The Report That My Dog Ate: The 2015 Cambridge May Bumps, Part 2

Pic 1. ‘How is Clare doing?’ An alumnus of Clare College Boat Club checks a bumps chart hung along the towpath on the final day of the 2015 ‘Mays’, Saturday 13 June.
‘How is Clare doing?’ An alumnus of Clare College Boat Club checks a bumps chart hung along the towpath on the final day of the 2015 ‘Mays’, Saturday 13 June.

Tim Koch writes:

As the first part of my report on the fourth and final day of the Cambridge May Bumps of 2015 pleaded, it is four months late because my dog ate it (a traditional excuse among British schoolchildren tardy with their homework – despite its very low acceptance rate by their teachers). The truth (that life, work and other summer rowing activities got in the way) is more prosaic but is ultimately not too important as HTBS aims to be a historical resource rather than a results service.

In writing this, I am indebted to Jane Kingsbury for lending me a copy of The Bumps, a meticulously researched book written in 2000 by John Marks, John Durack and George Gilbert. The cover notes say:

This book outlines the Inter-Collegiate Bumping Races that have been held on the River Cam since 1827. It deals, albeit briefly, with the nature of bumping races and their history including changes in equipment and dress over the period and the celebrations that have accompanied races……. also included (is) a brief summary of the origins and progress of each of the Boat Clubs. (An) accompanying CD-ROM covers these matters and many others in greater detail than would be possible in book form……. Additionally video footage of many aspects of bumps racing and the variation of rowing styles over the ages can be seen….

Pic 2. ‘Good luck Emma’. Old boys of Emmanuel Boat Club (‘Emma”) cheer on the college women’s first boat, on their way to the start. The boat both started and finished the Mays in third place in Division One. Marks et al make the bold claim that between 1990 and 1997, Morag Hunter of Emmanuel ‘won more blades than any other individual in the history of bumps racing’.
‘Good luck Emma’. Old boys of Emmanuel Boat Club (‘Emma”) cheer on the college women’s first boat, on their way to the start. The boat both started and finished the Mays in third place in Division One. Marks et al make the bold claim that between 1990 and 1997, Morag Hunter of Emmanuel ‘won more blades than any other individual in the history of bumps racing’.

The Bumps starts by admitting that:

The River Cam was, and still is, a most unlikely river on which to organise rowing races; narrow, winding and weedy.

The book later suggests that rowing would perhaps never have been able to take place at Cambridge were it not for the necessity of regular and large deliveries of coal, the main source of cooking and heating, to the colleges:

In the eighteenth century the River Cam was a rather scanty stream, choked with mud and rushes and virtually dry in the summer. It was opened up by a Navigation Company about the turn of the eighteenth – nineteenth century as a means of transit, mainly for coal barges….. a series of locks was installed to keep a navigable passage up to the filthy landing stages for provisions and coal at what has now become the most beautiful ‘Backs’ of the Colleges.

Pic 3a. Where would you like your coal? Part of the ‘Backs’ today. No boat racing takes place on this part, just some gentle punting. Picture: RXUYDC.
Where would you like your coal? Part of the ‘Backs’ today. No boat racing takes place on this part, just some gentle punting. Picture: RXUYDC.

Even after the Cam was ‘opened up’ for the coal barges, it was still unsuitable for side by side racing and it was this that led to the adoption of the form of racing known as ‘bumps’ (though Cambridge men Marks, Durack and George do concede that the idea evolved at Oxford first, the Isis also being unsuited to traditional racing).

How the Mays work
The start of a race in the Mays begins with the 17 or 18 boats that form one of the divisions lining up about one and a half boat lengths apart. The object of bump racing is to catch up (and ‘bump’) the crew in front of you, without being caught from behind. Bumps are a continuous form of racing so a boat’s start order depends on its finish order the previous day or, in the case of the first of the four days, the finish order of their college’s equivalent boat at the end of the pervious years Mays. Thus, a boats chances of doing well depends not only on its current form but on the abilities of its predecessors as it is unlikely to go up more than four places in a year. Getting to be ‘Head of the River’ (i.e. top of the table) is a long term affair necessitating a college putting out a strong boat year after year. A look at a bumps chart may make things more clear.

