That Gut Feeling: The 2018 Cambridge University May Bumps

A map produced by Cambridgeshire Rowing Association for the Town (not University) Bumps. There are differences, but the course is essentially the same. ‘The Gut’ is a short section of the course just after the start.

26 June 2018

Tim Koch sees How Cambridge waters hurry by….

They may not care to admit it, but the old rivals that are the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge 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’. I am not sure that it is possible to plagiarise yourself, but the following explanation of how the Cambridge University bump races work was first written by me for my report on the ‘Mays’ of 2015 – but it will serve equally as well for the piece on my 2018 visit.

The Trinity Hall Women’s Second Eight (known as W2) row to the start, passing the Magdalene and the Girton supporters on Ditton Meadows.

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 previous year’s Mays. Thus, a boat’s chances of doing well depend 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 the final 2018 bumps chart for Men’s and for Women’s Division I may make things more clear.

The 2018 Mays: Men’s Division I.
The 2018 Mays: Women’s Division I. These graphics are from the excellent CamFM, a great source for Bumps commentary, results and information.

The list on the left shows the final finish order in 2017, the list on the right shows the final finish order for 2018. 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, in Men’s Div I, Lady Margaret M1 (the boat club of St John’s College) rowed over on all four days to remain Head of the River. Jesus W1 did the same in Women’s Div 1. Magdalene M1 bumped every day and went up four places. Selwyn M1 was bumped every day and went down four places. A similar drop was recorded by Christ’s W1 and Peterhouse W1.


Women’s Division 2 on the start.
A starting cannon is primed with powder. A firearms license is required to operate these.

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. A member of the boat’s bank party audibly counts down to the start cannon. The race starts on the third cannon shot when the cox (if he or she is wise) will let go of the chain. If they do not, the crew will find that they are in a coxless eight.

Darwin W2 are touched with a barge pole and are pushed out from the bank by their coach on the sound of the second cannon.
Until the race starts, the cox must show that they are still holding the bung.
Women’s Division 2 goes off.
More of Women’s Division 2 follows.
Women’s Division 2 along The Ditch.
Women’s Division 2 having passed, the ferry service can resume.
Women’s Division 1: Newham W1 (background) chase Jesus W1 (foreground) in an attempt to dethrone them as Head of the River.
Ultimately, the Jesus Women stayed Head for the second year.
Christ’s M1 on their way to the start.
At Grassy Corner, a notorious bend, Lady Margaret M1 leads Men’s Division I, others follow.
Pembroke chase Lady Margaret around Grassy, a favourite viewing point.
Lady Margaret could not be caught and stayed Head for the third successive year.

I wrote this in my report on the Lent Bumps of 2012. It remains true for Mays in 2018:

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 conflict, there are long periods of inactivity followed by short bursts of action. There is tension in the air as the time to ‘go over the top’ looms. The rowers are the infantry who ‘do or die’, and they are supported by the cavalry, their bank party mounted on bicycles. When the start gun booms, all hell breaks loose. Cannon smoke hangs in the air. On the narrow river, the cries of the coxswains to their crew and to their rivals (Concede! Concede!) are audible from the bank. On the towpath, 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, the non-commissioned officers, bark orders in an attempt to keep everything moving forward. Spectators, camp followers, shout in support of their college and offer random contradictory advice while trying to avoid getting run down by mounted bank parties. However, the division soon passes and soon all is Quiet on the Western Front – until the next big push.


When a ‘bump’ is made, both crews involved stop and pull into the bank. The bank party of the victorious boat (in this case Lady Margaret W2) will usually adorn the crew with greenery gathered from nearby, presumably in imitation of the laurel wreaths of victors in the ancient world. Over the four days, Lady Margaret W2 rose from third in Division 3 to the bottom of Division 2.
Sydney Sussex W1 gain their laurels. They made three bumps in the 2018 Mays.
Darwin W2, another crew that bumped three rivals, rehydrate.
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 and each member of the crew may purchase an illuminated blade recording the fact. Here, Wolfson W1 display evidence of their four bumps.
More Wolfson success, M2 rose a very rare eight places from Div 4 into Div 3.
Trinity Hall M1 who made four bumps in Div 2.
Clare celebrate the end of Mays with a splash.
Maggie’s Mays: Lady Margaret M1, Head of the River, return to their boathouse to polite applause.
The Lady Margaret Boat Club flag with the motto which translates as ‘If I can’.
Christ’s M1, having made a bump, show their appreciation to the cox in the traditional way.
A picture from the June 2016 Lady Margaret Boat Club Dinner when a boat was burned to mark their May’s Headship of that year. Picture: @LadyMargaret_BC.

Full results are on the CamFM website.

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