Saturday, February 28, 2004

(Autumn punts, not winter rowers, on the river. Note to self: carry camera everywhere dammit.)

B is for “Bumps”

After rehearsal Saturday I wound up at the bumps.

While it sounds like a party where the entertainment is those sumo-suits, it’s another Cambridge tradition, marking the height of the rowing season.

Basically, the Cam’s a narrow strip of water, not wide enough for a couple of dozen college boats to line up at the one starting line. So there’s a staggered start, based on your ranking in the rowing competition to date (I think). To remove someone from the race you basically ram their boat from behind, and they have to pull over and sit it out.

Hence the term “bumps” (as opposed to “vicious battering”).

Despite the combative name, I think it’s far more common just to try and overtake than to bump.

Some qualifying Trinity Hall men’s and women’s crews were in late races at 4.00 and 4.30 so when I got out of rehearsal early I headed on out to the river. I had no idea where I had to go, just that it was up-river a long way, so glancing at a map, I took a (metaphorical) punt and cycled out along the Cam figuring it would be easy to tell when I was in the right place.

It was. I saw supporters in boat club jackets long before I saw anything else.

The whole thing made a strangely feudal impression on me.

The sound of oars being drawn up in rowlocks with a distinctly martial clack. The heraldic colours of the crew uniforms, that matched the painted undersides of the oar-blades as the sculls scud by. The boom of distant starting guns, somewhere beyond the river bend and flayed winter trees and hedgerows and bramble, the approaching racket and roar of supporters and coaches riding (sometimes slipping) through the riverside bike-track riven quagmire.

The unperturbed swans, ponderously wallowing in the shallows.

Standing a little back from the quick-moving riot, then pacing it with bike – I reflected that wars in the middle ages must have been a bit like this. All human flurry and colour: a packed, moiling movement that could be heard a little way off – but not very far off – and that could probably be safely observed from that same modest distance.

And then at the finish line by the Pike & Eel it would all be over: a dozen odd drifting sculls full of steam-panting ruddied rowers – the culmination of months of pre-dawn mornings braving the freezing waters of the Cam.

I was briefly stirred by the spectacle, but not enough to face that kind of training schedule. (At 10.15 am Saturday morning, I was running late for rehearsal and couldn’t even find where I had to be. The rehearsal was being held in my own college, in a room where I’ve served drinks ...)

The spectators were less practically attired than the rowers. Where the towpath ran out into fields, as mentioned, bikes had churned up a sort of battle of the Somme environment (cow paddock fences added the barbed wire). A lot of people, women especially, were in white fashion sneakers with jeans that hung down to level with the soles of their shoes.

It was an interesting demonstration of capillary action in cotton, the height to which mud had scaled people’s calves.

Not that I can talk. Taking a lady’s racing bike cross-country over mud-churned cow paddocks is probably not in the manufacturer’s recommendations. Cycling a field’s also not necessarily a whole heap better for your jeans and shoes than walking either …

In another interesting display of tradition, the winners in the women’s race got to do a victory lap with laurel in their hair.

(Or what I hope was laurel.)

They drubbed the side of their boat in encouragement to their men’s team as it cruised by to position.

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