Bumped Off

Women from Christ’s College, Cambridge, having reached the top of Women’s Division 1 in the 2015 Lent bumping races, observe the tradition of celebrating going “Head of the River” by jumping over a burning boat. Picture: Christ’s College BC Facebook.

3 May 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch returns to Oxbridge antics but notes that other universities are available.

COVID and climate change affects us all and rowing has had its share of the adversity created by both, the sport losing a vast amount of water time due to the pandemic and, in the UK at least, due to the increasingly common occurrence of unsafe water conditions caused by flooding. 

In the world of university rowing, the effect of the loss of rowing time is magnified by the fact that student boat clubs are only properly active during term times which, in England, usually consist of an annual maximum of three 12-week periods of alleged study. At Oxford and Cambridge, the three terms are even shorter, each officially only eight weeks long. Thus, any time that students lose on the water is proportionally greater than that lost in the real world by those who have year-round access to their rowing. 

Student boat clubs are further disproportionately disadvantaged as they have always had a rapid turnover of membership, their members typically staying for just the three or four years of an average degree. With time on the water greatly reduced, college boat clubs are now missing coaches, rowers and coxes who should have been trained by those from the years immediately above them but who are now graduating and leaving university.

In normal times, the college boat clubs at both Oxford and Cambridge hold two sets of intra-university “bumping races” for eights every year, one in early spring and one in early summer. At Cambridge, these are called “Lents” and “Mays”, respectively, while at Oxford they are known as “Torpids” and “Summer Eights” or “Eights Week”. This year and last, things have changed.

A bump race begins with the boats lining up about one-and-a-half boat lengths apart. The object is to overlap the crew in front without being caught from behind. 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 races. Here, at Grassy Corner, a notorious bend on the Cam, Lady Margaret leads Men’s Division I in the 2018 Mays.

Because of river conditions at Oxford, rowing was almost totally lost in the 2019 Michaelmas term (October – December) and in the 2020 Hilary term (January – March). Due to the persistent high stream, the 2020 Torpids was not run from 26 to 29 February as originally planned, but was rescheduled as a two-day event for 12 and 13 March. Subsequently, the first day’s racing was cancelled leaving just a single day event. The 2020 Summer Eights were cancelled due to the pandemic.

In Cambridge last year, the 2020 Lent Bumps took place 26 – 29 February, but the 2020 May Bumps scheduled for 10 – 13 June were cancelled due to COVID, the first time since the Second World War that the Mays have not rounded off a Cambridge exam term. This year, the Cambridge University online newspaper, Varsity, recently reported that the Cambridge University Combined Boat Clubs (CUCBC) have canceled the 2021 Mays, citing lack of time available for preparation as the Vice-Chancellor recently stated that students are unlikely to be allowed to return en masse before 17 May. 

CUCBC reasoned that lack of practice would make it potentially dangerous for less experienced student rowers to take part in bump racing. However, it has been suggested that another form of “non-contact rowing event” may be able to take place before the end of the term on 18 June – presumably some sort of time trial. Varsity quoted a CUCBC spokesperson: 

Such an event would not require a 12-outing rule and could potentially take different formats, or have different divisions, for novice and senior crews, allowing more people to safely take part. 

It should be made clear that bump racing is not a body contact sport and at most there may be contact between equipment. No “bump” should be so hard as to bring the two crews involved close together.

High-class graffito at Brasenose College, Oxford. The early season “Torpids” and “Lents” are regarded as lesser events than the later “Mays” and “Eights” as the first two held at a time of year when many of the best rowers are attempting to win places in the Blue Boats and may not race for their colleges. Hard-won places in the Mays and Eights tables are more jealously guarded than those in Torpids and Lents, hence the reluctance to run “second class” college first boats this summer. Picture: shoffmire.blogspot.com

Oxford seems to have taken a different view to the situation. The Oxford University Rowing Clubs (OURCs) have cancelled the 2021 Summer Eights that were due to be held 8 – 11 June and moved the 2021 Torpids from its usual early March date to the slot vacated by the Eights. Torpids is unique among the four Oxbridge bumping races as a bumped boat continues rowing, possibly to be bumped again, and only the boat that made the bump pulls to the side and stops racing for the day. In Lents, Mays and Eights, both boats involved in a bump will stop. A temporary change to Torpids rules for 2021 will allow Blues to row.

