An eight-oared rowing shell is 14 inches deep and an eighth of an inch thick. Put 1,700 pounds of oarsmen inside, have one of them belch at the wrong moment and you have 1,700 pounds of swimmers. So it is best that all commotion in rowing happens ashore. Call the latest stir "The Case of the Missing Trophies." It began two weeks ago at the Western Sprints, held at Newport Beach, Calif. There were no trophies because, as one reporter wrote rather cryptically, "...last year's winners, Washington and California, refused to return them." Or even to show up and defend their titles. However, they did appear last weekend in a tidal lagoon at San Francisco Bay's Redwood Shores. And guess what Washington and California brought along with them?
They came to race in the first-ever Pacific Eight Conference Rowing Championships, which provided the latest answer to a persistent question: Where do you race hollowed-out, 63-foot toothpicks if you want ideal conditions? Strike out much of parched California. How do you feel about heavy water traffic or high winds? Skip the Western Sprints, in which last year a record 25 schools competed on Berkeley's blustery San Pablo reservoir. The wind came up at 10 a.m., and as Washington Coach Dick Erickson said to Cal Coach Steve Gladstone, "Who wants to row before breakfast?"
Erickson suggested the Pac-8 event, Gladstone agreed to it and so did the six other conference coaches. The developers of Redwood Shores, a planned community of pleasant waterfront homes, offered the use of their lagoon. A lot of non-conference coaches were not at all happy about the new event. The Sprints had always signified the Western championships, and though Washington and Cal were the traditional powers, their supremacy was not engraved on stone. Said Dennis Borsenberger, coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara, "I wish the Pac-8 championships were open. I have an exceptional crew and I don't have a chance to prove it now, to win a real championship." Or, to bring home a trophy.
The varsity eight winner in the Western Sprints had always received the Ky Ebright Challenge Cup, donated in 1959 by Ebright, for 33 years the Cal coach. Ebright says, "I didn't foresee the proliferation of rowing on the Coast. I thought the cup would go to the winner of the Cal-Washington rivalry. The inscription doesn't say anything about the Western Sprints."
May 29, 1977
The wind blew at 15 knots by mid-morning at Redwood Shores, but the lagoon was too narrow to get rough. Everyone seemed pleased with the course, and with the dramatic one-on-one format its dimensions dictated. Caught up in the excitement, Gladstone was saying that Cal, Washington and Oregon State might be the best crews in the nation. Cal's big eight had won last year's intercollegiate rowing championships—the IRAs at Syracuse, N.Y.—and so now, when it lost by seven seconds to OSU in a semifinal heat, the final day of racing, pitting OSU against Washington, took on momentous proportions. Some people were even willing to forgive the use of the catch phrase "national collegiate title showdown" by the Pac-8 publicists.
But, as always in Western rowing, the specter of Harvard loomed over the lagoon. Harvard does not row at the IRA. But it does occasionally venture West, and on its three most recent trips the Crimson had laid waste to Washington in 1974 and the next two years won the San Diego Classic regatta, leaving Washington, Cal and others comfortably astern. Harvard stayed home this year; instead Penn came out and won at San Diego, beating Washington. Early this month, the Quakers stopped Harvard's five-year winning streak at 26, edging the Crimson by one-tenth of a second on the Charles (SI, May 16). The Harvard haters of the world took heart. With the Eastern Sprints coming the following week at Princeton, they sensed a chance to deliver a mortal blow.
But one-tenth of a second is not ignominy, and Harvard reached way back for its two-stage morale builder, slogans and sass. A telegram arrived from a rowing alum: "The stage is set for a great story. Snake 'em all." And suddenly it was The Year of The Snake for Harvard, a tag for the crew worthy of succeeding The Smooth and The Rude and The Year of The Crab, Crimson crews of the previous two years.
An hour before the rematch at Princeton, most of the Harvards sat silently inside the boathouse, jaws set, heads down. Never before had any of them approached a varsity race for Harvard with a loss on their record. When the time came, they filed quietly down to Lake Carnegie and began the slow two-mile row to the starting line.
That long row is a problem at Carnegie, but there is a worse one. No coaching launches are allowed on the lake, so the coaches must watch from a bumpy path ashore, either from a bicycle or sitting in one of two mobile four-tiered grandstands mounted on truck beds. The path in some places is only a foot or so wider than the trucks, with steep embankments and water on either side—the lake and the long-unused Delaware and Raritan Canal. Branches hang down to lash at unwary faces. It is a treacherous proposition at best. On this day, with the big race only minutes off, the news that had always seemed inevitable was shouted from an official boat, "The other truck just went over the edge!" "My son's on that truck!" yelled Harvard Coach Harry Parker. And he grabbed a bike and raced away up the path, thereby missing one of the most important races of his career.
But the truck had miraculously hit a steel marker. Teetering on the brink, its occupants half-dived, half-fell into the muddy lake. Young Parker was unharmed, and as things worked out, the elder Parker had a lot to be thankful for. His boat beat Penn by a convincing length. "We snaked 'em," shouted Five Oar John Brock.
It was the third and last year for the Eastern Sprints at Lake Carnegie. Many schools found the site difficult to get to, the accommodations were inadequate and no one dug the trucks too much. Next year the Sprints will return to Lake Quinsigamond, at Worcester, Mass., where they were held from 1959 to 1974.
On the last day of racing at Redwood Shores, the varsity eights' final was scheduled for 10 a.m., to beat the wind. But the wind won. In the biggest and best race of the day, Washington and OSU bucked 15 to 20 knots of it, and each other. At the halfway mark, OSU was down by only a seat. But the Huskies, true to their nickname, were heavier by 13 pounds per man, and they bulled their way to a length-and-a-half win.
Ashore, Washington Coach Erickson was seeing Crimson. There was chatter about a trip to England, and a possible showdown with Harvard at Henley in June. "I'm most anxious to prove who's No. 1 in the country," Erickson said. But when Ky Ebright presented his cup, which had magically reappeared, there were no complaints about the inscription. It read: PACIFIC COAST INTERCOLLEGIATE CREW CHAMPION.