorship is allowing is for these women to become models of what's possible," Wilson told Bloomberg.com.
    "As much as this is about athletic performance and boat speed and a standard of athletic achievement, it is also about showing women in the world that this is possible."
    Saturday's race will also break new ground in terms of distance with both crews having to row nearly 7,000 meters this year, compared to the 2,000 meters they have been used to at Henley.
    The enormity of the task cannot be underestimated, but Searle says the atmosphere in the build up to the race has been electric.
    "It's a massive deal. I've got to say that the smiles on the faces is actually really good to see because they are enjoying themselves and why wouldn't they -- they're making history and being a part of it is great."
    The women's race is due off at 15.50 (GMT) on Saturday, an hour before the men who will be competing against each other for the 161st time.
    The men's race, which began in 1829, has featured a number of famous oarsman down the years including Briton's four-time Olympic gold medalist Matthew Pinsent (Oxford) and actor Hugh Lawrie (Cambridge) with Cambridge leading the historic battle with 81 wins to Oxford's 78.
    Oxford's men have been in the ascendency in recent years winning seven of the last 10 races and its a similar tale for the women with the dark blues favorite to win for a fourth-year running and further close the gap on Cambridge who lead overall with 41 wins to Oxford's 28.
    "Oxford are looking very strong I have to say. But you never know in the boat race, things can happen but you'll get long odds on Cambridge," Searle says.
    Whatever the outcome on the water when both crews reach dry land, they can expect a hero's welcome by champions of gender equality.
    "The future is super positive. The race has been in existence since 1927, but this is a new tradition we are establishing here and it's going to be just like the men's race.