Town Bumps - The start

The Cambridge Town Bumps start tomorrow and I'm taking part as a cox (the shouty person at the stern who also steers).

I've written up a more in-depth description but the gist of it is that you have up to 18 rowing boats going off at the same time 150 feet apart. Each crew has the sole aim of literally hitting the crew in front (a bump) while avoiding getting hit by the crew starting behind them (getting bumped). A crew who bumps the crew in front swap places in the starting order for the following days racing (usually four in total). It's pretty odd, and very unlike the more standard rowing time trials and regattas rowers typically compete in.

One of the most tense parts of the race is the start. Let me talk you through what's involved.

The start is marked by the firing of a small cannon. There are two warning shots at four minutes and one minute to go.

Small cannon

Crews start every 150 feet apart and each starting position has a 33 feet length of chain fixed to the bank. As a cox I hold onto the end of the chain (it has a small handle at the end called a bung). To begin with the boat is parked up alongside the bank. In order to race we need to be pushed out into river. This is accomplished with the aid of a long pole which a person on the bank uses to push the boat away from the bank. When you get pushed out will depend on the conditions (if it's windy you don't want to be sitting stationary for too long as you risk being blown into the bank) but something between 10-20 seconds is reasonable.

So at ths point the boat is in the middle of the river, the crew are ready to race, I'm holding on to the end of 33 feet of chain, and it's all quite tense. Two things you have to get right as a cox are making sure you're straight and not running out of chain. Hopefully the first is straightfoward, if the boat is not pointing in the right direction it's going to slow the boat as you have to apply steering.

The second is a little more subtle. If the boat keep moving forwards after you've been pushed out (perhaps due to the wind) then at some point you run out of chain. At this point you'll either get pulled out of the boat, or, more likely, you'll keep hold of the chain but this will pull the boat to one side or other so you're no longer straight. Not good. (You can also let go of the chain and make sure you comply with the technical rules). My standard approach to avoiding this pitfall is to loop one or two lengths of chain around my hand so that I have some slack should the worst come to the worst.

And then, BANG, you're off. Remembering to let go of the chain!