The Bumps are not just about speed – they are about the chase
"It can be a very different race depending on who’s around you and where you are. You have a single clear focus – the boat ahead of you”
Easter Term means exams, the May Ball and the Bumps. Hazel Lawrence talks to members of the Lady Margaret Boat Club to find out why no-one wants to get ‘spoons’.
Along the banks of the River Cam there are 20 boathouses between Victoria Bridge and the Cambridge Museum of Technology. Most of them belong to Cambridge Colleges, 16 in fact, evidence of an historic sports scene which still thrives today.
The most important fixtures of the student rowing calendar are the biannual intercollegiate races known as the ‘Bumps’. The Bumps began on the River Cam during the 1820s because the river was too narrow to accommodate more conventional side-by-side boat races. John’s had two crews in the first Bumps to take place in 1827 when they began as a termly race between just four Colleges, but now they only take place in Lent and Easter and all of the 31 Colleges compete.
Every 45 minutes a new set of boats paddle downstream past the Plough at Fen Ditton, line up, and once the staring cannon is fired, they set off as fast as they can one after the other. The aim is to catch up with the one in front whilst avoiding being caught by the one behind. Some crews quickly catch up with another boat and then stop (sometimes amid scenes of chaos) but for others the race goes on for 200 metres all the way up to the Pike & Eel. This is what distinguishes the Bumps from other forms of rowing races because it’s not just about speed, it’s about the chase.
The W1 crew rowing on the River Cam
“The Bumps are exciting but also nerve-wracking because you want to make it worth it”
Aidan Williams, second year English student and men’s Captain of the Lady Margaret Boat Club (LMBC), explained: “I’ve done a lot of racing and the Bumps are my favourite. It can be a very different race depending on who’s around you and where you are. You have a single clear focus – the boat ahead of you.”
Originally the crew that caught up with another consolidated their victory by bumping into their boat, hence the name. Although this is still common, rules for the modern races don’t require a physical ‘bump’, as overtaking the boat in front also counts. Once a boat has been bumped the day’s racing is over for the two crews involved.
The Bumps are races of strength and speed, but also stamina. Crews are organised into divisions of 17 or 18 boats who race against each other over a period of four days. A crew’s starting position at the beginning of the Bumps mirrors their position in the division, so the overall aim of the Bumps is to improve a crew’s ranking.
The Easter Bumps are the final and most important event in the student rowing schedule. As the finishing position of a crew sets the following year’s division position, the pressure is on. Rachel Green had never rowed before she came to Cambridge to study Human, Social, and Political Sciences. The second year student now rows in LMBC’s first women’s boat (W1), and said: “Bumps racing is the culmination of a year’s hard work and that’s what makes it exciting but also nerve-wracking because you want to make it worth it.”
From left to right: Tom Hasson, Harry Bradshaw, Sebastian Venter, Paddy Mere and Isaac Webber
"I don't think you feel as much adrenaline in a week as you do in the Bumps"
Green said when she first heard the Bumps being talked about she thought people were joking about the starting cannon, but it is a real brass cannon (although admittedly a rather small one, that measures approximately 40cm long). It fires three times to start each race – once to notify the rowers there are four minutes to go before the start, once for one minute to go and then one final round to start the race.
Geography student Laura Ferrier, LMBC women’s captain, said: "I don't think you feel as much adrenaline in a week as you do in the Bumps. But you have to get your head down and tune out all the background noise. You're pumped up the whole time but when the starting cannon goes off a weird calmness comes over you and you know you just have to go for it."
Each boat also has a coxswain – known as the cox – who sits in the stern facing the bow and co-ordinates the power and rhythm of the rowers. Jamie Bailey, cox of W1, explained: “Being the cox is about tactics and the technical details in your head, it’s not physical like it is for your crewmates.”
The best way to improve your crew’s ranking is to bump the boat in front every day because after a boat is bumped the two crews switch places for the next day’s racing and those who bumped move up one position in the division. Bumping every day, also known as getting ‘blades’ or ‘oars’, will move a crew up four places. The ultimate achievement is to end up top of the first division, making your boat crew and College ‘Head of the River’.
Happily for St John’s this is the current position of the men’s first boat (M1) of LMBC and Aidan Williams intends to hold onto that position, although the fight will be tough as they have strong crews from Clare, Pembroke and Caius behind them. And James Cracknell, double Olympic gold medallist, will be competing in the Peterhouse boat with some of his fellow victorious Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race 2019 rowers.
Members of the men's and women's boat crews training in the LMBC boathouse gym
“It’s hard to beat standing on the lawn of The Plough at Fen Ditton as the red blades go flashing by”
Ferrier hopes future women’s crews might also get a shot at being Head of the River. They were last Head of the River in 1993 but in the last few years W1 has been steadily rising through the first division to 7th position.
But crews don’t have to end up as Head of the River to succeed. Maintaining a starting position or getting a single bump can mean just as much. Green remembers her Easter Bumps experience last year when, being what’s known as the ‘sandwich’ boat at the bottom of a division, W2 had to row the course twice a day – once as the top of division three and once as the bottom of division two. On the final day they bumped the crew in front meaning they moved up into division two.
“We rowed the course seven times in four days and to get the bump on the final day was the most wonderful feeling ever. We were all so happy at what we’d achieved and there was a lot of shouting and crying.”
Taking part in the Bumps is filled with these unforgettable moments but there’s a bigger historical picture for students. Anyone who rows or coxes in M1 or W1 in the Bumps has their name painted on the wall of the LMBC boathouse. “That’s quite a reward as well,” said Ferrier, “because you realise you’re part of something much larger and feel connected to the previous crews and to the club’s history.”
This history has a strong pull, and alumni often return to join the thousands of spectators who line the riverbank. Mark Wells, an alumnus of John’s and former Domestic Bursar, recalls his days as a student in the Bumps. “I felt physically sick as we pushed out from the bank for our first race.” According to Wells his first outing in the Bumps, in a wooden boat known as a ‘clinker’, did not go well, but on his second they got blades. Now the Bumps are an annual must-see for him. He said: “It’s hard to beat standing on the lawn of The Plough at Fen Ditton, with a pint in hand, roaring ‘Yeah Maggie!’ as the red blades go flashing by.”
Lance Badman, Boat Club Manager, aptly summed up the atmosphere of the fiercely contested competition saying, “A student has never felt so famous as they do when they row in the Bumps. Unless they get a Nobel prize for something of course.”
The May Bumps take place from Wednesday, June 12 to Saturday, June 15.