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Oars and Old Ivy

June 06, 1988
June 06, 1988

Table of Contents
June 6, 1988

NBA Playoffs
Stanley Cup
Bowa & Co.
Harvard-Yale
Roger Clemens
Golf
Track & Field
Max Patkin
First Person
Point After

Oars and Old Ivy

Every year, Harvard and Yale athletes bivouac at riverside to prepare for America's longest-running collegiate event

Some Harvards like to say, " 'For God, for country and for Yale' is the single greatest anticlimax in the English language." The Yales like to say, "You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much." Having sorted that out, you may not want to know much else about the whiskered rivalry between Harvard and Yale.

This is an article from the June 6, 1988 issue

Yet you might turn your attention to the Harvard-Yale Regatta just the same. It is the oldest intercollegiate sporting event in America, and it will go off for the 123rd time this weekend on the Thames River near New London. Conn., quarantined as usual from the disease of big-time athletics. Virtually unfireable coaches will exhort athletes who are easy to keep eligible but difficult to keep from spending junior year abroad. The varsity oarsmen will seize upon their four-mile race this Sunday morning as a chance to show that dedicating a fortnight to eating, sleeping and rowing at their camps on the eastern shore of the river—Harvard at its camp at Red Top, Yale some 20 strokes upstream at Gales Ferry—was worth it. And keep in mind that both varsity teams—as well as the freshmen and jayvee squads, which compete over shorter distances—have already spent the entire school year preparing for the spring crew season.

A football factory could skim the sixth string off its varsity depth chart, stock a boathouse cooler with anabolic Gatorade, funnel football revenue into the crew program and a decent coach, and become a rowing power virtually overnight. Some students at Clemson had just such a notion several years back. They petitioned then athletic director Frank Howard, who was also the football coach, for financial assistance to start a crew program. Howard turned them down, declaring that "Clemson will never subsidize a sport where a man sits on his tail and goes backwards."

So for the most part, rowing is left to the quixotic. To race each other in New London once a year, Harvard and Yale do more than simply field crews. They own and maintain their own camps on the Thames, facilities that lie fallow for nearly 50 weeks a year. "No one today could start something like this from scratch." says Yale coach Tony Johnson, gesturing toward the boathouse and living quarters at Gales Ferry. "It's a child of a century ago." Adds former Harvard rower Steve Brooks, who comes back to Red Top every spring just for the race, "It's an incredible waste of resources, but the enjoyable things are."

An oarsman training at Red Top or Gales Ferry knows that his counterpart is doing virtually the same thing less than a mile away. He may rubberneck a bit when an enemy boat is on the water—the crews practice before breakfast and again before dinner—but he will do so as discreetly as possible, so as not to betray his curiosity to his opponent. Nor will there be any banter between the competing crews should the boats pass one another—much less any organized get-togethers—in the days before the race. "You can't realize they're people too." says Pete Rafle, the manager of last season's Yale crew. "You have got to stay objective."

Harvard and Yale first raced in 1852 on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee. The Boston, Concord & Montreal railroad company staged a two-mile event with great fanfare in order to generate interest in the area as a summer resort, and the schools continued the rivalry on their own thereafter. But more than 20 years would pass before the race took on its current character and home. Bob Cook, who was the Yale crew captain in the mid-1870s, had been a keen student of rowing in England, where the Oxford-Cambridge race, with the excruciating demands of its 4¼-mile course, was a popular event. Cook was one of the prime movers in the effort that lengthened the Harvard-Yale race to four miles (in 1876) and moved it to the Thames (in 1878).

And so the regatta is steeped in Brit envy: Oxford-Cambridge, London, the Thames: Harvard-Yale, New London, the Thames (though in the United States it rhymes with shames). The Thames, an estuary that empties into Long Island Sound at New London, became home to the race mainly because it was the only navigable stretch of water between New Haven and Cambridge long enough and straight enough for a four-miler.

What you need to know about rowing, other than that it is a sport that would likely enjoy a resurgence during a Bush Administration, is that eight-oared shells with coxswains conventionally race over 1.24 miles, a distance that a typical varsity crew will cover in slightly more than six minutes. This is how eight-oared crew is practiced at the Olympics, the world championships and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta; Harvard and Yale skip the latter to race each other.

