His name is John Stillings and he coxes the Washington crew, but after the Huskies' first race at England's Henley Royal Regatta last Saturday, his teammates began to call him Kamikaze John. There they were, a third of the way through the biggest race of their lives up to that point, when two absentminded teen-agers rowed a little green dinghy into their path. But Stillings did not blink. He simply swallowed hard and kept his crew moving. The dinghy slipped off the course, the concentration of his oarsmen did not waver and they went on to beat the Garda Siochana Boat Club, Ireland's national squad, and gain Sunday's finals against the British national crew. And there they would not only win the biggest prize at Henley but the U.S. college rowing championship as well.
Henley hardly seems the place for that, and Irish and British crews seem strange outfits to have to beat for it. But Cornell and Harvard were at Henley, too, and all three had capped strong intercollegiate seasons by winning major regattas: Cornell the IRA, Harvard the Eastern Sprints and Washington the Pac-8 championships.
The problem with settling which of the three was best was the draw. Cornell and Washington got byes, but Harvard had to row against the Garda on Friday, losing a thrilling race by a quarter length. This frustrated Washington Coach Dick Erickson, who was positive the Crimson had been avoiding him. He thought a race had been arranged last month in the East, but it never came off.
In Saturday's first race, Cornell drew the British national squad. Though the Big Red closed fast, they also lost by a quarter length, to the overwhelming pre-regatta favorites. That left Washington to redeem the honor of U.S. rowing. Erickson, an unflagging booster of the sport, was thrilled at the opportunity. In Henley's first three days he made 13 calls to Seattle radio and TV stations and newspapers, waking once at 3 a.m. to get on the phone, and after the Huskies had beaten Garda Siochana on Saturday, he outdid himself. He ad-libbed four little stories for Seattle station KIRO, calling the Washington victory "unbelievable but true, and a marvelous, marvelous opportunity for Washington rowing."
July 10, 1977
That evening he thanked his crew and showed once more why they blithely refer to his regime as "dictatorship" by announcing a light workout for 6 a.m. Sunday, when the river would be free of traffic. "We won the cake," he said, "and tomorrow we go for the frosting."
The cake was U.S. supremacy. The frosting, for which the Huskies would have to contend with the British, was the Grand Challenge Cup, the big prize at Henley.
The confrontation came late on Sunday afternoon. At 5:20 Washington partisans cheered as Erickson's crew began the long row to the starting line, out of sight down the river. As the six o'clock starting time approached and then passed, the crowd at waterside strained for the first sounds from the loudspeaker. Minutes—seconds—seemed interminable, but suddenly came the race announcer: Washington was leading the British by three feet. It had taken them only 15 strokes to recover from a typically shaky start. At a quarter mile, the lead was a deck length, and at a mile, as the boats came in sight of the grandstands, it was 'Washington by one-third length." "Unreal," came a single clear voice as Washington passed by with 300 yards to go, leading now by a length. People with Washington buttons began edging out of the crowd and running toward the landing dock as the Huskies went over the line a length ahead of the British to become the first U.S. winner of the Grand Challenge Cup since' 1959. Erickson's wife was weeping on his shoulder, and Erickson himself somehow managed to look ecstatic and bewildered at the same time. Said Seven Oar Jesse Franklin to a friend, "This is what we've been waiting for all year."
But in a sense the victory was anticlimactic, at least from an American point of view. Washington had not beaten Harvard, but the Huskies knew they had done so indirectly, which was almost as sweet. Harvard had offered no excuses. When a reporter gave them an out, asking, "When were you at your peak this year—in May, at the Eastern Sprints?" Bow Oar John White replied, "No, yesterday."
Findley Meislahn, the Cornell coach, said after his crew's loss to the British, "That was as fast as we can go." Meislahn is a mild, gentle man, just right for the mood at Henley. After the Cornell race the British coach, Chris Blackwall, was saying, "The thing that surprised me about the American colleges was that they seemed a little weak at the end of the stroke." Then he saw Meislahn and added, "Except for Cornell, of course."
But win or lose, the American college crews were popular visitors. Cornell and Washington helped make the Saturday crowd the largest for that day in Henley regatta history. Friday had been cool and overcast, and only the weather kept the crowd down, because at 12:30, sailing up the river came Her Royal Highness the Princess Anne, Mrs. Mark Phillips, G.C.V.O. But she did not stay in one place long enough to hear her full title. She arrived in a shallop, built for the film A Man for All Seasons. It was filigreed in blue and white, and rowed by 10 oarsmen in bright red 17th-century watermen's uniforms with solid silver buttons. The British ladies beamed and exclaimed, "How lovely!" And, "How dignified!" Princess Anne carried a bouquet, wore a white cape and spent an hour being shown the intricacies of racing shells. She seemed particularly interested in rudders.
When they were not gawking at the Princess, the spectators were appreciating the scenery, animate and otherwise. Young girls, with complexions of milk and roses, strolled along the banks. Their men were in white, blue and straw—pants, blazers and boaters. And everywhere along the shore there were boats. But what boats! Ancient skiffs, all rich dark browns, gleaming and thick with a century and more of varnish, and reclining within, women with parasols and lace-trimmed summer dresses. Flat little punts, with men on their sterns in blazers and club ties, poled lazily up and down the river. On the other side, less than 100 yards away, an ancient brick wall, built by Oliver Cromwell in 1643, stood thick with roses. And behind it stretched the sculptured gardens and croquet lawns of the Phyllis Court Club, which, it is said, kept the bombs off Henley during the war: one of Hitler's henchmen had seen it years earlier (so the story went) and wanted it intact for the boss, but their plans fell through. So that is Henley.
Everyone seemed to have a favorite race or two to watch and then turned away from the water. But the oarsmen were all seriousness ashore and on the river. The only evidence of American college silliness seemed to come from the University of California's four-with-cox entry. Under "occupation," the female coxswain was listed as a "body demolition specialist."
As usual at Henley there was much talk about the course, of how it runs upstream against a considerable current. As if that were not enough, it is just 80 feet wide, so only two boats can race at a time. And the edges are marked by log booms, against which each day a few oar blades were cracked or smashed. People are always saying that one lane is better than another, and others are always denying it. It is more a subject of amusement than concern. One amiable member of the stewards, the regatta's ruling body, said, "Old-timers will tell you which lane is the best, but I've always said, 'If you don't like the course, don't row here.' " Then he winked.
The only one who seemed seriously concerned about the current was Dick Erickson. Early in the week he paced the path beside the course; flipping twigs out near and far and studying their meanderings. But he discovered nothing of importance. On Sunday, long after the twigs had been carried out to sea, Erickson stood on the dock at Henley as the crowd thinned. Coach Blackwall came over and shook his hand. "You're a pro," Blackwall told him. "And I'm an apprentice." It was frosting enough for any cake.