#TBT: An Inside Look at Torpids 2015, with Duncan Coneybeare of Hertford College, Oxford

This week's 'Throwback Thursday' post is from this year's Torpids, following the successful campaign of Hertford College's top men's eight. Torpids, held in late February/early March, is traditionally the first of two 'Bumps' racing series held at Oxford, pitting college crews against one another along a stretch of the River Thames known as the Isis (which gives its name to OUBC's reserve crew for the Boat Races). The second series of bumps racing is Summer Eights, or simply Eights, which is similar in structure, and is held at the end of May.

Hertford has a strong history of training novices, several of whom have gone on to represent their country, including Paul Mattick, Steph Cullen, and Zoe Lee. As Hertford College alum and Regatta Radio commentator Duncan Coneybeare explains.

Duncan Coneybeare: "The College is shown briefly in the opening seconds of the first video. The training shots of the eight are filmed on the Radley stretch outside of Oxford, where Hertford and the other top college crews tend to train, while the footage in the single is on the top stretch of the Isis in Oxford, going past a number of the College boathouses. (The now-infamous training camp leggings also feature heavily.)

"Bumps racing in Oxford can be thought of as a ladder, the way to move up the ladder being to catch or ‘bump’ the crew in front. The starting order each year is determined by the finishing positions the previous year, with the Torpids and Eights competitions having separate ladders. The ladder has a number of tiers—divisions—with each tier consisting of 12 crews, plus the crew that finished top of the division below (called the ‘sandwich’ boat). The crew at the head of a division has to row the course and avoid being bumped; it then has the opportunity to move up a division by racing immediately afterwards as a sandwich boat at the bottom of the higher division. The first thing Hertford had to do on day one’s racing was row over at the head of Men’s Division 2, without being caught, thus earning the right to challenge for a place in Division 1.

"The full-length course on the Isis is approximately 1,500m, against the stream. But, for Bumps racing, only the bottom crew in a division is ever going to be able to row that full distance, since all the higher-placed crews start further up the course. The main features of the course are: Donnington Bridge, about 30 strokes into the race from where the leading crew actually starts; and the Gut, quite a severe s-bend a further minute or so into the race, where the river narrows and it is very easy to take the wrong line. Not surprisingly, a lot of the action takes place on this stretch of the course and it is quite common to see coxswains mis-judge the line and plough straight into the bank. Suffice it to say that the College boatmen are kept quite busy during both Torpids and Eights."

"Each boat is started from a rope 50 feet in length (known as a bungline), which has to be held until the start by the coxswain, the other end of the rope being fastened to a starting post on the towpath. With each starting post being 130 feet apart, a crew has to make up some two and a half lengths, rowing in the wash of the crews it is chasing to catch and bump the crew in front. So, in order to make a bump you have to be significantly faster than the crew you are chasing, and the crews at the top of each division (including the Head of the River crew) also have the advantage of racing in clean water.

"As well as the coxswain holding onto the bungline for the start, crews are kept in place against the stream by a boatman in charge of ‘poling off’. That person uses a 15-foot long, wooden pole to hold the shell in place and then to clear the bungline from the water once the race has started and the coxswain has thrown it aside. The whole process of marshalling and getting attached to the bungline is made more nerve-racking by a series of guns. The five-minute gun is fired, not surprisingly, five minutes before the race is due to start, followed by the one-minute gun, and then the start itself. To further ratchet up the tension, crews will usually have a coach on the bank alongside them giving them a countdown in the final minute.

"By the time the start actually comes, the adrenaline is well and truly pumping. Coaches usually cycle alongside their crews and will often signal the distance still be made up by use of a whistle (systems vary, but a common one is one whistle for half-a-length to go, two whistles for a quarter-length to go and then continuous for a canvas and overlap). Klaxons are used by marshals to stop racing in the event of the fairly regular pile-ups that take place, especially in the lower divisions. Fortunately for the Hertford men none of their races were klaxoned off.

"If you catch the crew in front and a bump is verified by an accompanying umpire (either actual contact, or a concession by the bumped crew’s coxswain), the crews involved swap places on the ladder for the next day’s racing. While members of the University squads do not compete in Torpids, the main difference in racing between Torpids and Eights is that in Torpids you only stop before the finish line if you make a bump, whereas in Eights both crews involved in a bump drop out. Make a bump on each of the four days and a crew is awarded its blades (i.e., the right to purchase a decorated oar celebrating the achievement). The crew right at the top of the ladder is the Head of the River and also is awarded blades as well as winning an impressive piece of silverware for the year.

"Together, the videos give a good impression of what Bumps racing is like for those who haven’t experienced this unique variety of rowing competition. There is nothing quite as terrifying as sitting on the bung line, with the seconds ticking down in the final minute before the start, waiting for a small cannon to fire. And you then actually try to hit the crew in front…I really miss it!"

Thanks very much to Duncan for the background on this unique and interesting form of racing, and congrats to Hertford for a successful 2015 campaign at Torpids, when the women's eight also won their blades! There's more background on the rules of racing via the Oxford University Rowing Clubs society website, and you can follow Hertford College Boat Club via Twitter: @HECBC.


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