Pic 3b. The 2015 May Bumps: Women’s Division I and part of Women’s Division II.
The 2015 May Bumps: Women’s Division I and part of Women’s Division II.

The list on the left shows the final finish order in 2014, the list on the right shows the final finish order for 2015. The connecting lines show how each boat progressed over the four days of racing. If on a particular day a crew does not make a bump and is not bumped itself, it is said to have ‘rowed over’ and the line is horizontal. If it makes a bump on a boat in front, the line goes up. If it is bumped by a boat behind, the line goes down. Thus Downing, Caius and Emmanuel all rowed over every day and their positions were unchanged. Clare was bumped by Jesus on the first day, rowed over on days two and three and was bumped again by First & Third on the fourth day. Jesus bumped Clare on the first day and rowed over on the remaining three days.

Pic 4. Women’s Division One on the start on the final day of the 2015 Mays. From left to right is Downing, Caius, Emmanuel, Jesus, Clare and the boat club of Trinity College, First & Third.
Women’s Division I on the start on the final day of the 2015 Mays. From left to right is Downing, Caius, Emmanuel, Jesus, Clare and the boat club of Trinity College, First & Third.

Posts or stations are set 150 feet apart along the bank, each with a fixed length of chain with a handle or ‘bung’ on the end. The cox must hold onto this until the signal for all boats in the division to race is given – thus ensuring that all crews start from the correct position. A cannon is fired four minutes before the start as a warning that the race is imminent. It is fired again at one minute when one of the boat’s ‘bank party’of up to four people will use a pole to push them out from the bank, the cox still holding the bung in the air. The race starts on the third cannon shot when the cox (if he or she is wise) will let go of the chain.

Pic 5. King’s College II in Men’s Division Four are pushed out from the bank on the second cannon by their coach, Chris Smith.
King’s College II in Men’s Division Four are pushed out from the bank on the second cannon by their coach, Chris Smith.

 

Pic 6. Until the race starts, the cox must show that he is still holding the bung.
Until the race starts, the cox must show that he is still holding the bung.

 

Pic 7. A member of the boat’s bank party is audibly counting down to the start cannon but, if the crew go early, they may find that they are in a coxless eight.
A member of the boat’s bank party is audibly counting down to the start cannon but, if the crew go early, they may find that they are in a coxless eight.

 

Pic 8. The start cannons are real (albeit without projectiles) and are almost literally deafening if you are standing under the bridge where they are fired.
The start cannons are real (albeit without projectiles) and are almost literally deafening if you are standing under the bridge where they are fired.

 

Pic 9. In Women’s Division III, Christ’s II chases Lady Margaret II. Lady Margaret is the boat club of St John’s College.
In Women’s Division III, Christ’s II chases Lady Margaret II. Lady Margaret is the boat club of St John’s College.

 

Pic 10. As the crews started one and a half boat lengths apart, Christ’s is clearly a faster crew – but is it fast enough to make up starting 90 feet down on Lady Margaret?
As the crews started one and a half boat lengths apart, Christ’s is clearly a faster crew – but is it fast enough to make up starting 90 feet down on Lady Margaret?

 

Pic 11. Christ’s did eventually bump Lady Margaret so the former started the final day third in Division III and finished second while the latter started second and finished third.
Christ’s did eventually bump Lady Margaret so the former started the final day third in Division III and finished second while the latter started second and finished third.

 

Pic 12. Women’s Division I. First & Third (Trinity College Boat Club, in white) have just bumped Clare (in yellow). They must now both stop racing and pull into the bank out of the way of the following crews. Even with the help of their bank party, this is not easy and mayhem can occur. In theory, the boat following these two (Christ’s) can try and catch the boat originally three ahead of them for a rare ‘over bump’ and go up three places.
Women’s Division I. First & Third (Trinity College Boat Club, in white) have just bumped Clare (in yellow). They must now both stop racing and pull into the bank out of the way of the following crews. Even with the help of their bank party, this is not easy and mayhem can occur. In theory, the boat following these two (Christ’s) can try and catch the boat originally three ahead of them for a rare ‘over bump’ and go up three places.

