Goose Bumps

The final day of the 2017 Torpids bumping races at Oxford was a cold and wet affair (as should be expected in England in early March).

9 March 2017

Tim Koch reports from Oxford:

They may not wish to admit it, but the old rivals that are Oxford and Cambridge Universities have more that unites them than divides them. Notably, on the rowing front both have two sets of intra-university ‘bumping races’ for eights every year, one in early spring and one in early summer, each lasting four days. At Cambridge, these are called ‘Lents’ and ‘Mays’ respectively, while at Oxford they are known as ‘Torpids’ and ‘Summer Eights’ or ‘Eights Week’. Those unfamiliar with this peculiar form of competition  may wish to first read my explanation of it in any of my previous reports from one of the Oxford or Cambridge bumps, such as my coverage of the 2015 Mays, the 2012 Lents, or the 2014 or the 2016 Summer Eights.

Torpids – an event with fizz.

Briefly, this strange form of contest between crews from most of the colleges and halls that make up the universities originated because both the Isis at Oxford and the Cam at Cambridge are rivers too narrow for side by side racing. Thus, crews start two boat lengths apart and the object is to catch up (and ‘bump’) the crew in front, 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 at the end of the previous year’s racing. It follows that a boats chances of doing well depends not only on its current form but on the abilities of its predecessors. Getting to be ‘Head of the River’ (i.e. climbing to the top of the table) is a long-term affair necessitating a college putting out a strong boat year after year.

A plaque on the Pembroke boathouse marking the fact that in the 2003 Summer Eights, both its men’s and women’s first eights went ‘Head’. In Torpids, Oriel got the first ever Double Headship in 2006. Women’s Divisions started in Summer Eights in 1976 and in Torpids in 1977.

On 4 March, I attended the end of the last day of Oxford’s Torpids, the only bump race of the Oxbridge four that I have not previously seen. Both Torpids and Lents are not as prestigious as the later Mays and Summer Eights as the best rowers, Blues and potential Blues, do not usually take part as they are busy training for Oxford – Cambridge Men’s or Women’s Boat Race. Socially too, Torpids and Lents tend to be more low key as the weather in February/March is not usually conducive to outdoor frolics.

Uniquely among the Oxbridge bumping races, Torpids has an extra (rather evil) twist. Usually, both the crew that are bumped and the crew that makes the bump immediately pull over to the side and finish racing for the day. In Torpids, the bumped crew has to carry on racing, possibly to be bumped again and again, thus falling rapidly down the bumps chart.

The final 2017 Torpids Bumps Charts for men’s and women’s divisions one and two. For each day, a horizontal line means that the crew ‘rowed over’ (i.e. they did not bump and were not bumped), a line going up indicates that they bumped another crew, a line going down marks the fact they were bumped. Full results are here.

As the above chart shows, the start of the final day of Torpids 2017 saw Pembroke at the top of the men’s table with second placed Oriel hoping to bump them and take the Headship. In the Women’s First Division, Magdalen’s spectacular fall from the top showed how particularly harsh the rule that bumped crews carry on rowing is. Thus, the final day had Oriel start in prime position on the women’s table but with second placed Wadham desperate to bump them and take their laurels.

The final race for the Head of Women’s Division I. Oriel stayed at the front, despite the long lens making it look as though Wadham had overlapped them.
The Oriel Women celebrate going Head of the River while Wadham look on.
Back at the boathouse, a member of the victorious Oriel crew needs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Bow is very happy.
Support for Keble.
In Men’s Division I, Oriel were hoping to bump Pembroke and make it a ‘Double Head’ for the college. However, as this picture passing University College Boathouse shows, the Tortoise Botherers proved no threat to the Boys in Pink.
Pembroke – Head of the River.
Pembroke prove that terrible kit is no bar to good rowing.
The end of four long days.
As is their custom, Oriel carry the cox of a Headship winning crew on an old wooden boat from the boathouse, through the centre of Oxford and into college where it is burned in the quad (minus the coxswain) later that evening after the Bumps Supper.
A brief stop to taunt Christ Church, one of the wealthiest and (traditionally) most aristocratic of the Oxford colleges.
Through the town centre – causing both amusement and bemusement.
Into college.
Back at the boathouses, Torpids is over for another year.
If you cannot be ‘Head of the River’, then try ‘Bottom’.

One comment

  1. Actually, this “double headship” being head in both Men’s and Women’s competitions in Torpids or Eights has not always been so. In fact, it was previously when a College was head in both Torpids and Eights. The current “double headship” is a recent invention of Pembroke College, and dates back no further than 2003, when the said college created a trophy and gave it to themselves!

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