Bumps Diary Part 9: One More Day

Picture Eleven: Our four-seat Maggie after one of our bumps in Lents last term.
Our 4-seat Maggie after one of our bumps in Lents last term.

 7 June 2016

Courtney Landers
Courtney Landers

Here follows Courtney Landers’s ninth 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.

As the last week before May Bumps arrived so did a last breath of winter, which means W1 has been taking on cold, wet and windy afternoons. Although this provided us with plenty of rough water training, the forecast of twenty-degree-plus days this week is a welcome relief; no one likes marshalling in the cold.

This week has been a ‘taper week’, so there’s not much to report training wise. Given that as you read this, there will be just over 24 hours till the first race of May Bumps 2016, I thought I’d give you a ‘tour’ of the bumps course and an introduction to the Pembroke boats you might see if you come down to the river to watch.

One: Bait’s Bite Lock. The lowest boats in each division marshall on the bank very near to the lock itself.
Bait’s Bite Lock. The lowest boats in each division marshall on the bank very near to the lock itself.
‘Newnham’ motorway bridge. The starting cannons are placed under the bridge to make them audible to crews upstream and downstream, but this means the crew marshalling under the bridge usually gets deafened.
‘Newnham’ motorway bridge. The starting cannons are placed under the bridge to make them audible to crews upstream and downstream, but this means the crew marshalling under the bridge usually gets deafened.

I explained the principles of bumping in part four of this series. Bumping is an unusual race format, but what really makes Bumps unique is the course. The distance of the course is roughly 2.6km whether you start close to the lock at the bottom of your division or at the top of the division above ‘newnham’ motorway bridge. This is because there are different finish lines for the top and bottom halves of a division – the women’s divisions also row a slightly shorter course for some unfathomable reason. Regardless of where they start or finish, all crews can expect to encounter the major elements of the course, the first of which is First Post Corner. This first major bend in the river is also the first place where the water will start to get seriously choppy due to the sheer number of boats passing through, especially if you’re lower in a division. It’s also around the spot where you’ll hit the wall for the first time in the race; crews that don’t manage to maintain their technique might get bumped here or as they straighten out into ‘the gut’.

First Post Reach, looking upstream towards First Post Corner.
First Post Reach, looking upstream towards First Post Corner.
First Post Corner; the horses will be moved this week to allow spectators to view from the field
First Post Corner; the horses will be moved this week to allow spectators to view from the field

Those that survive must charge round Grassy Corner without going too wide and hitting the bank or cutting the corner and hitting the resident houseboats. Many a crew has come undone around Grassy and been bumped on Plough Reach.

For this reason one of the best places to watch from is Grassy Corner. Positioned properly, you can see down to First Post and up towards the plough. Not only is this the best position to see bumps, it’s also a great place to see ‘carnage’. Boats that have bumped and been bumped must clear to the sides and keep out of the way of the rest of the race. Ideally boats will clear to the nearest grassy bank where coaches and spectators can pull them in and they can hold to the sides while they bury their blades. However, crews bumping in an awkward spot may find themselves clinging to trees or houseboats instead, and getting in the way of other boats. Sometimes multiple boats are so close together that bumping crews simply cannot clear in time; boats caught behind them might have to stop and be awarded a technical row-over, and in extreme cases the entire race behind the carnage may be stopped and re-run.

The view upstream from Grassy Corner, towards the Plough.
The view upstream from Grassy Corner, towards the Plough.
The view downstream towards Grassy Corner.
The view downstream towards Grassy Corner.

A huge portion of spectators also cluster at the Plough, where there are plenty of shady seats to watch from, and a source of cold beverages. There’s even a punt to ferry spectators across the river between divisions. Bumps near or in front of the plough are particularly thrilling as the large crowd cheers on the battling boats.

The Plough Pub, popular viewing position for Bumps.
The Plough Pub, popular viewing position for Bumps.

If you get past the Plough the final major obstacle is Ditton Corner; it’s essential to take the corner as closely as possible, but it’s quite a long corner that spits crews out straight into the path of whatever strength headwind is blowing down the Long Reach that day. Many a tiring crew has been broken on Ditton to achieve or lose a bump.

Ditton Corner, looking downstream towards the Plough.
Ditton Corner, looking downstream towards the Plough.

