Friday, 28 February 2014

Bumping Up The River

Some people may remember a peaceful stroll along the River Cam, that I wrote about in a post entitled "Downriver And Into The Country", observing the unhurried ways of those who drift along with the same lack of urgency shown by the stream itself. I was walking that same towpath again yesterday but the scene was anything but relaxed and easy-going.

Madness, mayhem and mighty exertion was the order of the day as the rowing eights of the various Cambridge colleges slogged it out in fierce competition to establish who is Head Of The River.

Now the river just north of Cambridge is neither wide enough nor straight enough for normal side-by-side racing so a different solution had to be found. It probably came about from one boat-crew chasing another during practice. In time this developed into "The Bumps". There are two sets of races, the Lent Bumps which takes place before Lent and the May Bumps which takes place in June (obviously).

An innocent bystander by the river would have observed the following:

  • Rowing eights formed of either men or women row gently downstream, occasionally stopping and doing practice-starts, accompanied by people on bicycles shouting instructions and encouragement.
  • After a while a lot of shouting would be heard as the first boat comes back up the river, closely followed by a whole line of boats, one behind the other, all rowing for all they're worth.
  • Then more boats come by, rowing quite placidly upriver.
an interested but puzzled spectator

What on earth is going on?
  • The first bit is just the boats going down to the start.
  • They then line up along the river at intervals of one-and-a-half boat-lengths.
  • A gun sounds and they all set off at once trying to catch up with the boat in front.
  • If they catch up with that boat (a "bump") then both boats involved pull over to the riverbank to allow the boat behind to continue racing.
  • If that boat can catch up with the boat now ahead of them (ie the one which started 3 boats ahead of them) that counts as an "overbump".
  • Boats which are not involved in bumps continue to the end of the course.

In the next race boats start in the order determined by the finishing positions in the race before  - that is ahead of any boat that they have bumped or overbumped. And just to make things a bit more complicated the boats are divided into divisions since there are far too many crews for them all to race at once. The first boat in each division can then row in the higher division race.

Is this a fair and logical competition? Of course not! But every crew has something to race for even though most have no chance of becoming overall Head Of The River.


This year there were 57 men's crews and 46 women's crews competing (that's over 900 athletes to save you doing the calculations) representing the various college boat clubs, some of which have four boats in various divisions. The great majority are named after the college in question with the addition of I, II, III or even IV to signify which crew they are. Of course there are exceptions - St John's College crews are called Lady Margaret, after the founder of the college, and Trinity College crews are called First And Third, as there were once four boat clubs at the college and the present club is an amalgamation of two of them.

The towpath can become just as chaotic as the racing on the river as the support teams cycle alongside their boats. There's even an "ambulance bicycle" in case any first aid is required.

Racing takes place all afternoon (or "early" as students call it!) and, with a bit of strolling up and down between races, makes a very pleasant outing. 

Crews who achieve a bump are suitably decorated. And as there are no laurels available ivy is collected from the hedgerow to be worn by the successful rowers who then row down to the finish, being cheered as they go.

Take care.


  1. Looks like a lot of fun. Are you the one at the back of the boat in the last photo?

  2. can imagine the happy-chaos on the river that day. It's really good to see the younger generation involved in something so healthy. Seeing the ivy-adornment took me back to a recent post of yours with the dancing in the street, I seem to recall there were some 'characters' were wearing ivy on their heads??

  3. I didn't realise there were two different types or that the decoration with the laurel or ivy went on! You learn something new each day :) These are great shots as well. I love going down to the river for a break.

  4. That is just wild. What a crazy race! I saw crews on the Muskingum River the other day, practicing. But my goodness it was a chilly day for it, barely above freezing.

    Nice to be able to see and read your blog again. My computer was messed up for a few weeks and I was not able to do much but read messages and post an occasional blog.

  5. That interested but puzzled spectator :) has the same look on his face as I do John.. You lost me at 'they made their way to the starting line' haha! Not really, lovely shots of the rowing race, I used to love watching the goings on the river when we lived in Henley !

  6. A fun race John and great photos! I loved the last shot and the one of the dog on the boat particularly. You caught all that action superbly.

  7. I thought is was getting it, then lost it at some point being quite confused. Then I read how many were involved and I gave up. Still it would be great to watch from the sidelines (or rather shorelines) especially with all the cute athletic ladies taking part.

  8. Looks like a beautiful, crazy chaos there. Love the last photo with the crepuscular rays and the dark crew.

  9. Great action shots and a moody image for the finale. It all sounds very complicated but then I'm not a Cambridge scholar!

  10. Fascinating. This would be great to see. When I lived in Boston, one of the highlights was the Head of the Charles Regatta, with all of the major local college crews racing on the Charles River (which divides Boston from Cambridge [where Harvard and MIT are located]). The Charles is quite wide, so it produced straightforward races. I need to check the calendar to see if I will be back up north when it is raced; it would be fun to see again. The races you describe have the advantage of long tradition.

  11. Far too energetic for me! I'd just like to ask, though, "And is there honey still for tea?"

  12. I would've been as puzzled as that furry spectator:) Like Jack, I've mainly observed the Head of the Charles races and it's more or less a straight shot all the way (and it's also not too convoluted at the Oxford/Cambridge boat race in London). It would be great to see the crews navigating this one!

  13. Im exhausted just looking at the pictures

  14. It all sounds hilarious. Rather brave to be on a river at all in these overwet times, I would have thought.

  15. Thank you for the lovely comment - I'll have to check out the Cloudspotter's Guide, it sounds right up my street!

  16. Their biceps must be huge! Used to see rowers along a river in Michigan that were connected to a nearby college. I have a feeling this sport is mostly connected with schools. Fun post -- barbara

  17. Boy, rowing is popular there! Good explanation for what sounds like chaos. Nice blog too; looks interesting. Thanks for dropping in on mine.

  18. I'd like watching this, I'm sure.

  19. Madness indeed but I suppose it beats sitting infront of a large volume of chemistry or Anglo Saxon translation and it is a good excuse for a small glass of sweet sherry afterwards.
    Looks to me as if the toe path may be more dangerous with all those bicycles.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).