Torpids Madness

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Eat. Sleep. Row. Repeat. Add in a ‘Frantically scratch out 3 sub-par essays’, ‘Attend most classes’ and ‘Flout the tacit drinking ban because omg another Guest Dinner‘ and you’ve got a fair account of my week. Or maybe the worst Nike slogan tee ever.

It was the infamous and ironically-named Torpids week here in Oxford; the big intercollege regatta of Hilary Term. A few weeks ago, after a season of apathy, I got swept up in the excitement of it all and became a total gym/river rat. Like a slow-blossoming, normal-coloured and even-tempered Hulk (ok, bad analogy) I’ve gotten fitter and stronger than ever before in my life. Almost Madonna arms, you guys. Still, I couldn’t match the fervency of some of my crew. After ‘rowing on’ the Friday prior (time trialling to qualify for Torpids), there was this slightly awkward interaction:

Super keen rower: Guys, if we qualify, we should go out on the weekend.

Me: Yes! Celebratory drinks!

(A giant tumbleweed bounces through the boathouse)

Super keen rower: Uh, I mean a rowing outing. So we can practice more as a crew?

Me: (Internal sigh. I’d had a different kind of boat race in mind)

Thankfully we did qualify, which meant 4 days of unpredictable (at times terrifying, at times hilarious) racing. Unlike your run-of-the-mill side by side racing, bumps racing involves crews starting the race lined up along the bank, about 1.5 boat lengths apart. A cannon is fired, and the boats set off and try to catch up to the boat in front of them. If you bump a crew ahead, you stop racing. The next day, you’ll start the race ahead of them. If you get bumped, you keep rowing.

If it sounds weird, it’s because it is. Torpids is like dodgem or jousting with boats. There’s nothing quite like a crew surging towards you; their crazy-eyed Count Adhemar of a cox screaming at them to destroy you. Things can get crazy: crews getting bumped off-course and ending up wedged in the bank or stuck in trees (and then getting passed by all the other crews and plummeting down a division), pile-ups, broken boats…and of course your usual ejector crabs. When I marshalled on the first day, one of the best things I heard over my radio after a particularly brutal bump was, “Peter’s is filling up with water. I repeat, the boat is taking on water…” soon followed by, “And now they are rowing on with stern 4. Could someone please find out where the other 4 rowers are??”

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(A bump. A crew getting towed out from a side canal. A smashed bow. An ejector crab. Photo credit: Oliver Robinson Photography)

Our boat started the week shakily, being bumped, getting slightly entangled in a tree and then passed by another crew (according to the commentators this was a ‘sub-optimal’ result), but by the 4th day we earned our first proper bump!

I’m so glad to have been part of such an exciting competition. Especially because the chances of getting to row in something like this again are pretty much zero. Boats here seem to be as disposable as snotty Kleenex or Miranda Priestly’s Hermes scarves…which isn’t normal, right?

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