For more information, I contacted Dr Rachel Quarrell, Fellow Dean and Lecturer in Chemistry at Balliol College, Oxford, Daily Telegraph rowing correspondent and coordinator of the group of senior umpires who oversee safety for OURCs. Rachel began by explaining how Torpids rules may make the event safer for this year’s inexperienced crews and coxes:

In Torpids rules… the crew which has been bumped continues rowing and can be bumped again.  However the latter doesn’t happen that often and this means that only one crew is trying (inexpertly, sometimes) to pull out of the racing line, so tangles tend to be rarer…. Our problem is ensuring that rowers who haven’t experienced bumps (all the first and second years) get as safe a try at the format as possible, hence switching to Torpids rules for this one.  

Summer Eights, Oxford, 2014. In Men’s Division 2, the Lincoln cox concedes a bump by New College. Both would have then pulled to the side and not raced again that day. Under Torpids rules, Lincoln would have rowed on and there would have been less chance of a tangle of stationary boats. As this picture shows, a proper bump is unlikely to create COVID problems as it should not bring the rowers into close physical contact

Rachel continued:

In addition, we’re aware that though we race against the stream, unlike in the spring term where significant winter stream makes everyone’s speed much lower and collisions therefore less dramatic, in the summer that won’t be the case, so any other mitigations we can include are worthwhile. These bumps novices will, after July 2021, be the majority of those who know about bumps in Oxford, because so many of the 3rd and 4th years (both undergraduate and postgraduate) will be graduating.  On balance that means it’s better for a careful bumps regatta to be run than to switch to an alternative form of racing.  

Other precautions: when we get the entries in, we will examine them and if possible adjust division sizes downwards, so that fewer crews are on the rafts at the same time. We have a major advantage over most regattas in that the crews aren’t all in one big boat park with one boating area, they will be at their own boathouses. Nevertheless, colleges often share rafts and so we’ll go for divisions of 8-10 boats rather than 14 if we can, in order to lower the density of rowers on the rafts.  

The summer bumps this year will be a non-spectator event: we’ll be doing our best to discourage people from congregating on the banks and the crews will be asked to go home after racing, not stay at the river.  

While Rachel shows the good reasoning behind Oxford’s decision, for the narrow and twisting River Cam, something like a time trial makes more sense (in any case, Cambridge does not have the “Torpids Option”). Thus, the year 2021 continues to produce unique versions of long-established rowing events – though most rowers are probably grateful for competition in almost any form.

Images of Bumps past

Spectators before social distancing 1: Oxford pre-1914.
Spectators before social distancing 2: Cambridge c.1908.
Old Crew 1: Merton, Oxford, 1860.
Old Crew 2: Selwyn, Cambridge, 1914.
Early Bumps 1: On the Isis c.1840, first held at Oxford in 1815.
Early Bumps 2: On the Cam in 1838, first held at Cambridge in 1828.

The official Boat Race website has not gone dormant in the immediate post-race season and has recently posted three newsworthy items.

The Men’s Veterans’ Boat Race was run over 2.5 km of the Ely course on 30 April and produced yet another win for Cambridge, this time by four lengths in a time of 7 minutes 51 seconds. The day also saw the first attempt at running a women’s version of this Oxbridge Masters’ race, but Oxford proved unable to put a crew together in time, so Cambridge rowed over. A full report on both events is here

The Gemini Boat Race Bursary’s second grant of £25,000 to support rowing in disadvantaged communities will go to aid London Youth Rowing’s expansion of its Active Row programme outside of London. An initiative in Leeds is expected to target 250 young people in 10 different schools, starting with indoor rowing and with access to on water rowing through Leeds Rowing Club. The first grant went to Fulham Reach Boat Club. Details are here.

A full report on the recent Men’s and Women’s Reserve Races is now available on the Boat Race website.

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