Rowing from a rower – Brian Biggs

Rowing seems almost synonymous with John’s. The red blazers. The early mornings. The terror of Cam-germs. Here Brian Biggs describes his experience at being a boatie. He also delves into some helpful terms for incoming Davies-Jacksons.

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To those that haven’t attended, Cambridge is little more than a bundle of quaint stereotypes.  It was for me at least.  Cobbled streets, bowler derbies, black ties, and formal gowns — everything is traditional and high-browed.  Nothing bears even a passing resemblance to the real world.  This includes a rowing race in which the sole object is to ram an expensive, fragile boat as hard and fast as possible into your fellow classmates… wait, what?

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On the face of it, there’s little elegant or whimsical about an event that can be boiled down into “gun it like hell, don’t get caught, and SMASH”, but rowing and the Cambridge Bumps are as deeply engrained in university culture as any of the other idiosyncrasies you might have come across.

I took up rowing within my first couple of weeks in Cambridge.  I had never sat behind an oar before, but thankfully the sport is aimed mostly at beginners at the college level.  I was plunked into a boat with 7 other novice rowers and a novice coxswain.  We learned to row; she learned to guide the boat and yell at us.  Most importantly, we learned together, which created a really strong bond between everyone in the boat.

Rowing at Cambridge is a great way to meet people, try something totally new, and whip yourself into shape.  There are a lot of ways to do all three, but nothing delivers them with as much history, camaraderie, and outlandishness as rowing.  And yes, I am massively biased.

Those who row are boaties.  A boatie can be either a rower proper, a coxswain, or a coach.  Boaties are often spotted at formal events wearing a blazer, which is acceptable as formal attire (note: only in Cambridge!).  A boatie’s blazer comes in the colours of their respective college’s boat club.  This means most blazers are some of the gaudiest evening wear you can imagine.  The John’s blazer is sharp crimson with red trim and golden buttons.  Rumour has it red of the John’s jacket is the basis of calling them “blazers”, but who knows.

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Most boat clubs are named after the respective college: Magdalene, Jesus, Caius, etc.  Not John’s.  We’re known as the Lady Margaret Boat Club, or LMBC.  Another college follows this naming tradition — Trinity First and Third Boat Club — and they are the sworn enemy.

Races come in three flavours.  A head race is akin to a time trial.  Boats set off in sequence and row a defined-length course.  A crew wins a head race by rowing the course as quickly as possible.  The second kind of race is a regatta, which is what you see on the Olympics or the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.

The last kind of race is a bumps race, or The Bumps.  The Bumps happen twice a year at the end of Lent and Easter terms.  In Bumps, the crews are spaced around 1.5 boat lengths apart from one another along the river bank, awaiting the boom of a genuine cannon.  Once the cannon fires, a crew’s sole goal is to row hard, fast, and unceasingly until they either get caught by the boat behind or catch the boat in front.  This is a tradition almost two centuries old.

The bumps last several days.  Each morning on those days, we reengage with the hated First and Third in The Stomp.  This essentially involves marching into Trinity College full of bravado and trying to kidnap some of their rowers.  Kidnap someone and you’re responsible for bringing them back to John’s and buying them breakfast.  You can also be reverse-kidnapped by Trinity boaties. They’ll buy you breakfast for the embarrassment.

Rowing in each term is capped off by the Boat Club Dinner.  Boat Club Dinner is a black — or, if you row for LMBC, red — tie multi-course dinner rife with song and dance.  Here’s where you learn and sing all of the tunes in your boat club’s songbook, which are admittedly few.  It’s held in the formal hall and there’s inevitably an after party and, for the intrepid, an after-after party.

Rowing is an excellent way to get stuck-in to one of those quirky Cambridge past times. If you’re keen to try something new, looking for a bit of sport, and don’t mind waking up with the sun for an outing, give it a go!


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