The idea is to crash into ('bump') the boat ahead of you. Yes, really. A dozen boats race in each division, moored a boat-length apart from Donnington Bridge to Iffley Lock. The divisions race at half-hour intervals from noon, so you can wander over at any point during the day and be assured of getting a good view. The start cannon goes off three times: 5-minutes before, 1-minute before, and at the start.
Bumps racing is a particularly cruel system as it encourages everyone to sprint continuously: this is why most crews look so exhausted by the time they reach the boat houses and the finish line. As soon as two boats bump, they're out of the race: you can't make up lost time against another crew the way you could in, say, a standard 2k race. Boats that bump or are bumped pulling off to the side makes for less interesting results than in the similar Torpids race (where a bumped boat continues to row, potentially to be bump or be bumped again), it does ensure that you will see plenty of collisions. In Eights, there is no incentive for a crew to concede if they're about to be bumped, so everyone will race their hardest to keep even a sliver of water between the boats. The boats are so closely packed together at the start that there's very little margin for error: miss a stroke badly ('catch a crab') and you're toast. (Actually, you're wet, bruised and embarrassed.)
The start is an adrenaline-fuelled moment in which every crew is desperately sprinting to catch the crew in front in hope that they will bump quickly - and then retire to the side of the river and not have to row the full course (rowing is a perverse sport in that while rowers love doing it, the races themselves hurt like hell and the participants can’t wait for them to be over, and will do practically anything to bring that moment forward, i.e. by rowing ever harder!).
Donnington Bridge to Iffley Lock – watch the ferocious start: you’re guaranteed a bump or two, or at least the odd crash (especially in the lower divisions). However, it’s miles from the Pimms and most of the race will be out of sight. Expect lots of coxes shouting ‘wind one, wind two, length at the front, backs back’, and other cheery slogans. Beware the start cannon going off beside you.
Along the towpath (1) – the constricted bendy bit of the river just after Donnington Bridge (known as the ‘gut’) tends to separate the sheep from the goats, or, at least, the rowers from the muppets. The cox is all important, steering the best line through the bends and across the stream. Expect to hear lots of ‘rhythm’ calls as crews realize they can’t immediately catch the boat in front, and try to make the transition from ferocious acceleration to controlled racing. Or not. Watch out for carnage as crews fail to avoid any boats moored along the towpath (before laughing too long and loudly at the cox, remember that the rudder on these 65ft-long boats is smaller than a credit card).
Along the towpath (2) – there are two long straight stretches, the ‘green bank’ and the final stretch opposite the boat houses and Christ Church meadow. Many of the crews will have bumped out by now, and the remaining ones will either be locked in exhausting mortal combat or relaxedly paddling back with no crews nearby. Expect to hear coxes vainly shouting 'power-ten', 'push for twenty' and other forlorn encouragements. In the later divisions you may see some decent rowing at this point. Try not to get under wheels of the coaches and umpires as they frenetically cycle along the pothole-ridden track, looking not ahead but across at their crews. If they're whistling, that probably means their crew is getting close to the one ahead.
Christ Church Meadow and the boat houses – This is party central. As a major social event of the summer term, Eights provides a welcome boozy break from the pressure of exams. Every boathouse has its own bar as well as extra tents promoting clubs and charities, all offering lashings of Pimms. Crews will be racing on the opposite side of the river (by the towpath), but if one should suddenly swing out towards the middle it means they're either deranged (for that's where the downstream flow is fastest), or making a desperate attempt to escape being bumped by a crew behind them (this occasionally works if they're near the finishing line, but it's very unsporting). The crews are racing on the opposite side of the river, but you get the best panoramic views of the course, especially from the upper floors and terraces of the boat houses.
All results are announced over the PA system rigged up across the course, so you know what’s going on even if you can’t see it. Live updates are posted on the Oxford University Rowing Clubs' website here, but if the race desk is having a busy time of it, updates will be much delayed.
When to watch:
Racing starts at about noon with the bottom divisions. This is not always pretty to watch, and a race may well be klaxoned and halted if a pile-up between boats/swans/etc. looks like creating undue carnage.
Men’s and Women’s divisions are interleaved, and follow each other at roughly half-hour intervals.
The best rowing will be towards the end of the day, 5-7pm, when the top divisions are slogging it out. Saturday is the last day of eights – the last chance for crews to redeem themselves / catch the bitter rival / avenge themselves / gain blades and glory. They’ll be giving it all they’ve got – go down there, cheer them on, and enjoy yourself!