The Cambridge Lent Bumps

Some boathouses along the Cam. Right to left: Peterhouse, Caius, Queens’, Magdalene, and Lady Margaret.

Last day of February, HTBS’s Tim Koch went to the Cam to attend the first day of the Cambridge ‘Lents’. Here is his report:

Bumps were first devised in the early 1800s at Eton College, the school that (arguably) invented rowing as an amateur sport. The older boys still race bumps in coxed fours over four days in May but it is at Oxford and Cambridge Universities where this type of racing really took root. The Dark Blues started ‘bumping’ in 1815 and the Light Blues in 1827.

Both Oxford and Cambridge have two sets of inter university bumps races for eights per year, one in early spring and one in early summer, each lasting four or five days. At Cambridge these are called ‘Lents’ and ‘Mays’ respectively, while at Oxford they are ‘Torpids’ and ‘Summer Eights’ (also known as ‘Eights Week’). All have slightly different rules and organization (especially Torpids) but on Tuesday 29 February I attended the first day of the Cambridge ‘Lents’, so I will attempt to explain how this particular event works. My thanks to Chris Smith (an old crewmate of mine and currently boatman for Cambridge University Boat Club) who acted as my guide and lent me his bicycle.

Article writer Tim on the tow path in the quiet period between divisions.

This year Lents was held over five days with each crew racing a minimum of four times in total. It has four men’s divisions and three women’s, each (save the bottom division) with seventeen crews in i.e. nearly one thousand participants in all. The divisions represent a race order and the aim is get to the top of Division One i.e. to be ‘Head of the River’. The Cambridge University Combined Boat Clubs’ website takes up the story.

To understand what is happening, it is easiest to think about a single Division. On the first day of racing, the crews turn up at the start and are lined up in the Club’s finishing order of last year……. The starting point of each crew is defined by a chain attached to the bank, which the cox must hold. These are spaced so that there is a gap of about 90 feet (one and a half boat lengths) of clear water between each crew….. Crews are pushed off the bank with about 20 seconds to go, whilst still holding the chains. The chain is dropped on firing the starting cannon, and all crews start racing at the same moment. The object is to catch up (and ‘bump’ into) the crew in front of you, without being caught from behind. If a bump is inevitable, due to the potentially dangerous situation created when a much faster crew is behind a slower one, coxes are instructed to acknowledge this by raising their hand before physical contact is made…

Women’s Div. 1st St Catharines chase Magdalene who they later bumped.

Each crew is supported by a ‘bank party’ which consists of two to four people who, taking their cues from the four and one minute cannons, count down to the race and push their eight off the bank with a long pole twenty seconds before the start. During the race they cycle alongside giving noisy coded signals to their rowers.

In Lents, both the crew which bumps and the crew that is bumped must immediately pull to the side of the river (assisted by their bank party) and allow other crews to continue racing. In the next race the crew that bumped swaps places with the crew it bumped. If the crew behind the bumped pair can catch up with the boat that was in front of the bumped pair then it has the gone up three places and has ‘overbumped’. A crew which neither bumps nor is bumped is said to have ‘rowed over’ and starts in the same position in the next race. A crew finishing at the top of a division is called the ‘sandwich boat’ and next time they row they start at the bottom of the next higher division.

Over four days of rowing crews move up or down in the overall order of boats. The finish order of one year’s Lent Bumps is then used as the starting order of the following year’s races. It may help to look at a ‘bump chart’ here.

Is that all clear…? Perhaps you need a Cambridge degree to understand it?

After every day’s racing the umpires produce a list of fines for serious and not so serious offences. Unfortunately, this year I cannot see my favourite transgression – Jesus fined £25 for ‘foul and abusive language’.

Darwin Men’s 1st VIII having made their bump pull into the side with their bank party. CUBC boatman Chris Smith sitting down.

Bumps have an atmosphere unique to any rowing event that I have attended. Each division is like a battle from some long past war and, like any war, there are long periods of inactivity followed by short bursts of excitement. The rowers are the infantry who ‘do and die’ and they are supported by the cavalry, their ‘bank party’ mounted on bicycles. When the start cannon booms, all hell breaks loose. On the narrow river the cries of the coxswains to their crew and to their rivals (Concede! Concede!) are very audible from the bank. On the tow path, the bank parties on bicycles emerge through the cannon smoke to race alongside their boat while blowing not bugles, but whistles using a prearranged code to inform their rowers of their position. Umpires bark orders in an attempt to prevent carnage. Spectators shout their support of their colleges and random contradictory advice while trying to avoid getting run down by mounted bank parties. However, the seventeen boats soon pass and all is quiet again save for excited chatter from those who have bumped and are pulled up on the bank.

Christ’s College Women’s 1st VIII bumped Queens’ so they could wear foliage in their hair on the row home.

There are hundreds of ‘bump’ videos on YouTube, though many are of only partisan interest or concentrate excessively on crashes. I have picked two of the better ones:

Bump racing is not necessarily fair as, to finish ‘Head’ (i.e. be the first boat in the first division) without starting in the first five is almost impossible. Also it does not necessarily prove who is the fastest as the fast crews may bump and stop long before they finish the course. Also a crew may be in a lower place in a lower division than their speed merits as this position was earned for them by different people in the previous year. But theses problems are tolerated because the aim of most crews is to ‘win their blades’. To do this they must bump every day and so go up four places. The oar they win is painted in their college colours and illuminated with their crews’ names and the names of the boats that they bumped. Some lovely examples are here. There is also minor ‘prize’ in each race for every crew that bumps – they are entitled to row back to their boathouse with foliage taken from trees and bushes on the bank in their hair. The men’s and the women’s crew that do go ‘Head’ can indulge in another health and safety nightmare – jumping a burning boat at their annual Boat Club Dinner. Inevitably, YouTube provides evidence of this unlikely event; please do not try it at home.

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