Crews racing towards First Post Corner in last year’s May Bumps.Alexander Massie

With excitement building for the annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race in March, Tuesday will see the start of an annual rowing fixture closer to home – the Cambridge Lent Bumps. College against college, boats battle it out on the Cam in one of Cambridge’s most engaging, and exhausting, weeks of sport. But for those new to the world of rowing, or those who have never wanted to face the early mornings and bitter cold, here is a quick rundown of Cambridge’s famous sporting spectacle.

How does it work?

The River Cam is too narrow for the usual side by side racing that you see in the Olympics or the Boat Race so instead crews line up in line along the river and ‘chase’ each other. Each division contains 17 or 18 boats who race upstream from Baits Bite Lock (around 6km north from the centre of Cambridge) back towards the city. Each boat attempts to ‘bump’ – meaning catch the boat in front of them, before they themselves are caught.

What is a bump?

A bump is when a boat catches the boat in front. In the most literal sense this is when there is physical contact between the boats, blades or people, hence the ‘bump’, or if a bump is inevitable the cox can concede by raising their hand. An overtake also counts as a bump. After a bump has occurred the two boats move over to the side of the river to let past the other boats that are still racing.

If the two boats in front of a crew have bumped out, it is possible to chase the boat three boats ahead and bump them. This is known as an ‘overbump.’ If a boat doesn’t bump or isn’t bumped itself it is said to have ‘rowed over.’

After the day’s race, boats that have bumped will switch positions in the starting order for the following day. Any boats that have rowed over will remain in the same position.

Who will win?

Bumps is chaotic by its very nature and very difficult to predict. It is unique in that the crews do not know how long their race will be before they start - they could bump within the first 100 metres or could be pitted in a long ferocious battle until the end of the race in Chesterton. A slow boat in front can often save a boat from being bumped if it has a faster boat chasing it and likewise a fast boat can often be deprived of a bump if the boat two boats ahead is slow.

The ultimate prize is to be the Head of the River, the two crews that top the W1 and M1 division. Last year, Newnham won the women’s headship and Caius won the men’s. But this year Newnham could face stiff competition from Jesus and Emmanuel who hold 2ndand 3rdplace, whilst Caius will have to stave off competition from Lady Margaret (St John’s College Boat Club) and Downing. From Wednesday the top boats will battle it out for this coveted title, with the winner being announced after the conclusion of racing on Saturday.

Aside from the headship, many boats can hope to bump on all four days of racing and win ‘blades.’ Crews who bump on all four days of racing earn the right to an oar printed with the names of all the crew members and vanquished opponents. There is the unfortunate opposite to blades; crews who are bumped everyday can be awarded spoons as a ‘at least you tried’ prize.


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How can I watch?

It is possible to watch at any point on the river running from the Bumps Control Desk in Chesterton to Baits Bite Lock. Popular vantage points include First Post Reach, Grassy Corner and the Plough at Fen Ditton as many bumps happen here. Ditton Meadows is also popular, although many boats have often bumped out before the Meadows. More information, including a map, can be found here:

You must not obstruct the towpath in the course of the race as umpires and coaches will be cycling alongside racing boats. Running or cycling alongside racing crews on the towpath is strictly prohibited unless you have an appropriate bank pass.

Bumps programmes can be purchased at the Bumps Control Desk, the Plough pub and King’s College Porter’s Lodge detailing the course and starting order. More information can be found on Cam FM will be providing live commentary and, of course, expect frequent updates from Varsity as well!

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