Rowing the River Cam in Cambridge

Cambridge bumps

cambridge rowing club If you stay at Cambridge holiday cottages in late feb/early march or June or indeed July, then a trip to the lower reaches of the River Cam in Cambridge  is well worthwhile for these  are the times of the bumping races on the river.

Cambridge has a thriving rowing community. The colleges have a total of about 1500 active rowers and the town clubs about 700. At peak times the river is full of boats training. It is the busiest river in the country, yet is only just wide enough to spin an 8 oared boat in places.

The river is simply not wide enough to race 2 boats alongside each other for any more than 500m. So the answer is to race the boats end to end. The boats race in divisions of 18. The bottom boat is virtually in the lock at Baits Bite, the lead boat is just short of first post corner. Each of the 18 boats is separated by one and a half boat lengths or about 30m. The race occupies about 800m of river bank. The only way in which to start the race is by a series of cannons. The 4 minute warning is followed by a 1 minute gun.

After the 1 minute cannon there is a tense calm on the river. The coaches counting down on their stop watches, the rowers focusing  and breathing deeply. At about 30 seconds the boats are slowly pushed out from the bank into the river. The boat is lined up by the front two rowers taking tiny strokes. The cox holds onto a short length of chain that he/she must hold until the start.

The start cannon fires and all 18 boats simultaneously take off upstream. The object is to hit the boat in front of you and ensure that you say well clear of the boat behind you. If two boats hit or bump, then they pull over the the side of the river so that the other boats can continue racing. Your reward for bumping the boat in front is that you start in front of that boat and therefore further up the river for the next race the following day. The bumps happen over 4 days and if you bump every night then you have the honour of winning your blades. Winning your spoons is to be avoided as that means you have been bumped on all 4 days.

This first picture shows the drama of the race. It appears to show 3 boats in line. This is the narrow its part of the river that is known as “The Gut”. It is followed by a sharp 90 degree bend called Grassy Corner. There is always a lot of action here. This evening during the town bumps in July 2012 was no different. There are actually 4 boats in line in the picture all within 1/4 of a length of each other.

rowingThe next picture is on the apex of the corner. The first boat of the line is no longer in camera shot, but it is just a short distance in front. The boat that in the middle of this 2nd picture bumped the boat in front just after this picture was taken. The cheers from the bank meant that all 3 crews knew something had happened. Some crew members of the last boat wrongly thought they had scored the bump and they stopped rowing. However, this was not the case. their “target” had got away. they had saved their skin. This seemingly left the 4th boat high and dry with nothing to aim for.

However, the race is not over until all boats have bumped or the full course is rowed. The error was quickly corrected and with all 8 rowers back on task. A call came from the coach on the bank that they were only a length and half behind that lead boat of the line of 4. It was like starting the race again, but from about 1/2 distance. The cox mustered her rowers and called for maximum pressure in the legs. The lead boat of the 4 was caught and “over bumped” about 500m further down the course and within 80m of the safety of the finishing line.

A video of the race can be seen at

I was in that final boat of the line. It was one of the most dramatic and rewarding nights of racing. We had failed to bump much much earlier in the race as I had lost control of my oar, allowing it to drag in the water and thereby losing all boat speed. The race is so intense and the concentration is such that no one in the boat noticed the rain storm that is all to apparent in the YouTube video. The action is about 3 mins into the video.

John Jefferies