The pleasant industrial community of St. Catharines, Ont. got hooked on rowing way back in 1903 when Canada's oarsmen held their own Royal Canadian Henley regatta there on the Welland Canal for the first time within spitting distance of Niagara Falls. The course was pretty much of a mess in those days, stinking with sewage, brown with acid waste from the paper mills and torn with swirling, unpredictable currents. Over the years, however, it has been cleaned up until it ranks with the best. Last week it served as the site of the first North American Rowing Championships ever held.
Canadian officials had expected as many as 25 nations to participate, but as the week began a few fell by the wayside. For one reason or another, crews from Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina that had been at Winnipeg for the Pan-Am Games decided to go home before the St. Catharines regatta—one of them, Argentina, without even a word to the regatta committee. Cuba's entry was peremptorily ordered home by Castro after its manager defected and sought sanctuary in Canada. The East Germans got huffy and refused to come when they learned that they could not call themselves the crew of the "German Democratic Republic" (NATO-member Canada doesn't recognize any such republic). At one time it looked as though even Britain might be absent, until a group of British buffs arranged to have an eight from Oxford and a four from a London scullers club sent over.
There were 18 nations on hand for the opening ceremonies, which were met with a downpour of rain and several Hashes of lightning, both meteorological and verbal. The real lightning made a shambles of the ceremonies. The verbal lightning threatened to ignite a transatlantic controversy when International Rowing Federation (F.I.S.A.) President Thomas Keller sharply criticized North American rowing practices in general and said this continent was 20 to 30 years behind Europe in its techniques. Europeans learn to row by sculling. Putting novice oarsmen in eight-oared crews and thus teaching them to row at the top as we do, Keller implied, is all wrong. "You can't," he said, "get a good crew together that way."
Whatever their purpose, his remarks only served to spur on one group of American rowers. The eight representing the U.S. was an eight from Harvard University that seemed pretty good to many experts. It had cruised through 19 straight victories before heading for St. Catharines and had been beaten only three times in four years of rowing, each time by Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club. (Harvard beat out Vesper for the honor of representing the U.S. in the eights, but Vesper was there in both four-oared divisions.)
To further confound Herr Keller, American crews forged their way to the finals in all seven classifications of the regatta (eights, single sculls, pairs with coxswain, pairs without cox, double sculls, fours with cox and fours without) either by winning early heats on Thursday or placing high in Friday's rep√™chages (the second-chance races). But the eights were the boats that captured the lion's share of attention of the crowd lined up on the shore.
The greatest threat facing the Americans in this division was a boatload of West Germans rowing under the banner of the famed Ratzeburg rowing club. Only last month this crew had streaked along the 2,000-meter course at Duisburg in the world-record time of 5:28. It included only four real Ratzeburgers—the others came from the Union rowing club of Frankfurt, the Deutscher rowing club of Berlin and the Binger rowing club—but all of them had traveled to Ratzeburg each weekend for months to practice under famed Coach Karl Adam, and all of them sculled at home during the week to keep in top form.
The luck of the draw kept Ratzeburg and Harvard apart in the early heats. In the first of these the Harvards were opposed by Oxford and some nondescript entries from Mexico and Japan. As carefree and uninhibited as they have been right along, the Harvard boys were only slightly awed by the idea of international competition. For the most part, they followed the cool example of their coach, Harry Parker, who, despite his growing prestige in rowing circles, does a masterful act of blending into the crowd. "He's with us all the time," said one Harvard oarsman.
The Harvards were almost too sure of themselves for Thursday's heat. While Mexico and Great Britain had already maneuvered into position for the start of the race, the U.S. eight was taking its own sweet time getting to the start. Harvard's old friend, President Keller, a stickler for getting races off on time, boiled over the Crimson's touristlike approach. He directed the small motor-boat in which he was riding to within earshot of the U.S. eight and threatened to withdraw the Harvards from the race if they didn't get to the start posthaste. Harvard hurried. "We weren't laughing," said one oarsman. At the start Japan, Mexico and Great Britain, in that order, shot off, with Harvard traipsing behind. But not for long. After 300 meters had elapsed it was strictly a duel between the U.S. and Great Britain. At the finish line it was the U.S. crew by nearly two lengths.
In the other preliminary heat for the eights Ratzeburg was opposed by crews from Yugoslavia and Canada, an Australian crew that was second in Canada's Henley a month before and a crew from New Zealand that had never rowed together in a race before. Although in World War I the combined Australian-New Zealand forces were called Anzacs, that was a long time ago and nobody took Aussie and New Zealand entries very seriously. Too bad. A pickup team selected from five New Zealand rowing clubs to represent their country at St. Catharines, the All Blacks (as the New Zealanders called themselves because of their uniforms) pulled off the first coup of the regatta against Ratzeburg.
Slipping past the favored West German crew at the start of the race, the Kiwi crew moved away to a deck lead at the 300 mark, a length at 500 and a length and a quarter at 650. The Germans, having trouble settling into their normally highly efficient, smooth-stroking groove, finally pulled together for the final 1,000 meters and drew even with the Kiwis at 1,300, but the race and victory went to New Zealand by a third of a length.
Next day, thanks to the generous regatta system by which rowing gives every beaten crew a second try, Oxford and Ratzeburg, along with Australia and Canada, recouped their earlier losses and rowed back into competition in the rep√™chages. That put heavily favored Harvard up against the Germans, the New Zealanders, the Aussies, the English and the Canadians in the finals.
Needless to say, with Keller watching closely, the insouciant Harvards got to the start in plenty of time and full of confidence. If the Ratzeburgers had been somewhat shaken by their defeat on Thursday, their spirits were more than restored by a rep√™chage clocking of 6:02.43 on Friday, the fastest of any eight in the regatta. Both of these crews went to the start fully prepared to make it a match race, but the determined rowers from down under had different ideas, so different that the northern championships became a Southern Cross special. The New Zealanders pulled ahead at the very start, with the Ratzeburgers close behind. Then, seemingly out of nowhere at the 1,600 mark, the Aussies pulled up on the Germans. The race ended with the New Zealanders in first place, the Aussies second and the Ratzeburgers third. The Harvards were a hopeless fourth.
Maybe Keller was right after all.