WHAT IS TORPIDS?
Torpids is one of the two “bumps” rowing races held in Oxford each year (the other being Summer Eights). Bumps is a Darwinian struggle for survival, where crews of eight rowers and a cox begin the race arrayed along the bank, then all take off at once when signalled by a cannon. The goal is not to overtake, but to crash into (“bump”) the boat in front. The defeated boat must continue racing, while the bumping crew pulls into the bank for a well-earned rest.
A bumps race therefore combines a furious pace, as each team sprints to keep ahead of would-be bumpers, with a course that can seem endless to tired muscles. Note also that a rowing team (the cox apart) face backwards, allowing them to see when a competitor is narrowing the gap with hideous inevitability. Many a team has been eliminated when the approaching prow of an opposing boat and the evil gleam in the eyes of its cox has put them off their stroke.
Being forced to keep plying the oars, muscles burning and pride stinging, while your vanquishers move away slowly, enjoying the glow of victory, is also a feature. Crews who look likely to be bumped often concede rather than achieve contact and risk damage to the race or the boat - although the unlikely possibility of being bumped and then bumping the boat in front of them, therefore not changing position overall, does spur some on.
GOOD GOD, WHY?
For glory. For victory. For Sparta.
Theoretically, bumps racing was developed because the narrowness of the Isis made side-by-side racing impossible; any suggestion that rowers are sadomasochists who enjoy watching their defeated opponents struggle on from a position of comfort is a (plausible) slur.
The unflattering title arose because Torpids was originally a race solely for the second (ie. slower) boat from each college, traditionally raced on the days between Summer Eights (the torpid days). However, the appeal of an agonizing, frustrating struggle for victory proved too much to resist, so now Torpids is open to all teams not competing in the summer Boat Race (against the Other Place). Over 130 teams, drawn from every college, take part each year, in six men's and five women's divisions.
Said appeal is reinforced by the prospect of gaining “blades”- these are oars painted with the names of a boat's crew, often to be found in the college bar. They are awarded for either bumping or crossing the finishing line on every day of Torpids, and bring much celebration. Part of this celebration is to throw your cox in the river (it's a rowing thing, I think).
The crew that manages to claw its way to the top of the first division (or maintain its place there) is awarded the title Head of the River; they will then retire to The Head of the River for well-deserved refreshments. A dirty pint* is the traditional reward for a victorious rowing team. It is also an excellent consolation for a losing team, as it obliterates all memory of the ignominious defeat- and, indeed, of the events of the preceding day, the location of the rower’s college, and their name. In the evening the winning boat is traditionally burned, striking fire in the hearts of the top crew, or maybe that's the drink.
*A dirty pint: six shots of the most revolting mix of spirits that the bar can supply (Baileys and Cointreau are a popular combination, as this causes the drink to curdle), topped up with Guinness or ale. A true dirty pint has a packet of pub snacks added (crisps for the weak, pork scratchings for the brave) and must be drained in one draught.
WHERE CAN I SEE IT?
Torpids occurs on Wednesday through Saturday, on the stretch of the Isis from Iffley Lock to Folly Bridge. Racing is more or less continuous, with each of the 11 divisions (each of 13 boats) racing at half-hour intervals from noon to 5.30pm. You can expect to see some good racing whenever you wander over. Saturday is unsurprisingly the busiest racing day, with the most nailbiting tension as final positions are determined and the possibility of blades makes competition even more fast and furious. For a slightly less packed bank, try Thursday or Friday. To make your spectating even more enjoyable, here are a few simple suggestions:
DO: pick a college
Even if you're a disinterested observer (perhaps a tourist, townsperson, or even a Cambridge alien) pick one college to support; this will give you a sense of investment, a reason to cheer (and boo) and a group of new friends to celebrate (or commiserate) with. It can be quite hard to identify which boat belongs to which college- if in doubt, go by boat colour, or just cheer indiscriminately. If you're the sort of person who can't enjoy a competition unless they have a vicarious sense of victory, just support uber-successful Pembroke: the Chelsea of Torpids.
DO: know the rules
Despite the name, a bump only requires contact between any part of the two boats (including oars) or a full overtake; outright smashes are unfortunately rare. Etiquette dictates that you should not cheer too loudly when a boat is bumped, no matter how much your black heart exults to see it.
DO: keep your eyes open
What you should really watch for is when two boats are overlapped. Because a bump is only achieved through contact or overtake, the boat about to be bumped will often engage in dubious steering tactics to avoid being touched. Running away across the river results in exciting, tense racing and often dramatic altercations with other racing crews.
DO: shift position
The course can be roughly divided into three main sections, each characterised by quite different styles of rowing. If you can, watch at least three races, and shift your position to take in the many facets of Torpids. The starting area, just downstream of Donnington Bridge, plays host to frantic, high-speed pursuits, as each team endeavours to avoid the whole gruelling business by achieving a quick bump. In general, this only happens due to mistakes, but it's still fun to watch.
Next, the charmingly named Gut lies roughly parallel to Hinksey Weir, and marks where the river narrows and the current strengthens, making a domino-like effect of successive bumps or concessions likely. This is known, unsurprisingly, as Carnage in the Gut, and is rather fun to watch.
Finally, the finish line sits just below Folly Bridge, within easy jeering distance of most college's boathouses. During Torpids, these play host to large crowds of supporters which transform more often than not into improptu parties. Endeavour to get into one of these (a bottle of Pimms is always a welcome introduction), as it will enhance your enjoyment of your chosen team immeasurably. Rowing in the runup to the finish line tends to be marked by a certain sense of exhaustion and achievement on behalf of the crews, tempered with a bloody-minded determination to score a bump in the last few lengths.
DO: wrap up warm
The riverbank in early March can be a cold place, even if you have no intention of going near the water. The crews may be able to get away with lycra, but they're racing. You're (hopefully) not.
DO: check it's on
Due to increased flooding in recent years, the river level and strength of stream often makes racing in spring too dangerous for racing crews. Even if the land is dry and it is sunny on the day it is worth checking http://www.ourcs.org.uk for up to the minute information.
Bump: the aim of racing. A chasing boat must make contact with or achieve a full overtake of the boat ahead. When a bump is achieved, the chasing boat retires from the race, bumping out.
Overbump: when a crew has bumped out, the boat originally chasing them can then attempt to bump the boat 2 places ahead of them, achieving a heroic feat.
Blades: a ceremonial painted oar awarded to crews who bump on all 4 days of Torpids.
Spoons: the opposite of a blade, awarded to crews who are bumped on every day of racing.
Spades: the very rare middle ground, where a crew alternately bumps and is bumped throughout the regatta.