Bumps Day 2: Bite me


Well into the 20th Century people would arrive in Cambridge from the sunken lands around the city seeking treatment for the Fen Ague. Malaria. That’s Wednesday night Bumps: a delirium settles over the river as crews start their second night of rowing, having either had Tuesday off after a Monday start or having begun the previous night.

There’s overlap and then there’s moving in with the crew ahead and choosing curtains together.

Why is the second night so weird? For some it’s the fact they failed to eat enough the night before. For others the golfball sized lumps on their arms and legs from some the vicious bites of the Fen’s more ferocious insects are giving them fantom-muscle-syndrome. “I used to have a muscle here but now it’s all lump… but I can still feel it down there somewhere!”

A large part of the weirdness is that the adrenalin of the first night and huge effort exerted has left them not-quite as strong as they think they should be, and they know this is only the second of four nights. It’s also the night they’re starting to pay attention to the bumps chart – trying to foretell futures like a cafe mystic, reading the tea stains on the formica which promise to lift all doubt if only they can translate them.

It’s a rabbit hole to be avoided. You’ll meet the March Hare and the Mock Turtle down there and your tears will flood the Cam before you get any real insight into what the race holds. Despite knowing this – much emotion and mental energy will be poured down the hole by crews and clubs across Cambridge this week.

For our part the second race was choppy and frantic but successful. We bumped again. We were happy but also disoriented – our training is paying off, our plans are playing out, and yet there’s the elusive feeling of the perfect row that had not settled on us during the race. In the Geek Circus that is Cambridge of course there’s plenty of tech in the boat and on the towpath to film and statistise your rowing. Looking at the stats and the video it all looked good. The City cox of the crew ahead could have, *coughs*, conceded a lot earlier, but apart from that it was pretty textbook. 

So why didn’t it feel as epic as it should? To some extent; that’s bumps. If you want to race on flat, calm water, don’t come to the Cam in July. We were starting from the last station before the motorway bridge – the A14’s span rests on concrete plains that create an echo-chamber for the water waves to bounce around in. It’s a bargain basement Scylla and Charybdis for our first few strokes. Then we hit the outflow – a pungent current pushing the bows first and then working its visceral way along the boat to cause unbalanced discord as we wind up. Then – well, without blowing our trumpet – we are in the wash of the boat ahead having eaten up a half a length. Once you’re in the dirty water created by the competition you’ve got to row strong, keep your catches in and close the distance despite the mess they’re throwing your way. 

The great thing about hearing the whistles that tell you how close you are is that you know what you’re doing is affective and that you are, at the moment, faster than the boat ahead. The bad thing is it encourages you to try too hard in an attempt to close even faster and ‘get it over with’. This rarely works. If you’re faster already it means what you’re currently doing is working. More effort threatens to throw that good work off, to cause disconnect and prolong the agony, or even allow the crew ahead to break free. Their “That’s no moon,” becomes “Punch it Chewie,” in a geeky blink of an eye.

For us the whistles came quickly, with the overlap (our bow going beyond their stern) coming within around 300m. By then the whistle is continuous – indicating a concede from the rival cox is imminent. However this dragged on as it often does as the boat ahead finds some last vestiges of power to push away from you, their cox takes a cheeky line to steer clear, and you race in increasingly messy water.

It seemed an eternity and, even though we’d closed the gap, part of a rowers mind is thinking “Why can’t we finish this? What is wrong with us?” even as another part is roaring “We are legend and we will conquer them.” Your inner Alvy Singer meets Ghengis Kahn.

Last night this was exacerbated by a rival cox who, and I am not exaggerating, seemed happy to not concede until we were about to start overtaking them; there’s overlap and then there’s moving in with the crew ahead and choosing curtains together. 

At the end of it all we rowed home with willow and goofy grins, taking the applause from the bank.

Of all the things we took with us on the night the best was the intangible element – the crews’ belief in each other and the joy of rowing. Oh – and the Nolan’s single of course which now HAS to be in the boat otherwise Karakorum will fall to the sound of much wailing, the soft whisper of “I’m in the Mood for Dancing” it’s apocalyptic soundtrack.


All images courtesy and copyright of Ralph Percival.



Wednesday’s results for us:

We were chased by Cantabs 6 (who were bumped by Radegund M1)

We chased and bumped: City M6. It took approximately 1:52 seconds – covering about 600m.

Next race: Chasing City 5 (aka The Sharks).

Tuesday’s results for us:

No racing!

Monday’ results for us:

We were chased by: St Neots M2 (who were bumped by Radegund M1)

We chased and bumped: Cantabs M6. It took approximately 1:45 seconds – covering around 500m plus. The water was dirty, the rate was forty. We carried with  us a newly found 45rpm vinyl single of the Nolans’ I’m in the Mood for Dancing.

Next race: Chasing City M6.

Our crew this year is:

Cox: Maddy Scragg

Stroke: Paul Holland

7: Simon Emmings

6: Jonathan Pilgrim

5: Ian Foster

4: Ralph Hancock

3: Brian Stevens

2: Dan McGreal

Bow: Ondrej Cervinka

The tenth man: Andy Southgate

Coach: Chris Clark

Subs: Dave Richards, Chris Wood, William Connolley

What are the Town Bumps ?

Bumps is a wet chaos and not something easily explained. For a quick video on the subject you could do worse than watch this (I apologies for my vocals on it – this concerns the University May and Lent bumps but the Town Bumps are the same, but with rowers whose dreams are long behind them and whose elbow skin is bunching in telling ways):

For more information see the Cambridgeshire Rowing Associations webpages.

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