The most formed and finished crews in the country were competing, but last Saturday two outrageous ugly ducklings led the way through the ice-smooth stretch on Onondaga Lake outside of Syracuse, N.Y. to take first and second places in the year's top college crew event, the 58th Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta.
Winning with a flourish a few moments after it should have collapsed was California, a heavy crew, long on power but short on finesse. Pressing hard was an improbable shell from Navy—even longer on power, even shorter on finesse. Fourth, a scant three seconds behind tiring, third-place Washington, was Brown, the strangest entry of all 12 in the race. It didn't even have a coach. Where was odds-on favorite Cornell? Or chief challenger Pennsylvania? Or last year's winner, Wisconsin? Or smooth-rowing Syracuse and Princeton? They were, figuratively speaking, way up the creek, and eight oars didn't add up to one paddle.
Cornell had looked all last week like a sure winner on oblong, treelined Onondaga. Stork Sanford, the Cornell coach, had won four straight IRA titles prior to last year. His first and second crews were so even that he had been almost alternating them in varsity races while searching for the best combination. Ten days before the IRA he moved three men up from the junior varsity and said he had a settled varsity at last.
The only cloud on the Cornell horizon was Joe Burk's Penn crew, which beat Cornell once this year and had been practicing on Onondaga for two weeks. California's new head coach, Jim Lemmon, brought his boys to Onondaga early too. They beat Navy by an oar's breadth at Wisconsin the week before, but they had their troubles. "We were eight individualists, offering advice to each other but not taking much. We were lousy," said a Cal man. Yet they also were extremely strong. Watching them practice, U.S. Olympic Rowing Committee Chairman Tip Goes commented, "They row rough as hell, but the boat moves." What neither he nor the other crews knew was that Jim Lemmon had subdued his gang of individualists. For the first time they were rowing as a unit.
Navy, which also had a new coach, Lou Lindsey, was another California, only more so. In early races this year it pell-melled along at absurdly high strokes (36 instead of a normal 30) as if rushing to rescue a drowning maiden. At one moment it would glide like a porpoise and at the next careen like a drunken centipede. The Navy rowers dubbed themselves "hamburgers" because they badly butchered so many strokes, but they had strength and desire to spare. "If the boys don't get flustered we'll win," said Lindsey.
Saturday afternoon the lake was calm. Sunshine had followed a morning rain, and the favorites were winning easily, Navy taking the freshman race and Cornell's ex-varsity romping away with the junior varsity event. Then the starter's "ready, ready all, go" sent the varsities down the course.
Through the first two miles Washington held a solid two-length lead, with Cornell, Penn and California bunched next. Then—astonishingly—up the inside lane came Brown. "I think, yes, I think Brown is second," said the dumfounded race announcer. "Of course, I'll check again." On the far outside lane Navy started driving. Cornell, too, began to advance on Washington, but the Cornell stroke suddenly collapsed at his oar. With one oar askew, Cornell was dead, finishing in a tie for fifth with a listless Penn.
Meanwhile, California, rowing at a swift 34 and showing unexpected stamina, passed Washington. Navy, too, passed the fading Huskies, only to catch a crab just when it might have moved on California. The Middies reeled and recovered, but they never could do better than match surging Cal stroke for stroke as they followed to the finish more than a length behind the winner.
Brown's race was a delightful footnote to the IRA. The Brown crew had rowed this year without college financial support. When it arrived at Syracuse for its first IRA it was without its coach, who was on military duty. Three days before the race a Navy lightweight crew coach volunteered to help the bewildered-looking Brown boys. He nearly helped them into the biggest upset since David skulled Goliath.