Last year's races resulted in Lady Margaret Hall's M1 crew retaining the headship title for the third year running, but both women's and men's crews have a chancer to shake things up this yearLouis Ashworth

From Wednesday, rowers and spectators will descend upon the far reaches of the River Cam for the annual spectacle that is May Bumps. Rowed over four consecutive days from Wednesday to Saturday, the races are usually a frenzied and chaotic conclusion to the year’s racing.

The History

Annual ‘Bumps’ races have been held at the University since 1827. The May Bumps, in their current incarnation, began in 1887 –when they separated from the Lent Bumps to form two separate annual races. The first women’s races were run a full 87 years later in 1974, although women’s crews were not permitted to row in eights until the 1990s. Both the men’s and women’s competitions are now regarded as the pinnacle of Cambridge collegiate rowing.

The combined Trinity boat clubs (1st Trinity, 3rd Trinity, and the current 1st & 3rd) hold the record for most men’s Headships with twenty-five, while Jesus leads the women’s all-time leaderboard with seven Headships. The Headship is awarded to the crew at the top of the river, in the top division.

The Rules

Bumps racing is conducted according to a peculiar set of rules designed to account for the narrowness of the River Cam. Each division begins with the boats lined up down the river in a ‘queue’ – the boat at the top of the division is at the head of the queue, while the boat at the bottom of the division is at the rear.

When the cannon fires to start the division, each boat attempts to close the gap to the boat in front and hit it with their bow. This is the ‘bump’ - the boats involved must then pull over to the side of the river. For them, the day’s racing is over, and the two crews will then swap places for the next day’s racing: the bumping crew advancing further towards the head of the division, the bumped crew regressing further towards the tail.

One final intricacy is worth noting. If a given boat bumps the boat in front of it (with both pulling over), the boat to its rear must continue racing. Its aim is then to catch the next boat in front of it that is still racing, usually the boat that is three positions ahead of it. If it successfully does so, the two boats will also switch places, with the chasing boat moving up three positions (with an equivalent fall for their unfortunate victims). This is known as an ‘overbump’. Where multiple bumps take place ahead of a crew, larger gains are possible – double overbumps (a gain of five places) and triple overbumps (a gain of seven) are not unheard of, while quadruple overbumps (+9) are a once in a lifetime event.

The narrowness of the Cam can create chaos among the armada of competing boatsLouis Ashworth

The Course

The course runs approximately 2.6 kilometres upstream from Baitsbite Lock to Chesterton. The arrangement of the crews at the start means the crew at the head of a division starts almost 800 metres ahead of the crew at the rear. As a result, the finish for crews in the bottom half of a division is located slightly further downstream than for those starting in the top half.

The Contenders

The Lady Margaret Boat Club are currently Men’s Head of the River, their M1 crew having acquired Headship in 2016 and retaining it in 2017 and 2018. They previously also held Lents headship from 2017 to 2018, until they were bumped on the first day this year by a faster Caius crew.

Caius will start on Wednesday in fourth position on the river and will fancy their chances of bumping up to headship by the end of the week. Standing between them and the ultimate prize, however, are Clare (2nd on the river) and Pembroke (3rd).

Although not in headship contention this year, Peterhouse M1 (10th on the river) is notable for featuring three members of this year’s winning Blues Boat Race crew. Natan Węgrzycki-Szymczyk, Sam Hookway, and two-time Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell have all been named to turn out for the Royal Blues. Peterhouse finished second in the recent Champs Head race behind LMBC and will be chasing Jesus on Day One.

A change in headship has also been heavily tipped on the women’s side. Newnham W1 bumped Jesus to take headship in the Lents last term and will have a chance to do the same from second position on the river on Wednesday. Other crews with a chance of claiming women’s headship are Emmanuel (3rd on the river), Downing (4th) and Caius (5th).

Aside from the top boats, there will of course be a flotilla of crews in the lower divisions battling for the ultimate goal of ‘blades’ – i.e. scoring a bump on each of the four days. Crews’ desperation to get blades or avoid ‘spoons’ (being bumped on each day) can result in the most dramatic racing and, given the relative inexperience of some of the crews, some spectacular crashes.

The Times

Racing starts with the lowest division at 1pm from Wednesday to Friday, progressing up through the divisions at 45 minute intervals. The top divisions (W1 and M1) race at the end of each day, at 7pm and 7.45pm. All divisions start two hours earlier on Saturday (11am for the lowest division; W1/M1 racing at 5pm and 5.45pm).

The Weather

Unfortunately, some grim weather is forecast for the first two days of Bumps, with rain expected from Wednesday to Thursday afternoon. The skies are expected to clear somewhat by Thursday evening, likely staying dry on Friday and Saturday. Maximum temperatures are likely to be pleasant (16-20 degrees Celsius throughout), setting the scene for what should be a glorious finale to the year’s racing.

How to Watch

The best way to see the action is live on course. For the lower divisions, the ideal vantage point is around the top of First Post Reach as boats tend to bump out quite early. In the upper divisions, Grassy Corner is often the site of much of the action, although Ditton Meadows offers a good view up the reach if crews happen to go the distance.


Mountain View

Becoming foreign: Live: The Boat Races 2019

If you’re feeling thirsty, The Plough, accessible by ferry, is the closest watering hole and is popular among spectators.

If you can’t make it in person, Cam FM will provide live audio commentary, both over the air (97.2 FM) and online.

Look out for Varsity's coverage of the event and results.