hce@midge.bath.ac.uk (H. C. E.)
„Bumps“: an explanation

School of Social Sciences, University of Bath, UK
Tue, 12 Jul 1994 09:55:06 GMT


I recall one Conan (the barbarian?) requesting clarification from Rachel
Quarrell on what the term „bump[s]“ referred to. Whilst unable to claim
being the aforementioned RQ, I can, however, claim to have rowed in a bumps
race, so hopefully I can enlighten you and anyone else interested as to what
this quaint custom entails.

Bumps racing is done in Cambridge and Oxford, and also, I believe on the
Thames between colleges of London University (though I’m not totally sure
about this). I think it originated because the rivers in Cambridge and
Oxford are very narrow and preclude side-by-side racing over any reasonable

Bumps racing is processional, it is done in divisions of eighteen boats at a
time, each separated by 1 ½ lengths. All the crews are started at the same
time, usually by means of a cannon. The object is to catch and touch (yes,
touch!) or „bump“ the crew in front, without being bumped by the crew
behind. If one crew catches the one in front and bumps, the two crews pull
into the side of the river whilst the others continue until they have
crossed the finish line, or have been bumped/bump themselves. Getting all
the way down the course is termed „rowing-over“.

The bumps are held over four days and the starting order is inherited from
the previous year. When a bump is made, the crews switch places in the
following day’s starting order, hence a crew can „bump-up“ four places in
four successive days. If this feat is achieved, crew members are entitled to
a painted oar, and the cox a painted rudder, with the names of the crew,
college crest, crews bumped etc. This is termed „winning blades“. If they
reach the head of the first division, they try and remain there until the
end of the final day by rowing over, and are termed Head of the River
(though, of course only crews within five places of the head have any chance
of getting there). Crews at the head of the lower divisions also row over at
the bottom of the next division up, and try to „bump-on“.

complications: if two crews bump out ahead during the race, you can proceed
to try and catch the crew ahead of them; if achieved, this is termed an
over-bump. In the top divisions where crews are evenly matched, it occurs
rarely, but in the lower divisions it is more common, as are horrendous
pile-ups caused by crews and coxes who are inexperienced and don’t get out
of the way after bumping sufficiently quickly to avoid the chasing crews.

In Cambridge there are University bumps between the colleges twice a year.
The Lent Bumps are usually around the third week in February, and the May
Bumps are the second week in June (or so). The town clubs hold bumps in
July. Bumps racing is probably the most exciting rowing to watch, with so
many crews and the prospect of spectacular crashes. Also, people follow the
crews down the river on bikes, signalling by means of whistles, bells and
hooters to their crew to tell them how close they are to bumping the crew

Making a bump is very exhilarating, and being bumped is dreadful.
Watching that crew sneaking up on you and getting overlap is not at all
pleasant. Making the bump is rather different, because, of course, you can’t
see it (unless you’re the cox).

Well, I hope that goes some way to explaining. If you have any other
questions on bumps, drop me a line.

H. C. E.

Bath Univ BC

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