Welcome Back: Oxford’s Summer Eights

The view from Folly Bridge showing the island where many Oxford college boathouses are sited and which is also the finish stretch of the course for the two annual inter-college bump races, “Torpids” (held in early spring) and “Summer Eights” (held in early summer).

1 June 2022

By Tim Koch

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.

The building that is shared between the college boat clubs of St John’s and Corpus Christi.
Greetings from St Edmund Hall’s boathouse.
Worcester College Boat Club has been bump racing since its foundation in 1825.
A member of St Antony’s College BC. Both the college and its boat club are young by Oxford standards, being founded in 1950 and 1994 respectively.
Mike Chamberlain, who rowed in the Oriel First VIII in 1970, pictured by the wooden boat that was to be ceremonially burned if Oriel College Boat Club (OCBC) went Head of the River. Mike and his old crew had a delayed 50th anniversary row that morning. Only two subs were needed, one a 1970 contemporary and the other the son of the other missing crew mate.
The “5” man of the current Oriel First Eight sports some retro facial hair.
Is Oriel seeking the aid of a higher power?
Stevan Boljevic was Oriel Boat Club Captain in 2016. His OCBC blazer (with the three rings for the First Eight) has clearly seen a lot of action since then. Stevan’s slippers bear the emblem of the Tortoise Club, an association of former members of the Oriel First Eight and Torpid. Membership is formally approved by the wonderfully named “Tortoise Council.”
As usual, the City Barge Boat Club, a town club largely dedicated to Venetian-style standing up rowing, ran a ferry service between the two banks, saving competitors and spectators an otherwise long trip over Folly Bridge to cross the river.
The Oriel men’s first boat goes afloat. They were defending the Headship of the River that they won in 2019, a victory that tied them with Christ Church for the club with the most men’s headships (33) so a win would put them on top. They were still top of the table having not been “bumped” in the previous three day’s racing. 
In the closing stages of the final day of the men’s division one race, Oriel lead the way home, followed by Christ Church, Keble, Pembroke and Wolfson.
Oriel and Christ Church pass the University College boathouse.
Pembroke chase Keble.
Magdalen chase St Catherine’s.
The final results for men’s division one. 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.
Lady Margaret Hall won illuminated blades for bumping every day. They rose four places from the top of division three to ninth in division two.
Preparing for women’s division one are Oriel (foreground) and St Edmund Hall (background). Gender parity reached Summer Eights this year when an extra women’s division was created making seven men’s and seven women’s divisions, each now with twelve boats rather than thirteen.
New College I “rowed over” for the first two days but was bumped on the second two days.
University College (“Univ”) started fourth in women’s division one and had bumped on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, while the three crews that had started above them (Wolfson, Pembroke and Wadham) had suffered several bumps between them. On Saturday, the Headship was Univ’s to lose but, viewed here from the finish line, they came into sight first.
Univ I passing Boathouse Island. Picture: Facebook @univbc.
Univ win the women’s headship for the first time. Picture: Facebook @univbc.
St Edmund Hall passing the University College Boathouse. SEH finished fifth in division one, one place up from last year.
In the closing stages, Oriel (left) threatens Keble (right) with a bump…
The Keble cox raises her hand to concede the bump.
The final results for women’s division one. Full results are here.
As soon as the racing finished, things started to get messy. Oriel cools down…
Brasenose stick together…
Rugger Buggers get involved.
Oriel is one of the clubs who maintain the custom of carrying a headship winning cox on an especially procured wooden eight along the river…
Through the city centre…
And into college. Following a “Bumps Supper”, the boat was burned in Oriel’s First Quad.
A boat burning from a previous Oriel headship. Picture: Vinesh Rajpaul.
An Oriel boat burning following the 2019 Torpids. Picture: @FarbodAkhlaghiG.

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.

4 comments

  1. Hi Tim,

    Thank you for once again coming down to visit and taking really wonderful photos of Oriel. A point of clarification – the Tortoise Club’s membership is those who have rowed for Oriel and deemed to have displayed ‘exceptional oarsmanship’. This includes rowers who have rowed in well performing second boats and other Oriel crews at external regattas. Membership is not limited to 1st boats at Eights and Torpids.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Steven. You must tell me the story of the condition of your blazer sometime.

  3. Thanks for this piece. Incidentally Tim, due to a shortage of wooden boats, Oriel’s tradition now features that wooden boat _carried_ from the boathouse through town to the quad, but then put aside; a small narrow bonfire of kindling is set on the walkway (protected by sand), and two boat ends are placed so that the illusion of ritual boat-burning is maintained. I also had the pleasure of attending this year’s Eights, 40+ years after earning blades in Torpids and Eights, and enjoyed the satisfying spectacle of Oriel crews acquitting themselves admirably well.

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