Bang! The cannon went off and eight rowers pulled on their oars, speeding up and leaning back until the handle landed on their chests. The first stroke is key. Another full stroke, then two short ones, then two long ones. This was our racing start, and it needed to be good because we were trying to hit the boat behind us.
They call rowing races here “bumps racing,” but the sound you hear is more like a crunch. It’s a coarse, tearing sound as your bow rams into the stern of another boat, a nasty churning of metal, paint and carbon fiber. Some might compare this to bumper boats, but that is for fun — this is for honor.
In bumper boats, the boats playfully bounce off each other; in this, they break each other. We cannot stop racing until we hit another boat, for only then will we have earned the right to rest. But rest is nothing compared to the rush, the roar, of a bumps race. At few other moments have we felt more alive. The race is called “Torpids,” the main event of the Hilary term rowing season, and we have been rowing for four days. This is the last day, and as we speed along the course, sandwiched between boats from other colleges, we are determined to get a bump for Hertford College.
Before the cannon fires, we sit single-file in a line of nine other boats with about a boat length between each of us. That space can disappear very quickly, so we need to blast off from the start. Moments before the cannon goes, we sit upright, hands outstretched, in complete stillness. The sun beats down on us as we take slow, measured breaths. And then, in a moment, the silence breaks.
The cannon fires, our oars go creeeeeak as they bend for the first stroke, and our coxswain shouts “Drawwww! Drawwww! Lengthen!” as we fly down the course. Soon the start line is far in the distance, and we’re passing under the first bridge. The crew we’re chasing is Green Templeton College. As we pass the second bridge, we can hear a rising cry. We can make out shouts of “Come on Hertford!” and “Let’s go, boys! Push!” The entire boat club, men’s and women’s squads, novices and first boats — all of our friends — are cheering us on. I’ve known some of these people since I came here in October. With all of them watching, we ignore the pain in our bodies and press on.
When a boat bumps during the race, they stop and return to their dock. But the boat that got bumped must keep rowing — almost as a punishment. Our coxswain tells us that we’re gaining on GTC. Half a length. Quarter of a length. We finally pull up alongside the GTC boat, but they refuse to concede. Although our bow is well ahead of their stern, they need extra persuading. In what may or may not have been an intentional act, our coxswain steers us into GTC, interlocking blades with theirs, and their coxswain throws an arm up to concede. This was a bump, but it felt like a body slam. As a gesture of sportsmanship, our cox shouts, “Three cheers for GTC! Hip-hip!” and we respond “Hooray!” three times. GTC returns the cheer. We had bumped every day of Torpids, and we had some celebrating to do. But at that moment, it was enough to turn and look at my friends in the boat and see nothing but relief and happiness in their faces.
Over the course of the year, a strong bond grows between rowers. The shared suffering and achievement, but most of all the synchronized motion for so many hours breeds a special kind of friendship. But perhaps nothing can kindle greater camaraderie than going through a bumps race together: under high stress and excitement, all emotions are shared, from the nervousness before the race to the euphoria at its end. We were feeling euphoria, and as we paddled back to our boathouse the dock was filled with Hertford students, alumni, and even professors cheering, applauding, and beaming at us. It wasn’t long after we touched the dock that bottles of champagne were uncorked and sprayed over our heads. As we got out, there was a lot of hugging and fist bumping. Then a few of us, to celebrate, ran off the dock and dove straight into the Thames. As we climbed, cold and dripping, back onto the dock, the long day of celebration began.