The seven most ridiculous things about Bumps

Image credit: Chris Hinde

It’s that time of year again – exams are upon us, with the distant glimmer of May Week giving us all a reason to carry on. But for the boaties, the beginning of June brings another trial – the May Bumps.

It’s not a surprise that Bumps are a mystery to most people. What is a surprise, however, is that most of the rowing world also has no idea why anyone thought intentional crashing would be a good idea – including me. I started rowing just after the 2012 Olympics, at the tender age of 14, so you’d think I’d have come to Cambridge this year knowing everything there is to know about rowing. Unfortunately last term’s Lent Bumps, like most things in Cambridge, made me feel like I knew nothing.

So, from me to you: here are the seven most ridiculous things about Bumps, and how they compare with ‘normal rowing’.

1. The format

Most summer races in the rowing world are done side-by-side over a short distance, involving two boats on most rivers and up to six lanes for the national races. Anything above 2km happens in winter as a time trial-style affair.

Cambridge doesn’t work this way. To be fair, the Cam is barely wide enough to let two boats pass each other without crashing, so I can see why side-by-side isn’t the way forward (or backwards? The ultimate question). Instead we do bumps, where you’re set off a short distance apart and have to bump into the boat in front. It’s self-imposed carnage.

Plus, the mental difference between bumps and racing a set distance is massive. During Bumps you have no idea how long you’ll be rowing for – it could be anything from ten seconds to ten minutes. Given that rowing is such an intense exercise, the prospect of having to go as hard as you can for an unspecified amount of time is mildly traumatic. It took me a good week to recover from Lent.

2. The cannon

Rowers usually make do with an umpire shouting ‘GO’, or a klaxon if you’ve gone to a national regatta. Meanwhile in Cambridge, an actual cannon is used not just once but three times – marking five minutes before the start, one minute before and of course the start itself. It can be heard on most of the river and strikes fear into the hearts of every rower on the Cam.

If the cannon doesn’t scare you, then you’ve probably missed it. At that point you have a problem.

3. The whistle system

In a side-by-side race you can clearly see if you’re winning or losing. In Bumps the only ones who can see how close it is are the people cycling on the bank. But shouting won’t do in Cambridge. Instead there’s a system of whistles going from one whistle, which means you’re a boat length away, to a constant blast meaning a bump is imminent. This is all very well, but in reality you can’t actually tell who the whistles are from – it just blends into a high pitched noise. Classic Cambridge with its unhelpful traditions…

4. Grassy Corner

Grassy Corner is a corner with grass on it. But it’s more than that. It’s a really nasty bend that can make or break your race: if you steer round it well you get a massive advantage, if you don’t then you’ll probably end up crashing (definitely been there). Which brings us to the fifth point:

5. The (inevitable) carnage

What do you expect when you let a load of pumped-up rowers loose on the river and tell them to crash into each other? Not an orderly queue, that’s for sure. The carnage of bumps includes broken blades, broken boats and sometimes even broken people. It would be hilarious if the boats and blades didn’t cost so much money. I can hear the boat club treasurer sobbing in the background.

6. The fines

Fortunately, some offenders do get punished. Fines are insanely common, with around fifteen being handed out each day. Most are for serious things, but the fines list is also a site for snarky jokes from the umpires like ‘Crime: Leaving a snapped blade floating in the river for the umpires to play hook-a-duck with. Punishment: Provide further games after each day’s races’. Comedy gold right there.

Jokes aside, it does amaze me how much bureaucracy there is about rowing in Cambridge. Apart from the fines, there’s also restrictions on when you can row, or the places you can turn around, or how fast you can go past swans. The most regulation you get on other rivers is usually ‘keep right, don’t swear and don’t hit anyone’. What gives?

7. Pulling branches from trees, and other prizes

When you’re a kid you get told off for taking branches off trees. In Bumps it’s the goal. If you bump, you wear tree branches on your head to show the world that you’re the best rowers ever. You might even get some applause. Of course, at other races it’s obvious if you won because you crossed the line first.

In terms of prizes, winning a normal race would get you a nice medal or – even better – a tankard to have your post-race beer in. Unfortunately Bumps is a few days long, so instead you have to wait until the last day, where if you bumped every day you get ‘blades’ and if you got bumped every day you get ‘spoons’ (sadly not the pub). For anything in between, tough luck, you just get tan lines from the rowing kit. As with most things, the winner takes it all. But at least everyone gets the joy of trawling through zig-zagging bumps charts!

So, there you have it – the seven biggest things that even a long-term boatie finds ridiculous about Bumps. For anyone who has ever been equally confused about it all: don’t worry, you’re definitely not the only one!

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