Like many visiting Americans, I chose rowing with my college team as the classically Oxford pastime I would use to impress my friends and family. Despite the early morning practices in often freezing conditions and/or rain (this is England, after all), I found that any less than fond memories I harbored throughout the term was quickly erased after my first race at the end of term regatta: Torpids.
Torpid takes place seventh week of Hilary Term (early March) and is a bumps race. If you’ve never heard of bumps racing, let me preface it by saying this: I’m fairly convinced that the concept of bumps racing was conceived after a few rowers got a little drunk and decided that rowing just wasn’t dangerous enough.
Boats start in a single file line ordered by rank, the division’s top ranked boat at the front of the line.
Once the final cannon sounds, the boats start rowing. The main goal is for a crew to pass the boat in front and essentially “bump” them out of their rank. The cox must raise their hand and “concede” for the boat to officially have made a bump. The next race day, the boat will start ahead of the bumped boat.
Once a crew bumps they are allowed to pull off to the side and stop rowing. If a crew bumps all four days of Torpids and is not bumped themselves, they win “blades”—an oar sporting the school colors with the names of the rowers and the year of the regatta. Considering that this blade is often displayed in the winning college’s dining hall or bar for future generations to admire and aspire for, many teams feel significant pressure to win blades.
Thinking about bumps racing, though, I realized Several things can go awry using this format. For instance, a bump is awarded entirely at the discretion of the cox. Usually, this is not a problem; bank riders and college supporters will usually shout “CONCEDE COX” to the boat about to be bumped. The bumping boat may have to get a little close and lightly tap the side of the boat in front with its bow to gain a concession if the cox is stubborn, but usually an overlap is fine.
Here’s what happens if a cox gets a little too stubborn about not giving a concession.
This usually doesn’t happen (although YouTube has more than one video of boats vs. cox), but one has to wonder if the founder of the first bumps race thought about the safety of the rowers and the £20,000 boats.
Don’t worry, if events like that happen, the race does stop. The officials sound a bull horn and call a “clacksen” whenever something happens that could endear the other boats/rowers/onlookers. All boats must stop rowing and the race is officially ended. However, the race is not repeated, so the pressure to bump early increases if a crew wants to win blades. More examples of reasons for clacksen are:
- Running the boat in the bank. This doesn’t always result in a clacksen, but if the immobilized boat poses a threat to the other boats (ie, lodging itself so that it is perpendicular to the river, essentially becoming a very expensive and human-filled road block), the clacksen will sound.
- Boats not pulling off to the side of the bank and blocking the river. The Thames, as you can imagine at this point, is narrow which makes it ideal for bumps racing but also traffic congestion akin to LA rush hour.
- Crabs. A crab is when the when the oar gets caught up by the flow of the stream and is pulled behind the rower, parallel to the boat.
The oar will just get twisted out of the rower’s grip and then a mad struggle to regain control of the oar ensues. Normal crabs don’t result in clacksens, but if the current is fast enough/fate is cruel, a few other things can happen:
- If the rower does not move out of the way of the errant oar, the end will hit them. A blade caught in a crab moves fast, so the oar will hit you HARD. Worst places to be hit: 1) in the mouth (I have seen rowers lose teeth this way) and 2) in the groin :(
- If the rower forgets entirely that he or she should let go of the oar and it is a massive crab, the oar will actually take the rower along with it. Which means the rower is now in the water. Probably the only crab that warrants a clacksen, but more than that, it’s a mark of shame. While officials fish you out of the water, your crew must row on with seven people thereby signaling to the onlookers and other crews that you were that guy that managed to ruin an entire division’s race.
- Reportedly, a female novice rower had a baggy shirt on and caught a crab. Unfortunately, her shirt caught on the end of the oar and as the oar went over her head, it pulled the shirt off with it. Not sure if flashing is a cause for clacksen, but another example of why crabs are a rower’s worst nightmare. (Also not sure if this story is entirely true, but it seems too crazy to be made up)
So in light of all this potential humiliation and harm, one might question why I row at all. To be fair, I’ve listed the worst possible scenarios a crew can encounter. These events rarely happen in races (although I did manage to see someone actually catch an ejector crab and yes I laughed a little on the inside). Funny slapstick stunts aside, the moment you see the rival cox raising his or her hand to concede, the endorphins kick in and the elation of victory washes away any resentment you had toward early morning practices and two week long drinking bans. It’s the same reason why I did tennis and lacrosse in high school and still enjoy it in university.
Plus, if your team is especially cheeky, your uniforms consist of this:
Yep, that’s our women’s third boat rowing in Harry Potter stash. Even better, this was our bank rider: