… is a four-day regatta of bumps rowing races in the fifth week of Trinity Term every year, from the Wednesday to the Saturday. Men’s and women’s coxed eights compete in separate divisions for their colleges, with some colleges entering as many as five crews for each sex.
Summer VIIIs has seven men’s divisions alongside six for women’s, encompassing a total of 171 boats and around 1,500 participants. Including the qualifying rounds, in which success is termed “Rowing On”, the number of participants in 2003 was over 1,800.
The racing takes place on the Isis, which is generally too narrow for side by side racing. For each division, thirteen boats line up at the downstream end of the stretch, each cox holding onto a rope attached to the bank, leaving around 1.5 boat lengths between each boat. The start of racing is signalled by the firing of a cannon, each crew attempting to progress up their division by bumping the boat in front, while avoiding being bumped by the boat behind. Once a bump has taken place, both of the crews involved stop racing and move to the side to allow the rest of the division to pass. It is possible to “over bump” if the 2 crews in front of your boat bump (and so drop out) and your boat can catch the boat that was in front of them. They then swap places for the next day’s racing, whether that be the calendar day or the first day of racing in the next year’s competition.
The ultimate aim of a crew is to become “Head of the River” (top of the first division) and stay there. This entitles the winning crew to commission trophy “blades” in their college colours with the names of the successful crew on them. As this is only possible for crews already near the top of division one, another way to win blades is to bump on each day of the competition. As the responsibility for awarding blades to crews rests with the individual colleges concerned, there are slight differences in the criteria required.
Recreational rowing had begun in Oxford with students rowing in single wherries at least as early as 1769.
The first amateur races between organised clubs which prepared and trained for the event began in Oxford in 1815. In this year, crews from Brasenose College and Jesus College raced for the Head of the River, from Iffley Lock to Mr King’s Barge, which was moored near the current Head of the River hotel. The event is also notable for the fact that both crews rowed in eight oared boats, specially built for the purpose. Such recreational as occurred at this time was usually conducted in pairs, or four or six oared cutters. The fact the racing was conducted in eight oared boats gave rise to the event being known as Eights.
Brasenose College and Jesus College recontested the event in 1816, with Brasenose again triumphing. Christ Church joined in the event from 1817, when they went Head, a position they retained until 1819.
Christ Church did not row in 1820, and it is unknown whether any racing occurred. The next recorded races, between Brasenose and Jesus, were in 1821 and 1822. A dispute about professional watermen being allowed in college crews precluded racing in 1823. Until this time, Jesus and Brasenose had each used paid coaches who rowed in the stroke seats of the crews.
From 1824, Christ Church and Exeter College Exeter College began racing, with Exeter going Head in that year. A rule banning the use of “out college men” (i.e. men from other colleges) rowing in college crews saw the entry of Worcester College in 1825, University and Balliol Colleges in 1827, and Oriel and Trinity Colleges in 1828.
courtesy Wikipedia (edited).