John Zevenbergen, the brawniest member of the country's biggest crew, calls it "my primordial scream," and it bellowed over San Diego's Mission Bay last Saturday as Zevenbergen and his fellow University of Washington oarsmen beat back Yale, California and Harvard in the San Diego Crew Classic, the first big regatta of the year. The great apes in the city's famed zoo might well have recoiled. When the 6'4", 215-pound six-oar came ashore and grabbed his coxswain, Eric Cohen, shaking him like a rag mop, and shouting, "Yeah, yeah, yeah...," there were those who feared for Cohen's life. The day was complete for Washington when Matt Arrott, the Harvard stroke-oar (6 feet, 192) relinquished his racing jersey to Huskie Stroke Marius Felix (6'7½", 225), and said, "People don't get many of these."
How true. Harvard, a magical name in rowing, loses few races and hadn't finished as far back as fourth since this same event three years ago. And it had been balmy in New England: ice on the Charles broke three weeks early, allowing Harvard and neighboring Northeastern to head west unusually well prepared. With an ice-free winter for the first time in three years, the Huskies had been rowing on Seattle's Lake Washington since Sept. 29. In fact, the only place where the weather seemed to be acting up was San Diego. Sheets of rain swept the bay as race day approached, and a bitter crosswind gusted over the course, kicking up quite a sea. Harry Parker, Harvard's coaching wizard, concerned about the conditions, called from his launch to one of his oarsmen, "You're pivoting that wrist too far," and to another, "You're turning that handle too much."
"You run the risk of having the blade slip back into the water," he explained, "and of catching a crab; on a day like this you could end up swimming."
Yale Coach Tony Johnson, who had never brought his oarsmen to San Diego before, told them, "You might find, with the strong wind here, that you end up going crab style down the course. It's a touchy thing."
Penn's Ted Nash was saying, "I like Washington if the wind blows across the course. But if it quiets down, I think the finesse of Harvard or Yale could pull one of them through."
Washington arrived late and took only one brief workout on the bay. Coach Dick Erickson, known in Seattle as The Admiral of the Western Fleet, seemed even more highly strung than usual. "I've never seen him so psyched over a crew, or so confident," Zevenbergen said.
The Huskies average 6'5¼" and 206 pounds per man. In fact, two members of the crew are as tall as Washington's tallest starting basketball players: Felix and Greg Hoffman, the 6'8" four-man. Five-man Sam Eastabrooks, a mere 6'7", keeps in the mood for rowing in the summer by paddling about 20 miles nonstop, in six-man outrigger canoes, near his parents' Oahu home.
Erickson was so hyped that he even had stopped smoking his pipe—there were rumors that he used to sleep with it—and began running, up to six miles at a shot. Two days before leaving for San Diego, the Admiral conducted one of his late-afternoon instructionals on Lake Washington. Through his megaphone, he told Eastabrooks, "Sam, keep your eyes up. Look at Zevenbergen's back in front of you. That will help you keep from dropping the oar handle as you roll up from the catch."
Erickson said to an onlooker, "Sam may be the cleverest man in the boat for blade work, but he tends to look down as his blade catches the water, which makes it pop up instead of going in."
To Hoffman, who sometimes fails to row with his arms early enough in the stroke, he called, "Greg, you've got to sit up, and bend your right arm earlier in the drive."
At two-oar was Erickson's 6'3" son, Alan. "We have two different relationships," says Alan. "In one he's a coach, and in the other he's a father." The coach says: "He catches well, but he has to improve the thrust of his backslide. He tends to row what we call a double stroke; he gets his legs down all right, but instead of making it fluent then, he's jerky with his body." One day on Lake Washington Erickson the coach said, "AI, you've got to watch that double stroke. Accelerate the slide from the catch through to the release. Catch hard and release hard."
There is no end to an oarsman's stroke, and no beginning, no measuring its complexity and no way for a non-oarsman to appreciate fully the difficulty of executing it well. The blade enters the water, and that is the catch, with the oarsman's arms fully extended and his legs fully bent. The bottom edge of the blade cuts into the water, and the drive begins. Power is applied from the legs and the back, the blade is drawn through the water, and halfway through the drive the arms begin drawing in. The drive ends with the legs extended, most power having come from the legs and back, but finally, at the drive's end, it is the oarsman's arms that keep the boat moving. The blades must pivot smoothly from the water, feathering upward, all the blades in unison, of course. Too much pivot, too much turning of an oar blade, and someone can catch a crab. Many crews, seemingly headed for victory, have found themselves stopped dead in the water by such a misfortune.
Finally, with the blades out of the water, shoulders and hands start moving forward, followed by the oarsman's body in his sliding seat. His arms fully extend, his legs start folding and the catch is about to begin again.
Truly, there is no beginning and no end to the stroke, and there is no end to the teaching of it. The elusive goal is eight strong men, stroking in perfect form and harmony, the rise and fall of each blade a duplication of every other.
Race day dawned bright, and by noon the wind was gusting to 20 knots, a quartering tailwind. The crews lined up in this order: Cal, Washington, Harvard, Yale, Northeastern and UCLA. The start was unusually spirited, with Harvard leading from the line. Washington cox Cohen had his eyes to the right, on the Cal crew, which had won the first morning heat in a fast 5:52.9 for 2,000 meters, breaking Harvard's 1976 course record of 6:01.8, with the Crimson second. Washington had won Heat 2 in 5:52.2. Suddenly Cohen saw Harvard up front. "Harvard's got a seat on us," he shouted.
That was at 200 meters. Quickly Cohen reassured his men, "We are moving" and at around 400 meters Washington edged ahead. At 500, though, Yale closed in, and Cal wasn't too far behind. Growing increasingly nervous, Cohen kept glaring about. He called out, "Lengthen the stroke, squeeze it right to the stomach."
At 750, Yale was edging up and Cohen's response was an insistent, "Yale's making a move. Let's take a regroup 10," or, as one Huskie explained, "10 strokes to concentrate, to think of all the guys in the boat, all of them working as hard as I was." Washington held its lead. At 1,400, Cohen, nearly hysterical, was shouting, "Washington! Washington! Washington!" He seemed convinced he could beat back Yale with his mouth. But at 1,600, Yale had pulled dead even.
Cohen had one trick left, an order and a plea to his crew: "Power up." Up the power went. Washington won by seven seats and Yale had open water over Cal. Zevenbergen raved about Cohen. "It's not so much what he says, but how he says it, that gets us going. I can't even understand what he's saying at times, but I always know what he means."
Washington had broken the course record for the second time that day, with a 5:44.8, but the time wasn't important to Zevenbergen, who was bellowing away, or to Felix, who hung over the side of his shell, laughing and being sick to his stomach at the same time. "It was worth it," he kept saying when he was able to speak.
Dick Erickson sprinted madly toward where his shell was going to land, and he wasn't even breathing hard. Twenty minutes later he stood on the victor's platform and said, "I want to thank all of those East Coast crews for coming out to race us this early in their seasons."
If Zevenbergen & Co. keep the primordial juices flowing, late is going to be as rewarding for the Admiral as early.