On the final day, several alumni organisations will set up tents on the meadow side of the Long Reach in view of Ditton. Here students, parents and alumni alike can shelter or take shade with strawberries and Pimm’s.

The Long Reach, looking downstream towards Ditton Corner.
The Long Reach, looking downstream towards Ditton Corner.

Once crews make it onto the Long Reach a ‘row-over’ – completing the entire course without bumping or being bumped – becomes more likely, but in the top divisions particularly many spectacular bumps still happen down the reach. This is especially exciting for crews in the next division marshalling near the railway bridge. Bumps past the bridge are rare, but still possible given that the top men’s finish is still a few hundred metres away under the Chesterton footbridge.

The railway bridge, with M4 coming underneath. This is the finish line for the lower half of women’s divisions.
The railway bridge, with M4 coming underneath. This is the finish line for the lower half of women’s divisions.

The entire course is monitored by commentators for CamFM, which is the best way to listen in if you can’t make it to bumps in person. This will be the case for the parents of the other Australian in the boat. Maggie is an M.Phil. student in the criminology department and more importantly our 4-seat. In 4-seat, Maggie is an absolute beast – she seems not to feel pain, but has the most amazing ‘pain face’ I’ve ever seen. At some point in every race and every piece a guttural roar of sheer determination will echo forth from the bows, lending encouragement to all who hear it.

The first time I met Maggie, we rapidly realised that not only did we grow up in the same city in Australia, she had also met my mother, courtesy of working in politics. This has resulted in rather bizarre conversations since several of the friends who have come to visit her have been colleagues, and thus have also met my mother; thankfully Maggie’s keen legal mind is complimented by a dry sense of humour. Indeed, with two Australians in the boat, the level of banter has been sky-high this term. Bow-seat Katherine’s keen ear detected our unique way of pronouncing ‘water’ and paired this with the running assumption that everything in Australia can kill you, and now any particularly broad vowel initiates a chorus of ‘theires ah shaahrk in the wahtaah’. It’s thus been good to have someone to confirm that the colourful phrases I often come out with are common vernacular in Australia. For example, when you have to draw your blade in quickly to avoid a Robinson College Boat Club men’s boat and so catch a crab that whacks you in the neck, in my country it would be valid to joke that you ‘copped it in the neck’. Not so here, it would seem, to the delight of my crew.

Cambridge rowers are not immune to superstitions, so to avoid bad juju I’ll provide you with our positions, rather than predictions. On the men’s side, M1 is second on the river behind Caius. Last year they went up three places and were very close to bumping Caius on the last day, which would have been the first time a men’s crew had bladed to head of the river. But seconds before the bell started to ring for overlap 5-seat caught the mother of all crabs, as captured by Tim Koch for this blog. M2 is second-to-bottom in the second division and have had a promising term of training. M3 is third in the fifth division and have been training hard, including a still-running planking competition. They won their division of Champs Head two weeks ago. M4 this year is the Pemgibeers, as the nominal M4 boat weren’t quite fast enough in the getting on race.

The getting on race is a timed race over the bumps course. When there are more boats desiring to enter than there are slots in divisions, the getting on race whittles entries down and determines their order on the river for boats that did not compete the year before, and thus have no ‘historical’ position. The Pemgibeers are a ‘beer boat’ – crewed by people who just want to ‘muck around in boats’, often rugby players. In this case, the boat is crewed by Pembroke engineers, led by Captain Tristan who started the institution in 2014.

On the Women’s side, W4 was to be a champagne boat, the women’s equivalent of a beer boat, but weren’t successful in the getting on race either. I might add that there is one fewer division for women’s boats in Mays than for men, despite the number of women’s crews keen to have a go. Our W3 is 16th in the third division and have been training hard. W2 is eighth in the second division, the highest W2 on the river barring Jesus W2 in division one. Like last year their training has essentially matched ours, and they have some beastly quads in their powerhouse.

And then there is us. W1 is simply focusing on pulling out the fast, sleek, long rowing we know we can. Mentally, we simply have to focus on the rowing and be prepared for anything. As I’ve discussed previously all the boats that got blades or went up three places in Lents are clustered in the same place in the top women’s division, and we’re one of the boats in the middle. We’re starting from position eleven on the first day – what happens next is anyone’s guess.

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