Sometimes, I have the self-awareness to notice my friends’ eyes start to glaze over when I start rehashing my most recent rowing exploits, and realize that the fact that I currently have an unbalanced cult-like devotion to the sport does not, in fact, mean that anyone else cares. But, since this week was “Torpids” – which is actually a big deal in the Oxford rowing world – I will leave it to you to decide whether you care enough about klaxons and ergs and bumps and crabs to read onward.
The Isis is not wide enough to have a proper side-by-side race between boats. So Oxford, in its infinite cleverness (rumour is Cambridge copied us), came up with “bumps racing.” Basically, twelve boats line up one after another, with a boat length-and-a-half distance between them. When the gun fires, everyone rows as fast as they can after one another. Although technically coxswains are supposed to concede the race before there is contact, the real fun of bumps racing comes from celebrating our unique obligations as Oxford students to use our privileges to the betterment of humanity by ramming one $40,000 boat into another. If you get “bumped,” you move down one place in the start order the next day, and the places carry over from year to year. There are seven divisions, so you literally have to be consistently good for decades to be head of the river.
Rowing seems to be the only thing English people have yet to figure out how to do in the rain, and as a consequence, our first day of rowing was canceled, leaving me in the unfortunate position of actually attending class. On Thursday, though, we were good to go, and, having spent the morning pumping up by watching cheesy you-tube rowing montages set to speeches pulled from 1980s football movies, I was ready to roll. Our quarry for the day was Lady Margaret Hall, with Pembroke giving chase. Following the maxim that if you fail, you should fail spectacularly, I managed to fall off my seat at the critical moment of the race (look, I was pulling really mightily). At that moment, LMH was only a quarter length away, but quickly escaped, while Pembroke careened into us, severing our rudder. Without steering, the entire remainder of our division proceeded to bump us. “Ruddergate” shall live in infamy for many years, which coincidentally is about how long it will take us to regain our previous place.
Like in any good formulaic sports movie, Friday offered a chance for redemption, which we seized. We had now been dropped down to the front of a lower division, so in our first race, our goal was simply to avoid being bumped by Wadham, whom everyone hates for some reason. This time, I managed to keep a hold of my oar, and we put six lengths in front of the evil college from East campus. As a result, we got to race in the next division up an hour later, and managed to ram Teddy Hall in the space of twenty strokes. Back slaps all around. You can see my lithe, ripped self in seat six in the below clip, rowing with terrible form.
By Saturday, we had already had a day of racing canceled, a day of catastrophe, and a day of fabulous success. All that was left for the Thames to throw at was a “klaxon.” I actually have no idea what part of speech a klaxon is, but whatever it is, it happens when – during a race – a bunch of boats crash into each other and block the river. A horn blows, and the whole affair stops mid-way through, with no re-do. I will maintain to my deathbed that we were going to catch St. Peters in fine form, but since our race ended 400 meters in, the outcome of our race will go down with the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie roll pop as things the world will never know. That said, this hilarious video surfaced on you-tube, which shows the crash in action as well as a bunch of people getting hit in the head with oars.
All in all, a stirringly mediocre performance – but I couldn’t have been happier to take part. On Saturday, the Hogwarts regalia was out in full force, and it seemed like half the campus – including some of my amazing friends from the department – braved the cold to come watch me (not) race. When we pulled into the boat house, M1 handed us pints of Pims, which we drank with oars still in hand. Our women’s first crew bumped every day, winning “blades” (you actually get a huge oar to take home), so we showered them in champagne. As for boat club dinner later that night, well, that would require a few more words, and having spent four days rowing, I think its time to return to unreality.
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Jukebox: Against Me! – New Wave