May Bumps 2018: An Insider’s Guide

Finn Ranson 25 May 2018

In three weeks, some 160 crews, made up of around 1,500 students and coaches, will take to the River Cam for four days of intense and eventful racing.

Whether you’re a seasoned boatie or a no-atie, these are some of the most exciting clashes in the Cambridge college sporting calendar and a trip down to the river on (hopefully) sunny, revision-less June afternoons is sure to be rewarded with close competition and carnage.

The Most Exciting Rowing Races in the World

Bumps are rowing races unlike the any other in the world. Traditional rowing races, like the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, Henley Royal Regatta and the Olympics, tend to pit crews side by side in a straight race.

The Cam, however, is far too narrow and bendy to do this sort of racing safely so an alternative ‘bumping’ model was developed in 1827 and this is still carried out today, albeit with a few adjustments. They still use a cannon to start the race, but today there are women’s divisions and the coaches no longer follow the boats on horseback.

The crews are lined up along the river about 30m apart. Tension and nerves run high as the cannon, specially brought out for the event, goes off to announce four minutes till the start of the race.

3 minutes… 2 minutes… 1 minute.. 30 seconds..  5 seconds. BOOM. The rowing suit-wetting start cannon goes off and so do the crews intent on chasing down the boat ahead of them, and anxiously mindful of the crew behind creeping up on them.

These are exhilarating races to row in and make fantastic viewing. Don’t think of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, miles and miles of not much happening, this is racing that can change at the flick of a switch, where the opposition is right on your tail but victory is inches away.

Especially with the races involving less experienced crews, carnage is guaranteed with plenty of crabs (oars stuck in water – potentially ejecting the unfortunate rower headfirst out of the boat), crashes and (if you’re lucky) capsizes.

This is far more exciting than some of the tightest fights of Henley Royal Regatta. So much can happen in a single, 10-15 minute race that May Bumps would give even Claire Balding a run for her commentary money.

Hacking Spectating

So, where do you go to watch the show?

Grab a good spot on Grassy Corner: a difficult bend where the majority of the carnage happens, a good few bumps, and where you will get the best atmosphere.

Bring a picnic, lots of Pimms, a blanket, a radio or speaker to listen to the Cam FM commentary and, of course, plenty of sun cream.

Though the first three days of bumps provide a great opportunity to sit by the riverside, the best day to watch is the Saturday. Many of the boat clubs set up marquees with barbeques and Pimms on sale along the right bank of the Long Reach.

It’s Cambridge’s version of the Henley Regatta and the social highlight of a rower’s year, popular with students, townies and alumni alike. Blazers, college stash and flags will be out in full force, and no doubt the drink will be flowing. This is college sport at its most lavish.

Insider’s tip: When cycling to the bumps make sure you are on the correct side of the Green Dragon footbridge for where you want to go: Chesterton Road/A14 side for Grassy Corner, and the other for the Plough pub and the Long Reach Saturday Marquees.

Eyes on the Cam: What to look out for

A bump can happen in several ways. Watch for the front of the boat (or the ‘bow-ball’) going in front of the cox who in turn raises their hand to concede. Some boats crash out of the race on the tricky Grassy corner and are then ploughed into by the rest of the division.

The victors’ eternal glory is marked by the receipt of leafy greenery. A myth of the river Cam is that the best rowers can tell exactly where a crew bumped based of the type of greenery they wear.

To identify a college look at the colour of the ends of the oars. Shouts from the spectators in support of their colleges are incredibly welcome but make sure you shout “FAT” and “Maggie” instead of Trinity and Johns to look like you’re in the know.

Make sure to make a mental note of any novelty stash on display. Girton are famous on the Cam for their ever-changing bold (or atrocious) designs. Selwyn have become synonymous with a Hawaiian lycra while some colleges in recent years have favoured a tartan number. I won’t ruin the surprise by including pictures here but safe to say it will be vital to bring strong sunglasses whatever the weather.

And remember, your college crews have been training for eight weeks+ to provide you with a fantastic spectacle of rowing. Don’t miss out on the biggest riverside garden party of the year!