BUMPING RACESCategory: Sport
Eights Week at Oxford
Eights Week at Oxford, usually the fourth week, in May, is a fine spectacle and should not be missed by anyone interested in old customs. It is the time when the main bumping races of the year are held and the college eights compete on the River Isis (The river is the Thames, but it is mysteriously called the Isis where It flows through Oxford). Apart from the races there is much to see — ladies’ fancy hats, the coxes’ gay buttonholes, the ancient but dignified college “barges”, and a dazzling display of colourful ties and blazers. Races are run on a league principle, with different divisions. The last race on the last day decides which college is Head of the River. Boats are spaced at intervals, and the object is to catch and bump the one in front. A crew succeeding four days in succession win their oars (the cox his rudder) — and by ancient custom throw their cox into the river!
One Over the Eight
(by A. Seager)
Allan Seager, an American Professor of English at Michigan University, studied at Oxford in 1931—34. His story One Over the Eight describes some aspects of student life at the University. The extract included deals with the traditional Bumping races.
… The Bump Races come in two sets, late in January and early in May. They are rowed for six days, Thursday through Saturday and Monday through Wednesday. The colloquial name for the January races is Toggers: the formal one, Torpids; but no one could tell me why. The May races are called Eights, and they are quite social. If you have a girl, you bring her, give her luncheon of hock and lobster mayonnaise and she sits on the top of your barge to watch you sweat. Toggers are grimmer because January is grimmer.
Bump races are examples of much made of little. The Thames is a small river at Oxford. There were about twenty- ; five rowing colleges, and each college put two boats „ in the river, the larger colleges, like Balliol, three, sometimes four, so there were perhaps sixty in all. You could not row sixty eight-oared shells abreast on the Isis, so they ^ start one behind another and chase the one in front.
Small stakes are driven into the bank sixty feet apart. To each stake a rope sixty feet long is fixed. The cox holds the other end and lets the boat drift until it is taut. Each boat has a starter. Five minutes before time all the starters gather at a little brass cannon in a hayfield to synchronize their ; stopwatches with a chronometer. Then they come back and stand on the bank beside their boats saying, “Two minutes gone. Three minutes gone,” to the yawning oarsmen in the, river below.
In the last minute they count off the quarters, and finally, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, come forward, are you ready?” and Bang! - goes the little brass cannon.
The college bargeman gives you a hell of a shove with a boat-hook and away you go, the cox howling the boat at, about fifty strokes a minute. It is very common to black out; completely during the first thirty seconds. As soon as you are., under way, the stroke drops to about forty, but not much; less, because the course from Iffley Lock to the top of the barges is only about a mile and a half.
Most of the members of your college are scrambling along the towpath beside you, yelling and shooting off guns. You can’t tell whether the boat behind you is gaining, because - you are watching Stroke’s oar or your own, but if the cox’s voice rises to a scream and he starts counting to raise the beat. you know you are overtaking the boat ahead. When your : bow overlaps his stern, the cox turns the rudder sharply. Bow touches stern. This is the bump.
When you make a bump, the next day your boat starts’, in the place of bumped boat. You go up or down each day according to your prowess. The final aim, which may take several years to achieve, is to become Head of the River, the first boat in line.
On the first day of Toggers I was personally lucky. I had to row only the first six strokes. When the little brass cannon went off, we laid into the first strokes hard. The cox had just shouted, “Six!” when No. 7 in front of me caught a crab. If you are quick you can sometimes lie flat and let the oar pass over your head. Seven was not quick. He was probably blacked out, and the butt of the oar caught him in the belly and jack-knifed him out of the boat. Falling, he broke his oar smack off at the rowlock. The boat staggered. There were cries of “Man overboard!” and the cox was yelling oaths like a banshee. I don’t believe it is possible to overturn an eight-oared boat, but we nearly made it. In the confusion, Exeter came tearing into us from behind and sheared off all the oars on the bow side. It was a mess. No. 7 avoided having Exeter’s keel bash his head in by cunningly staying under water until after the collision; then he swam soggily ashore. Our race was over for that day and I was-barely winded.
The next day, with new oars, we caught St. John’s on the Green Bank and made a bump. In fact, we made five bumps in all during Toggers. If a boat makes five bumps in Toggers or four in Eights the college is required by custom to stand its members a Bump supper. It is a big jollification in honour of the Boat Club. The manciple (head chef) outdoes himself and provides a really good meal.