Rigger-jiggers, feathers, and crabs: the language of rowing
Every November Oxford’s Isis river is overrun with novice crews and coxes trying to win their first race, the Christ Church Regatta. Rowing is a huge part of student life here, underlined rather explicitly in this apt quotation which features in the entry for rowing in the Oxford English Dictionary:
“Rowing was more than a sport at Oxford, it was a cult. It was ingrained in the university.” (1976 R. Massey When I was Young xxvii. 233).
Studying at Oxford and having no involvement in the sport is largely unheard of; whether you choose to wake up at the crack of dawn in the freezing winter to train for Torpids or prefer viewing Summer Eights from the bank with Pimms in hand, you are sure to be drawn into a boatie conversation at some point. Not to mention active support of The Boat Race.
Rowing, following in the tradition of many sports, has developed a lexicon of its own and is usually rather associated with the P.G.Wodehouse side of the English language, indeed the Inimitable Jeeves is quoted as a source for rowing-blue:
However, the terms for the basics of rowing derive largely from the structure of the boat and stroke with only a few phrases hinting at a more interesting origin and development. Here’s a sprint-style outing through some key rowing vocabulary:
From the anatomy of the boat a whole host of rather unimaginative, if descriptive, terms are derived: there’s bow (the rower/person that sits in the bow of the boat), protected from collisions by the bow ball, and rigger-jigger (the essential tool used to remove, adjust or attach the rigger). Or guess where stern pair or bow pair sits? Continuing the theme; there’s stroke side of the boat (the side that stroke rows on) or bow-side, (the opposite). Then we have the oar, comprised of handle, loom and blade (the part in the water).
Then, there are terms to describe specific aspects or styles of the physical action of rowing. The full rowing motion is a stroke and this gives rise to the stroke rate (number of strokes taken in a minute), which is built up in several phases; the catch, drive, finish, and recovery.
Feathers and catching crabs…
Now for some of the more fun language around rowing. Blades can be feathered or un-feathered: whilst to my ear this suggests blades with fetching decorations, it actually refers to whether or not you turn the blade when you remove it from the water so that it moves through the air parallel to the surface. You can take an air stroke or sky on your stroke, both of which refer to an abortive stroke where the blade never enters the water but instead strokes the air. But be warned: none of these contribute to pulling your weight.
The OED also makes some interesting observations about the rowing term ‘to catch a crab’:
My favourite and possibly the most exciting term is the cox call ‘Lock on, empty the tank’ which is only ever used when you are this close to bumping the boat ahead.
Who wants to be bumped and win spoons?
Rather than heads racing (like most regattas or the annual Boat Race) the intra-University regattas take the shape of bumps racing. Bumps racing was developed largely due to the narrowness of the stretch of the Isis that passes through Oxford. Instead of lining boats up next to each other, the boats instead form a sort of queue down the riverbank, resulting in a starting line of crews with their coxes holding a stake line from the towpath, with a gap of a boat-length-and-a-half between the boats.
When the starting gun is fired the aim is to catch and ‘bump’ the boat ahead, whilst avoiding being caught from behind. In the Torpids regatta, if your crew bumps the boat ahead, your boat pulls over to the side, but a bumped boat has to stay in the race. At the end of the race, your crew’s starting position for the next race is determined by the bumps: if bumped, your crew would be placed behind the lowest-ranked boat that bumped you, if you bump, you take the place of the boat you hit.
With the Torpids regatta having been held in Oxford since 1838, the race has unsurprisingly generated its own sub-vocabulary of rowing, starting with its name:
The four days of racing generate a number of bumps, over-bumps, and row-overs. A bump is easiest to achieve, whilst an over-bump requires you to catch the next racing crew (usually starting 3 places above) if the crews directly in front of your boat have ‘bumped out’ and moved away from the racing line. Row-overs are the neutral result of the race; the crew has neither bumped nor been bumped and will not move up or down in the overall rankings. At the end of the regatta, the crew that has finished top of the first division will be named Head of the River, while crews that bumped the boat ahead of them in every race will celebrate winning Blades (the right to commission commemorative trophy oars), and boats that were bumped in every race will commiserate winning Spoons (literally, wooden spoons).
But for all that the language surrounding rowing is incredibly evocative I don’t think that a word currently exists to describe the reasons I dragged myself to the boathouse before the sun was up, in freezing conditions. For some reason the thrill and excitement of flying up the Isis chasing a crew for that final, blade-winning bump; or the coach pedalling madly along the towpath whistle in mouth, blasting the shrill notes that mean you are closing in on them; or that final wind up of the rate, for the “Lock on, empty the tanks” call from the cox and the slight, and sometimes not so slight, thump and bounce as the boat makes contact with the crew ahead just can’t quite be captured on paper.
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