Tim Koch watches a simple but complex, clever but mad form of boat racing.
While the Oxford – Cambridge University Boat Race attracts worldwide interest from rowers and civilians alike, the two universities also hold their own versions of another form of boat racing that are very little known, even within the rowing community. So-called “bump racing” began at Oxford in 1815 and Cambridge in 1827 and the summer versions of these events attract 1,500 competitors and several thousand spectators in what are great university sporting and social occasions. Oxford’s Summer Eights (aka Eights Week) and Cambridge’s Mays are the pinnacle of college rowing at these two institutions, and, unlike the annual University Boat Race, they offer college rowers of almost any standard a chance of some sort of aquatic success.
On Saturday, 28 May, I visited Oxford, just catching the final couple of hours of their four-day series of bump races that normally take place annually in May but, because of the pandemic, have not happened since 2019. Unfortunately, my brief visit was not long enough to properly capture that occasion as I wished but, hopefully, the pictures below will suggest some of the spirit of the occasion.
I have explained the intricacies of bump racing many times before but for those who are unsure of how it works, the introduction to my HTBS piece on the 2019 Summer Eights is a good place to start. Very briefly, 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.
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 turned into a single day event. The 2020 and 2021 Summer Eights were cancelled due to the pandemic and in 2021 a version of Torpids was moved from its usual early March date to the early June slot vacated by the Eights. However, 2022 has seen a return to normality with Torpids and Eights taking place as usual.
With time on the water greatly reduced, college boat clubs had coaches, rowers and coxes who should have been trained by those from the years immediately above them but who, by the time rowing restarted, had largely graduated and left university. Some wondered what effect all this would have on the bumps. I thought that the standard of division one rowing may have been lower than that I had seen in previous years. Also, on a warm day there seemed to be fewer spectators and, for better or worse, less drinking alcohol than in the recent past. However, the division one bumps tables show few dramatic rises and falls, suggesting that the top boat clubs at least have, despite all the problems, managed to pass on their knowledge to the next intake of student rowers. Full marks.