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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.