A Guide To: Lent Bumps

Novice rower? Fresher who couldnt care less? Procrastinating OAP? Whoever you are, let GIANPIERO ROSCELLI introduce you to the world of Bumps.

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Rowing – everyone talks about it, from novices to seniors. Whether at formal, on the way to lectures or in the JCR, any non-rower will know that feeling when the sentence “How did your outing go this morning?” props up, and spells automatic exclusion for you as split times, boat balance and ‘feathering’ pass you by. Well, in reality, this week is your nightmare, as over 120 boats and 1100 participants from the colleges take to the River Cam for Lent Bumps.

The charge back down the river begins…

What are Bumps? Measles, Mumps and Rubella?

No, and don’t let a rower hear you say that. Bumps are an annual race, held towards the end of the Lent and Easter terms. Dating back to the 1820s, it sees divisions (7 in Lent’s, 10 in May’s) of 17/ 18 crews line up along the river, with 1.5 boat lengths between each. A cannon is fired and carnage ensues, as each crew tries to catch up (or ‘bump’) with the crew in front before the crew behind does the same to them (video demonstration here)! Think of it like a mix of bumper car racing, bingo and a 2000m sprint – all on water.

The role of the cox is critical in Bumps

What can I expect if I am bumped?

Well…a captain of a boat who will carry a face to put the fear of God into anyone. The higher the division, the scarier the face. If you get bumped, you and the crew that hit you pull aside to the river, and for the next day, swap places. The starting order for the very first day’s racing is the finishing order of the previous year. You will also notice crews who bump on each day, as they will be carrying/ wearing some plant foliage in their hair.

Lent Bumps 2012, M2 Men’s (left) and Women’s (right) division

Lent Bumps 2012, M2 Men’s (left) and Women’s (right) division – Churchill Men’s 1st boat went from the top of the division to the middle after being bumped every day, as did Jesus and Pembroke’s Women’s 2nd boats.  Downing Men’s 2nd and Christs Men’s 2nd both achieved blades after bumping up each day. Another noteworthy squabble is the ever-changing lead of the top of the men’s division, and the furious battle between Emma’s and Lady Margaret’s II boats.

May Bumps 2012, M6 Men’s division

May Bumps 2012, M6 Men’s division – the lower the division, the more wacky the results. Darwin III achieved an unheard of triple-over bump, while Sidney Sussex fell 8 places and Downing IV fell 7 places.

Where does it all take place?

Crews race on the River Cam, and start at Bite Baits Lock (post no. 23), the point of the river furthest away from Cambridge. They then race down to Chesterton and back down to the centre of Cambridge, but many don’t make it. Here’s a map:

The sharp turns early on in the course are often the scenes of the biggest crowds…and the biggest pile ups

And here’s another!

Hang on…what do you mean many don’t make it?

Well, Bumps racing is not designed for the narrow rivers of Cambridge and Oxford. Given the aim of the race (to get very close to the boat ahead and touch it, NOT ram it!), collisions are common. In the commotion of crowd noise, delighted rowers having bumped, and furious captains having been bumped, some boats don’t clear off to the side of the river fast enough, and before you know it, there’s a pile up. More a feature of the lower divisions, but will bring out a red flag for boats involved – and they restart from where they left off. Witness Exhibit A … and Exhibit B.

What is the point of the races though?

Over the four days of racing, each boat tries to move up a position on the river. If they can bump the crew in front/ move up each day, then that crew can achieve the coveted ‘Blades’, which, surprise surprise, is a blade with the crew’s name on it. You will notice this as it’s the only time the cox does any work – they’ll be carrying their boat club flag while attempting to guide the boat. Achieve this, and BNOC status is pretty much assured within college. BNOC status can also be secured by being truly awful – and collecting Spoons, where your boat is bumped from behind every single day. Those who get Spoons tend to head straight for Spoons after their defeat.

Clare achieve the coveted blades in May 2012

The elusive blade that all crews yearn for – bump up every day and this could be yours!

So the aim is to destroy the boat in front?

Yes…and no. Destroy them mentally and performance-wise, but don’t actually hit the crew hard enough to cause them to sink or take out their cox (thank you Oxford!). However, it is tradition for the boat that finishes Head of the River to burn an old boat. If you finish Head of the River in both the men’s and women’s top divisions, it’s an expensive after party celebration – an average boat costs about £12,000. Only Trinity could afford this…then again, its usually only Trinity that achieves this. Also known as a double headship.

Thousands of pounds go up in smoke with Trinity’s Headship in Lent 2007

I heard a friend mention crabs and sandwiches?

Yes, but probably not in the context you are thinking of, and definitely not together. A crab is when a rower fails to finish a stroke correctly and the blade drags in the water, slowing the boat down. This seriously upsets the balance of the boat, and in extreme scenarios, can throw rowers out of the boat (an ejector crab). Hilarious if you are the opposition or a spectator, not so for those involved.

The sandwich boat is what links all the divisions together – they row at the bottom of one division, and the top of another. This allows Bumps to be split into several divisions.

The race is the highlight of the rowing calender in Cambridge

And an over-bump?

Unusual, but not uncommon. If a pair of boats bump out, this leaves a gap in the race so the boat following has no one to bump but the boat that was three positions ahead when they started. If they can achieve this, this is known as an over-bump, and the crew move up three spaces in the division. In last years Mays, Darwin III rose an impressive 8 places, triple over-bumping Sidney Sussex IV and bumping Downing IV (see M6 division table above).

The race also gives a chance to Anglia Ruskin University and Cambridge University’s Medical and Veterinary Schools to form their own crews and compete

Why are Trinity’s boats called First and Third, and John’s boats called Lady Margaret?

Well, Trinity and John’s always like to be different, don’t they? Trinity used to have two separate boat clubs (First Trinity Boat Club and Third Trinity Boat Club), but these merged in 1946. John’s named their club after after Lady Margaret Beaufort, founder of their College. All the other colleges, though, name their boats after their college.

Lent Bumps 2011 – Maggie gets it all wrong, as, incredibly, they mount the bank

Remember, you can keep a tab of what’s going on with CamFM’s live commentary and The Tab‘s live blog.

With special thanks to David Hardmen for the photography.