 

Pic 13. The finish of Men’s Division III. Top of the division is Clare II (nearest to the camera) who started the on first of the four day event in fourth place. Following them is Sidney Sussex and then Emmanuel II.
The finish of Men’s Division III. Top of the division is Clare II (nearest to the camera) who started the on first of the four day event in fourth place. Following them is Sidney Sussex and then Emmanuel II.

 

Pic 14a. An illustration from ‘the other place’ on what can happen in bump racing. The remains of a boat from Hertford College which sustained some damage in Oxford’s equivalent to the Mays, the ‘Summer Eights’ or ‘Eights Week’. Picture: Twitter.
An illustration from ‘the other place’ on what can happen in bump racing. The remains of a boat from Hertford College which sustained some damage in Oxford’s equivalent to the Mays, the ‘Summer Eights’ or ‘Eights Week’. Picture: Twitter.

If I may quote myself, this is what I wrote in my report on the Cambridge Lent Bumps of 2012:

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 offer random contradictory advice while trying to avoid getting run down by mounted bank parties. However, the division soon passes and all is quiet again until the next race…

Pic 14b. The bank parties for St Catharine’s III and Clare III follow their respective crews in Men’s Division VI.
The bank parties for St Catharine’s III and Clare III follow their respective crews in Men’s Division VI.

 

The 2015 Mays race for men’s and women’s Head of the River
As the bumps chart above shows, only the first boats of Downing, Caius, Emmanuel, Clare and Jesus could possibly expect to win the women’s headship. The lower a boat’s start position though, the more difficult the task is. Jesus, for example, would have to bump every day. As it happens, Downing started Head and rowed over every day thus retaining the Headship. Second placed Caius, who chased Downing every day, could perhaps have proved to be the faster boat in a conventional side by side race with a level start – but in bump racing you have to overcome your opponent’s 90 foot advantage before you can beat them.

Pic 15 & Pic 16. Caius chase Downing in the battle for the women’s Head of the River.

Pic 15 & Pic 16. Caius chase Downing in the battle for the women’s Head of the River.
The two pictures above: Caius chase Downing in the battle for the women’s Head of the River.

 

Pic 17. The 2015 May Bumps: Men’s Division I and part of Men’s Division II.
The 2015 May Bumps: Men’s Division I and part of Men’s Division II.

 

At the top of Men’s Division I, the final day saw an exciting prospect. Caius were at the top but Pembroke, who had started the first day in fifth place, had bumped on each of the first three days to second place and were challenging Caius for the Headship. It would have been a remarkable achievement to go Head from fifth place, the lowest point from which a boat could reasonably reach the top of the table in one year.

Pic 18. Pembroke have made up a lot of distance and their challenge to Caius looks strong.
Pembroke have made up a lot of distance and their challenge to Caius looks strong.

 

Pic 19. Sadly for Pembroke, a few seconds after the first picture was taken, this happened. A boat stopping crab ended their chances of catching Caius. To be fair to ‘5’, a crab is sometimes not the fault of the person who ‘catches’ it. If one or more people upset the balance of the boat, it may be an innocent party whose blade gets caught in the water.
Sadly for Pembroke, a few seconds after the first picture was taken, this happened. A boat stopping crab ended their chances of catching Caius. To be fair to ‘5’, a crab is sometimes not the fault of the person who ‘catches’ it. If one or more people upset the balance of the boat, it may be an innocent party whose blade gets caught in the water.

