Cambridge Boat Races

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Cambridge Boating Events: A Deep Dive into the River’s Vibrant Races

Cambridge, a city renowned for its historic architecture and prestigious university, is not only a hub of intellectual activity but also a place where the tranquil River Cam flows gracefully, hosting a variety of boat races and events throughout the year. While the city’s punting tours are a popular attraction, its boating events offer a unique perspective on the vibrant culture and camaraderie that thrive along its waters. In this article, we will delve into the world of Cambridge’s boating events, shedding light on some of the most exciting races that take place annually on the River Cam.

Cambridge Boat Race: A Time-Honored Tradition

The Cambridge Boat Race, one of the most famous races associated with the city, is a spectacle that captures the essence of sporting rivalry between two of the world’s leading universities, Cambridge and Oxford. However, it’s important to note that this particular race doesn’t occur on the River Cam itself. The challenge of the River Thames, with its sharp turns, narrow stretches, low-level bridges, and punts, is the setting for this thrilling competition.

Established in 1829, this annual nine-man (including one coxswain) rowing race between the two universities has a rich history. It wasn’t until 1856 that it became an annual event, with only the first and second world wars interrupting this tradition. Following in its footsteps, the Women’s Boat Race became an annual event in 1964. These races have now become a favorite in the university calendar, drawing not only the academic community but also up to 270,000 spectators who line the banks each year to witness the intense competition.

As of the most recent tally, the men’s race has seen Cambridge narrowly edging out Oxford with 83 wins to 80 (including one dead heat), while the women of Cambridge have secured 43 wins to Oxford’s 30.

The Cambridge Boat Race typically takes place in early April, making it a prime event to catch if you’re visiting the city during that time. The excitement and rivalry surrounding the event grow year by year, creating an atmosphere you won’t want to miss.

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Dragon Boat Festival: Paddling for Charity

The Dragon Boat Festival, as the name suggests, involves racing “dragon” boats, each carrying up to ten team members who paddle in unison to the beat of a drum. The aim is to conquer a 200-meter straight course and claim victory. One of the unique aspects of this race is that no prior experience is required; it’s all about having fun while contributing to a charitable cause—specifically, Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust.

Dragon boats have their origins in the southern Guangdong region of China and come in various designs. These traditional long-paddled boats are common throughout Asia, often used in religious festivals and competitive events. For races like the Dragon Boat Festival, these boats are adorned with decorative features, including dragon heads and tails.

The festival’s popularity continues to soar, attracting spectators who come to cheer on each team as they paddle their way to victory. Beyond the races, a range of bankside entertainment ensures that the day is enjoyable for everyone.

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The May Bumps: A Unique Rowing Tradition

The May Bumps, a rowing event that began in 1887, provides a unique alternative to traditional side-by-side rowing races due to the constraints of the narrow River Cam. The event is open to all college boat clubs, including those from the University of Cambridge, medical and veterinary schools, and Anglia Ruskin University.

The race starts with a signal from a cannon, and each crew is initially separated by a distance of about one and a half boat lengths. Once the race begins, the objective for each crew is to catch up with the boat ahead and “bump” it before being bumped from behind. A crew that successfully bumps or gets bumped must pull to the side to allow other crews to continue racing. If a crew neither bumps nor gets bumped before crossing the finish line, they are said to have “rowed over.” Crews that bump another boat swap places with the boat they bumped, and the process repeats over four days. The goal is to finish “head of the river.”

The May Bumps offer an excellent opportunity for spectators of all ages to enjoy some old-fashioned rivalry between crews. For those looking for a comfortable viewing spot, The Plough in Fen Ditton boasts a lovely beer garden that backs onto the River Cam, providing an ideal vantage point.


Cardboard Boat Race: A Whimsical Endeavor

The annual Cardboard Boat Race is a lighthearted event that showcases the creative spirit of Cambridge University students. The race typically takes place on the first Sunday after the summer term ends. Following a year of rigorous academic pursuits, teams of students shift their focus to a less scholarly but equally demanding challenge—building boats out of nothing more than cardboard, tape, and glue.

The objective of the race is simple: complete the river course from Jesus Green to Magdalene College without your cardboard boat sinking. Teams put in varying levels of effort, often fueled by peer encouragement and, perhaps, a bit of Dutch courage. As a spectator, you can expect a hilarious and light-hearted event, as students blow off steam after a year of intensive studies.

The Cardboard Boat Race is free to watch and offers entertainment for all ages. Spectators can line the banks of Jesus Green to witness the spectacle.


Annual Punt Race: Champion of the Cam

No discussion of Cambridge’s boating events would be complete without mentioning the Annual Punt Race, an event that takes place on the River Cam between Darwin Island and Trinity College. This lively race occurs on “Suicide Sunday,” the Sunday after exams conclude, and is a fixture in the Cambridge sporting calendar.

Established in 2008, the race features two competitions: one to determine the fastest solo punter and another to find the fastest team punter. Both college and town crews are encouraged to participate, with one requirement being that all punts must have a Cam Conservancy license.

The Annual Punt Race marks the end of the academic year and provides a day of fun and spirited competition. Participants vie for the title of “Champion of the Cam,” and winners receive prize money. Spectators can also join in the excitement by watching from the banks or nearby vantage points.

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Christmas Head Race: Festive Fun on the River Cam

While many of Cambridge’s boating events take place during the summer months, the Christmas Head Race offers a delightful winter alternative. Held on a Saturday at the beginning of December, this annual Christmas race sees crews racing upstream in festive fancy dress. Organized by the City of Cambridge Rowing Club, the event is a day filled with spirited races, festive cheer, and camaraderie.

Participation in the Christmas Head Race is diverse, ranging from eight-person boat rowers to single scullers. The event draws thousands of people, and while there is impressive rowing talent on display, everyone eagerly competes for the coveted best fancy dress prize. It’s a victory that clubs take pride in.


In conclusion, the River Cam in Cambridge is not only a serene setting for punting tours but also a stage for a variety of exciting boating events. From the historic Cambridge Boat Race to the whimsical Cardboard Boat Race and festive Christmas Head Race, these events showcase the city’s rich tradition of camaraderie and competition. Whether you’re a participant or a spectator, there’s something for everyone to enjoy along the tranquil waters of the River Cam. So, next time you visit Cambridge, consider timing your trip to catch one of these lively boating events and experience the city’s unique culture from a different perspective.

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Posted on September 7th, 2023, by the Traditional Punting Company