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One Over the Eight

(by A. Seager)

Allan Seager, an American Professor of English at Michigan University, studied at Oxford in 1931-34. His story One Over the Eight describes some aspects of student life at the University. The extract included deals with the traditional Bumping races.

... The Bump Races come in two sets, late in January and early in May. They aie rowed for six days, Thursday through Saturday* and Monday through Wednesday. The colloquial name for the January races is Toggers: the formal one,Torpids; but no one could tell me why. The May races are called Eights, and they are quite social. If you have a girl, you bring her, give her luncheon of hock** and lobster mayonnaise and she sits on the top of your barge to watch you sweat. Toggers are grimmer because January is grimmer.

* (Thursday through Saturday - (Am.) Thursday to Saturday.)

** (hock - a Rhine wine, so called from corruption of German Hoch for the white wine made in Hochheim.)

Bump races are examples of much made of little. The Thames is a small river at Oxford. There were about twenty-five rowing colleges, and each college put two boats in the river, the larger colleges, like Balliol,* three, sometimes four, so there were perhaps sixty in all. You could not row sixty eight-oared shells abreast on the Isis, so they start one behind another and chase the one in front.

* (Balliol, as well as Exeter and St. John in the same extract-Oxford University colleges.)

Small stakes are driven into the bank sixty feet apart. To each stake a rope sixty feet long is fixed. The cox holds the other end and lets the boat drift until it is taut. Each boat has a starter. Five minutes before time all the starters gather at a little brass cannon in a hayfield to synchronize their stopwatches with a chronometer. Then they come back and stand on the bank beside their boats saying, "Two minutes gone. Three minutes gone," to the yawning oarsmen in the river below.

In the last minute they count off the quarters, and finally, "10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, come forward, are you ready?" and Bang! goes the little brass cannon.

The college bargeman gives you a hell of a shove with a boat-hook and away you go, the cox howling the boat at about fifty strokes a minute. It is very common to black out completely during the first thirty seconds. As soon as you are under way, the stroke drops to about forty, but not much less, because the course from Iffley Lock to the top of the barges is only about a mile and a half.

Most of the members of your college are scrambling along the towpath beside you, yelling and shooting off guns. You can't tell whether the boat behind you is gaining, because you are watching Stroke's* oar or your own, but if the cox's voice rises to a scream and he starts counting to raise the beat you know you are overtaking the boat ahead. When your bow overlaps his stern, the cox turns the rudder sharply. Bow touches stern. This is the bump.

* (Stroke - the aftmost rower in a boat whose stroke leads the rest.)

When you make a bump, the next day your boat starts in the place of bumped boat. You go up or down each day according to your prowess. The final aim, which may take several years to achieve, is to become Head of the River, the first boat in line.

... On the first day of Toggers I was personally lucky. I had to row only the first six strokes. When the little brass cannon went off, we laid into the first strokes hard. The cox had just shouted, "Six!" when No. 7 in front of me caught a crab.* If you are quick you can sometimes lie flat and let the oar pass over your head. Seven was not quick. He was probably blacked out, and the butt of the oar caught him in the belly and jack-knifed him out of the boat. Falling, he broke his oar smack off at the rowlock. The boat staggered. There were cries of "Man overboard!" and the cox was yelling oaths like a banshee.** I don't believe it is possible to overturn an eight-oared boat, but we nearly made it. In the confusion, Exeter came tearing into us from behind and sheared off all the oars on the bow side. It was a mess. No. 7 avoided having Exeter's keel bash his head in by cunningly staying under water until after the collision; then he swam soggily ashore. Our race was over for that day and I was barely winded.

* (to catch a crab - to miss the water when rowing.)

** (a banshee - in folklore of Ireland and Western Highlands of Scotland, a female fairy who gives warning by wailing sounds of approaching death. Much of Celtic mythology is concerned with banshee activity and foreknowledge, and ballgds connect banshees with the last hours of old Celtic heroes.)

The next day, with new oars, we caught St. John's* on the Green Bank and made a bump. In fact, we made five bumps in all during Toggers. If a boat makes five bumps in Toggers or four in Eights the college is required by custom to stand its members a Bump supper. It is a big-jollification in honour of the Boat Club. The manciple (head chef) outdoes himself and provides a really good meal.

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