 

Celebrations and commemorations
Various unofficial customs have grown up over the years to mark different achievements in bump racing, with practices often varying between colleges. For example, after a crew has made a bump and has been drawn into the bank, its bank party will usually adorn the crew with greenery gathered from nearby, presumably in imitation of the laurel wreathes of victors in the ancient world. In The Bumps, Marks, Durack and Gilbert record an exception to this custom (which they also hold is not very old):

There has been one significant exception to this tradition in that Jesus crews have not collected any greenery after bumping. Although there does not seem to have been any definitive start to this anti-tradition, it has long been held, at least by those from Jesus, that it can always be assumed that their crews have bumped…..

On the final day of racing, some crews will row back to their boathouse with their boat club flag draped over the shoulder of the cox. This usually indicates that they have bumped every day.

Pic 20. The St Edmund’s women’s boat. They started the first day at the bottom of Division Three and bumped every day to rise four places.
The St Edmund’s women’s boat. They started the first day at the bottom of Division III and bumped every day to rise four places.

 

Pic 21. The Wolfson crew who bumped every day to rise from 14th to 10th place in Men’s Division II.
The Wolfson crew who bumped every day to rise from 14th to 10th place in Men’s Division II.

 

Pic 22. Christ’s III who bumped every day to rise from 8th to 4th in Women’s Division IV.
Christ’s III who bumped every day to rise from 8th to 4th in Women’s Division IV.

 

Marks et al hold that the unofficial and irregular awarding of wooden spoons to crews that have been bumped every day and has consequently gone down at least four places ‘is entirely modern in its origin’ (but see this HTBS post of 2012).

Pic 23. Caius III, who fell six places in Men’s Division IV, were ‘over bumped’ on day one and were then bumped every day after that – hence the spectacular drop. When wooden spoons have been presented, sometimes painted in college colours, it has usually been done at the boat club dinner. Perhaps this display by the cox on the water is a ‘new tradition’? If I were a pedant, I would point out that one of the ‘spoons’ that she is sporting is in fact a spatula.
Caius III, who fell six places in Men’s Division IV, were ‘over bumped’ on day one and were then bumped every day after that – hence the spectacular drop. When wooden spoons have been presented, sometimes painted in college colours, it has usually been done at the boat club dinner. Perhaps this display by the cox on the water is a ‘new tradition’? If I were a pedant, I would point out that one of the ‘spoons’ that she is sporting is in fact a spatula.

 

As few crews can hope to go Head of the River, the aim for most decent rowers is to be ‘awarded blades’, usually given for bumping every day. These prizes (which have to be purchased despite the term ‘awarded’) are oars illuminated with the boat club arms, the names of the crew and the boats that they bumped.

Pic 24. Hugh Carson of Caius with a possibly atypical blade, one which records his several achievements in bump racing. He is wearing a Caius Boat Club blazer, usually described as ‘black with a Cambridge Blue stripe’. Legend says that the Blue stripe was added after a Caius crew beat the University crew but The Bumps says that ‘the shade of blue used by Caius has….. almost certainly changed over the years to mirror the colour used by the University’.
Hugh Carson of Caius with a possibly atypical blade, one which records his several achievements in bump racing. He is wearing a Caius Boat Club blazer, usually described as ‘black with a Cambridge Blue stripe’. Legend says that the Blue stripe was added after a Caius crew beat the University crew but The Bumps says that ‘the shade of blue used by Caius has….. almost certainly changed over the years to mirror the colour used by the University’.

 

And finally….

Pic 25. Among those that have attended Cambridge University are 91 Nobel Prize winners, 31 foreign heads of state, 15 British Prime Ministers, 6 Soviet spies (at least), 3 signatories of the American Declaration of Independence – and this lot. I have no idea what is happening.
Among those that have attended Cambridge University are 91 Nobel Prize winners, 31 foreign heads of state, 15 British Prime Ministers, 6 Soviet spies (at least), 3 signatories of the American Declaration of Independence – and this lot. I have no idea what is happening.

2 comments

  1. It has been suggested that the men in the last picture are ‘rugger buggers’ from St John’s who swim across the river between races.

  2. This is a bit late, but hey: The crew pictured is actually not Wolfson M1, but Wolfson M2. Both boats bladed this year in Mays. M2 is in division 4.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s