15 June 2009
quintessential cambridge experience #3: bumps
This time of year is heavy with ritual in Cambridge, and among the finest of those rituals is May Bumps, a multi-day series of boat races on the River Cam. Every college at the University fields boat crews, as do the medical, veterinary and theological schools and Anglia Ruskin University. Both terms, “May” and “Bumps,” need some clarification. They “May” part is easier to explain: as in the case of May Balls, it’s a relic of an earlier time when the academic year was structured differently.
“Bumps” refers to the way in which boats—each with eight rowers plus a coxswain, who steers and yells out commands—advance in the rankings over other boats. The races are not timed, and as will be explained momentarily, many of the boats in a given division will not even race the entire course. In the Bumps, success is only about rank, and the way you improve your standing is to overtake (“bump”) the boat ahead of you. Roughly 18 boats race at a time, and prior to the starting cannon they line up in the order determined by the previous day’s rankings (or previous year’s, if it’s the first day), with about 1½ boat lengths of space between each one. If one boat bumps another, their race is over; both pull over to the banks to let the rest of their division go by, and on the next day’s race they swap places in the order. It’s also possible to “overbump”—if the 2nd boat bumps the 3rd, and then the 4th boat bumps the 1st, the latter two will swap places during the next go-around. At the end of several days of racing, the top boats in the top men’s and women’s divisions are crowned as “Heads of the River.” However, any boat can earn a bit of glory by winning “oars,” awarded to crews that bump other boats on four consecutive days.
The official May Bumps program claims that 15% of the University participates. It sounded unrealistically high at first blush, but then again it seems plausible that 15% of my friends and classmates are rowers. Though it is a great Cambridge experience, I never felt especially tempted to join a boat crew, perhaps because it’s famously demanding on participants’ schedules and sleep-wake cycles. I really enjoyed watching the races, though—a lot of people come out, and it’s a nice atmosphere. Here are a couple of the Emma boat crews with MCR members:
The Men's II boat- MCR friends Kevin and Pat are the two rowers on the far left.
The 4th-ranked Women's I boat. Fellow Ephs Catherine and Maggie are 2nd and 4th from right.