Saturday, 14 June 2014

A day in Cambridge at the end
of the May Bumps in mid-June

Patrick Comerford

This is a good week to be in Cambridge, for although this is mid-June this is the week of the May Bumps or Mays. The Lent Bumps are run over five days but the May Bumps are run over four days.

The May Bumps are a set of rowing races, held each year on the River Cam. The May Bumps began in 1887, but the colourful tradition of the bumps dates back to 1827. Although known as the May Bumps, they take place in mid-June over four days, from Wednesday to Saturday. This year’s May Bumps began on Wednesday [11 June 2014] and reach their climax today [Saturday 14 June].

It all began last week with the “Getting-on-Race” which was raced on Friday [6 June 2014]. The races are open to all college boat clubs from the University of Cambridge, the University Medical and Veterinary Schools and the Anglia Ruskin Boat Club.

The races are run in divisions, each containing 17 crews. The number of crews in each bottom division varies each year, depending on new entrants. Each crew is made up of eight rowers and one coxswain. Currently, there are six divisions for men’s crews (referred to as M1, M2 and so on until M6) and four divisions for women’s crews (W1 to W4). The divisions represent a total race order with Division 1 at the top. The aim is to try to finish Head of the River, or gaining the “Headship” – in other words, finishing in first position in division 1.

The Bumps get their unusual name because side-by-side racing is not possible over a long distance on the narrow and winding River Cam. Most of this short stretch of river is too narrow or not straight enough to allow more conventional side-by-side knock-out regattas. The bumps format was introduced in the early 19th century as an exciting alternative.

But for the casual spectator, the Bumps are both spectacular and puzzling. What is happening? What order do crews start in, and why? What are the crews trying to do when they race? And who is the winner at the end of it all?

No-one could describe the Bumps as a fair or objective set of races. Aside from the many disputes over obstructions, missed bumps and so on, the races depend on history for starting order, and luck to win coveted “oars.”

The start of a race begins when a cannon is fired. At the beginning of each race, each crew is separated by a distance of about 1½ boat lengths (about 30 metres). Once the race begins, a crew tries to catch up on the crew ahead of it and bump (physically touch or overtake) it before the crew behind does the same to them.

A crew that bumps or is bumped must pull to the side of the river to allow all the other crews to continue racing. If a bump is inevitable, due to the potentially dangerous situation created when a much faster crew is behind a slower one, coxes must acknowledge this by raising their hand before physical contact is made.

Needless to say, this is far better than carrying on regardless and causing a major hold up, not to mention damage or injury.

While the crews are striving on the river, the loyal bank parties try to negotiate the perils of the towpath, encouraging the crews using a variety of whistle and hooter codes – and some very flexible definitions of distance measures – to pass on information about how far ahead the opponents are.

If a crew is able to catch and bump the boat that started three places in front of it, after the two in front have already been bumped out, the crew is said to have over-bumped. A crew that neither bumps a crew ahead nor is bumped by a crew behind before crossing the finishing post is said to have rowed over.

After the race, any crew that bumps or over-bumps swaps places with the crew that it has bumped for the following day’s racing. A crew that rows over stays in the same position. Crews finishing at the top of a division move to the bottom of the next division, as the sandwich boat, in an attempt to try to move up into the next division.

The process is repeated over these four days, allowing crews to move up or down several places in the overall order of boats. The finishing order of one year’s May Bumps is then used as the starting order for the next year’s races. And the fastest crew may miss out and not be rewarded.

The full Bumps course is about 2.6 km long, and the majority of the course is downstream of the Penny Ferry pub, formerly the Pike & Eel. The Plough is also a popular vantage-point pub, as many bumps occur around Grassy Corner and Ditton Corner.

The Pegasus Cup goes to the most successful club in the May Bumps. The winner is decided through a complicated points system:

● One point for every place gained by each of a club’s boats
● One point for each night that a club retains the men’s or women’s headship in Division One
● One point deducted for every place lost by each of a club’s boats
● The total number of points gained over these four days is multiplied by 12 and then divided by the number of boats entered by the club to give the final score

To be eligible, a club must have at least one men’s and one women’s boat – although single-sex colleges re allowed to enter two boats of the same sex.

Clearly no crew has the chance to prove that it is the fastest as the quick crews bump and stop before they complete the course. The aim, for at least the top crews, is to finish ‘Head’ – the first boat in the first Division. But this chance is only realistically available for those crews that start in the top five places.

If a crew manages to get a bump every day – in other words, go up four places – they are awarded their oars … a blade painted in their college colours and illuminated with their crews’ names and boats they bumped.

Most colleges award blades to crews that go up four or more places regardless of how they got there. Today is the final day, when it is possible to identify those crews that have won their oars, for the cox will be holding an impracticably large flag while attempting to steer their boat.

Sidney Sussex shares a boathouse with Girton, Corpus Christi and Wolfson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sidney Sussex College, where I have stayed each year for the past six years, is one of the many regular entrants never to have finished Head of the River for either the men’s or women’s events. The others are: Anglia Ruskin (previously the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology or CCAT), Christ’s College, Clare Hall, Corpus Christi, Darwin, Girton, Homerton, Hughes Hall, King’s, Magdalene, Peterhouse, Robinson, Saint Catharine’s, Selwyn, Saint Edmund’s, Wolfson, Addenbrooke’s and the Veterinary School.

But then, even the best of clubs have bad years, to the dismay of their members.

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