Bumps racing is one of the greatest things about the British traditions in the sport of rowing.  Since the rivers in England by Cambridge and Oxford are too narrow for sprint racing side by side, they've developed bumps racing to make up for it.  The main goal in bumps racing is to do just that: bump or make actual contact with the boat in front of you without letting the boat behind you catch up and do the same. 

This type of race began in Cambridge University on the River Cam long ago.  The river was not wide enough to hold side-by-side sprints, so they staggered the starts and ended up with bumps racing.  Generally, bumping is very bad for the light, delicate rowing shells.  But in the case of bumps racing, anything goes.  Any type of contact counts as a bump, meaning shell to shell, oar to oar, oar to rigger, or oar to coxswain -- it's all good. 

Traditional bumps racing takes place over four days and has spread around England wherever there are narrow rivers.  Cambridge University has two major bumps races for its various colleges, the Lent Bumps and the May Bumps (held, ironically, in June).

At the start, each boat has one and a half lengths of open water between them and their nearest competitor. About twenty boats are usually entered.  The order in which they line up is based on the results of last year's bumps race.  When the race starts, all the crews start sprinting like crazy in order to get ahead and bump as soon as possible.  If a crew succeeds in bumping the boat in front of them, both boats pull over to the side of the river and their race is done.  For the next day's bumps race, those two crews will switch their start order.  When two boats bump, that usually leaves a huge gap of open water between two more boats.  If the boat behind makes up that gap and bumps the boat that was originally three spots ahead of it, this is known as overbumping. 

Since there are four days of racing, there is potential for a crew to move up four spots before the racing is complete, by bumping every single day.  Crews who do so are rewarded by being allowed to keep their blades.  Crews who get bumped every day and lose four spots are "rewarded" with painted spoons.  The crew that comes in first after the fourth day is known as the Head of the River.  Today, the title "Head of the River" also applies to those that win big head-style regattas, such as the Head of the Charles and the Head of the Schuylkill.  Since a crew can only move up four spots in those four days, it takes a continuing tradition of success over years to win at bumps racing.

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