3 May 2016
Here follows Courtney Landers’s fourth part of her diary about how she and her team mates in Pembroke College BC’s W1 prepare for May Bumps on the River Cam.
It appears I lied last week! I told you that Fairbairn Cup is the only time that shells are allowed up to race pace on the upper reaches of the Cam lined with narrowboats and boathouses. Well, I spent this Sunday afternoon watching several divisions of City Sprints, a 400-metre side-by-side race on one of the narrowest parts of the Cam. All of the local narrowboats are moved for the day, but there was still a delightful amount of carnage.
The restricted length and width of the river is why Bumps are designed the way they are. Side-by-side racing is only really possible along the Reach between Ditton Corner and the P&E, a distance of less than a kilometre. So instead Bumps are processional races. Eighteen boats at a time line up along the bank separated by a length-and-a-half gap, stretching all the way from Baits Bite lock, under the A14 motorway bridge, and towards the first sharp bend at First Post Corner. It’s quite a sight to see. Of course, at that point all of us are sitting in the boat wondering why on earth we thought this was a good idea, jumping at the sound of the four-minute and one-minute cannons, hurriedly de-kitting, taking our last deep breaths.
All 18 boats are pushed out into the river ‘tethered’ by a chain held by the cox, and at the sound of a final cannon attempt to close the gap between them and the boat upstream of them before the boat downstream catches up to them, all while navigating the tight bends of the river and trying not to crash into either the narrowboats moored along the course or pairs of boats that have ‘bumped out’ and pulled to the side of the river. Bumping the crew ahead of you means you take their place on the next day of racing. The ultimate aim of every crew and club is to bump all the way to ‘Head of the River’, the boat at the front of the top division. Also coveted is the achievement of ‘Blades’, variously defined across clubs but in most cases defined as bumping up at least one place on each of the four days of racing. Blades are quite rare – the saying is ‘good crews get three bumps, lucky crews get four’ – thus why we were so excited to claim one in Lent Bumps this year.
Whatever positions each boat finishes in on the last day of bumps is the position they will start at next year – there is no connection between Lent and May Bumps in this regard. Since the membership of boats can change drastically year to year, unless you’re competing at the top of the river with the consistently strong clubs – Downing and Jesus especially – the condition of the crews around you varies greatly.
Coincidentally, all of the women’s first division boats that went up three or got blades in Lents are lined up against each other in May. Newnham and Girton got blades along with us while LMBC (Lady Margaret Boat Club, of Johns College) and Churchill went up three, and all five of us are lined up consecutively in May.
Our cox James is very emphatic that we ‘row our own race’ in bumps, and speculating about the boats in front and behind is largely forbidden in his presence. Not talking about LMBC is fairly easy because we know next to nothing about their crew this year. It’s a little more difficult not to discuss the fact that Churchill has up to four rowers returning to the Cam after trialling and training with the university women, two of whom raced with the winning Blondie boat a week after very narrowly losing the lightweight race in Henley. We do suspect that a little friendly intimidation is already starting since their cox has been steering very close to us on the occasions that we pass each other. We ourselves are above intimidation tactics. This week’s biggest outing was a max-rate, max-pressure 15-strokes-on-10-off Fartlek session, and it was a complete coincidence that our fastest piece occurred while passing Churchill, and that James very loudly told us that we’d wound up to rate 40 over five strokes.
We confine our intimidation to races during term, which is the main way that boats size each other up before Bumps. Last weekend for example, we raced Head of the Cam, 2.6km upstream on a day when brief spurts of sunshine were interspersed with wind-blown hail. Our coach for the fortnight – boatman Kevin Bowles – wants to increase our stamina and endurance so we raced twice. Of all the W1 boats racing, only Jesus, LMBC and Downing were faster than us, and LMBC only by 15 seconds.
This weekend, we raced the Spring Head to Head, a 2x2km race also organised by City. This time we were beaten only by Clare Boat Club and Newnham, which we were quite pleased about. Churchill and LMBC raced only in fours, denying the more analytical amongst us the chance to make comparisons.
Not all of our interactions with other boat clubs are competitive. During Michaelmas and Lent terms there are regularly organised ‘swaps’ between college boat clubs, and one of the biggest events of May Week (the week after exams, in June) is Downing Tribal, a giant barbecue for rowers to mingle, dance to ‘Spanish’ folk music, and show off their Blazers.
We have a rather special relationship with Downing at the moment thanks to our five-seat, my pair-partner Emma Carter. Emma is a triplet, and one of her sisters rows for Downing’s W1. The other triplet goes to Oxford, but I have seen them all together once and could barely tell them apart. Although she is in five this term, Emma is a habitual three-seater, and has been likened to an adorable golden retriever. She is the first to celebrate any victory but she’s also the first to spot the ducklings and in her rapture forget to take a stroke. She is ever so slightly accident prone, and in one memorable incident she successfully managed to row with her feet in the wrong shoes. All this makes her an excellent pair partner – she backs me up with tonnes of enthusiasm, and I’ll never miss spotting the ducklings.
Next week I’ll introduce our two-seat Hannah and take you on a tour through the Pembroke boat house, including our boatman ‘Kev’.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the comment by CBC (9:54 a.m., 3 May).