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Torpids 2018

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Monday, February 26, 2018

Rowing in TorpidsSeventh week of Hilary Term sees the return of 'Torpids', a series of rowing races held yearly at Oxford. Crews from each college participate in ‘bumps races’ along a 1800m course on the Isis (River Thames) from Wednesday to Saturday – over 130 men’s and women’s crews take part, with six men’s divisions and five for women, and a total of almost 1200 participants.

Men’s Torpids have been held since 1838, and the women’s races since 1978, after being delayed from 1977 because the river was flooded. Christ Church Boat Club are the joint fourth most successful boat club at Torpids, with a total of 14 headships, all of which have been gained by men’s crews. The longest time this was held for was from 1907-10, and we held it for the last time in 2011.

Rowers competing in the Boat Race or in any of the Lightweight University Crews at the Henley Boat Races (Varsity rowers) cannot compete in Torpids, although they can take part in Summer Eights. There is no limit on the number of boats that each college can enter (Christ Church have 6 – 3 men’s and 3 women’s), although some in the lower divisions have to go through ‘rowing on’ on the Friday before Torpids starts, to earn a place in the main event the following week. Crews in the last two divisions, and crews without a position, compete in a timed race, with the fastest 13 men’s crews and 14 women’s crews qualifying.

As with Summer Eights, which takes place in Trinity Term, the main races take the form of ‘bumps’, rather than the side by side racing that you’ll see at the annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race on the Thames. The river in Oxford is too narrow for side by side racing, so instead, competing crews line up in order, one behind the other, with the cox of each boat holding onto a rope attached to the bank. To begin with there’s a gap of around 1.5 boat lengths between the bow of one boat and the stern of the next.

A Christ Church crewA cannon fires to start the race, and then the races begin, fairly often leading to what one of the student newspapers terms ‘carnage’. Each division is like a league, made up of 12 boats. To progress up the division, or to move up into the next division, you must ‘bump’ (i.e. crash into) the boat in front, at which point you swap places with them in the division. Once a bump has taken place, the boat that was hit continues in the race, and the one that hit the other boat moves to the side of the river. This can mean that a bumped boat might move down several places in the division in a single day of racing, if they’re bumped multiple times in the same race.

Each division only races once on each day, because there are so many divisions to get through. The lowest divisions race first, finishing with the top divisions later in the day. The first day’s starting order is based on the previous year’s finishing positions, and following that the positions each day are determined by the previous day’s finishing positions. The aim is to bump the other boats and overtake them in the division – and the ultimate accolade is to be crowned ‘Head of the River’, top of the first division. The crew that are Head of the River are presented with the Torpids Challenge Cup.

The ‘Double Headship’ is awarded to a college that finishes with both their men’s and women’s crews at Head of the River – a pretty impressive achievement. Oriel is currently the only college to have achieved this in Torpids, back in 2006.

A crew returning to the boathouseAs well as the headship, there are various other awards that you can gain in Torpids (some better than others…)

  • Blades – a crew that bumps on every day without being bumped, or that finishes at the Head of the River, is awarded blades. This involves getting trophy oars painted in college colours with the names and weights of the successful crew.
  • Spoons – these are awarded if a crew is bumped every day. And yes, they are actual spoons.
  • Spades – this is a slightly rarer prize, and is awarded to a crew that is bumped but then proceeds to bump a crew ahead of it before the end of the race.

At the start of Torpids 2018:

  • Men’s divisions
    • Christ Church I are 6th in Division I (racing at 5pm)
    • Christ Church II are top of Division IV (2pm)
  • Women’s divisions
    • Christ Church I are 3rd in Division I (4:30pm)
    • Christ Church II are 5th in Division V (12:30pm)
    • Christ Church III are 9th in Division V (12:30pm)

It’s a great occasion (when the weather holds up!) and it’s always popular with students, alumni and friends who gather at the boathouses to cheer their college on. Most people go and watch from their college’s boathouse, but people will also line the banks of the river to catch the crews at a good spot. Further down from the boathouses, you’ll get a pretty good view from the gut, about halfway along the course – a narrow section of the river where a lot of the bumps tend to happen.

Best of luck to all of our crews! 

You can follow their progress on Twitter (@ChChBC), and keep up to date with all of the races by following @OURCs or keeping an eye on the main Torpids webpage.