Over four miles, however, the oarsmen are on the water for at least 20 minutes, playing a cruelly unforgiving head game. Come out too cautiously at the start, and you risk handing your rival a chance to seize psychological control of the race. Come out too fast, and you'll be punished over the final mile, when oxygen debt calls due its notes. Coxswains work double duty all the while; they bark as much trash across the water at the opposing shell as they do encouragement and stroke counts to their own oarsmen.

The race's length demands the athletes' best efforts. "It's been said that it's not the most important race to win, but the worst to lose," says former Harvard varsity oarsman Rich Kennelly. "To be here so long focusing on one event and then to lose—to give up your shirt [losing oarsmen surrender their singlets to their vanquishers] after four miles and a 20-minute race—makes you a little more timid or courageous, depending on your character, the next time you face a challenge."

Despite that lofty challenge and the race's rich history, the scenery along the Thames is not courtesy of Thomas Eakins. From this year's starting line at the Interstate 95 bridge to the finish upstream, the shells will pass a submarine base, several boatyards, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the USS Nautilus at permanent berth. The potential for problems caused by the wakes from all other moving craft is eliminated on race day by the Coast Guard, which closes the area an hour before the race starts. The Navy is the most imposing neighbor, and the crews need to be careful not to stray off-course into a restricted area. "You tell them it used to be our race-course,'* says Harvard coach Harry Parker, "and it doesn't seem to make much impression on them."

But there's a lesson to be learned from the Red Top and Gales Ferry experiences. Naval history teaches it, and Will Evans grasped it a few years ago, before captaining the Yale boat and after taking a classics course. The navy of ancient Athens was superior to anything else on the water in its time, because no other city-state could afford to train year-round. The Athenians spent as much as it took—one talent per month per 170-oared trireme—to stay battle ready.

"That was why their tributary allies sent in so much money," Evans says. "Athens didn't need the excuse of a battle to go on military maneuvers. There's that connection to rowing—that being able to practice for such a long period of time is what gives you that edge."

During the languid days of late May, between the morning and evening rows and around the eating and sleeping, there's plenty of time to lose yourself in the natural character of your respective camp. Tidy and private, the Harvard compound has about it an air of reserved confidence, almost a laid-back arrogance. Witness the Latin motto, which is on a flag that is sometimes flown near the Red Top boathouse—EX NEMO NON FESCES. Rough translation: "Take crap from no one." That sentiment flows directly from the laconic Parker, whose character can be read from his stout jaw. Afternoon games of croquet are uneventful, except when a designated factotum, called the Master of Protocol, or M.P., decides to invoke a whimsical rule.

Yale's camp, at Gales Ferry, is surrounded by a dozen or so private homes to which old whaling captains once retired. The quarters are cramped, but as befits Johnson, the avuncular coach, the mood is more playful than at Red Top. There are brass plaques with legends like NON MAGNA LOQUIMUR FACIMUS ("We don't just talk of big things") and PARS MAGNA CERVISIA EIUS FUIT ("Beer [as in Donald, the captain of the '57 varsity crew] had a lot to do with it") hanging near the urinals and the commodes in the latrine. As at Red Top, the afternoon games of croquet are uneventful, except when another designated factotum, this one called the Ball and Mallet, or B and M, decides to invoke a whimsical rule.

Red Top and Gales Ferry share several tense emotional polarities, as might boot camps in wartime: frivolity and seriousness, courage and dread, youth and responsibility. By all accounts, the one thing with no polar opposite is tradition. "I don't think tradition has to have a reason," says Mike Raynor, a member of Harvard's 1987 freshman team. "It just sort of is."

In the not too distant past, the painting of the Rock, which rises above the shore opposite the camps, just downstream from the finish line, joined the list of traditional activities surrounding the regatta. Each crew sends out patrols at night to paint its school's letter and colors on the Rock. If you're Yale and the Rock has been defaced by a crimson H, you assault it with balloons filled with white paint. If you're Harvard and already control the Rock, you smear it with motor oil so that it can be neither scaled nor painted over. "Two gallons of turpentine will dissolve the oil," says Yale's Rafle. "Hey, I'm the manager. It's my job to know about this."

Both coaches tolerate the assaults on the Rock. They realize that the atmosphere requires leavening from time to time. "Red Top isn't just a training camp," says Parker. "It's participating in an event. The kids develop a very strong sense of shared endeavor, regardless of the outcome of the race.'

Do not take Parker's comment as evidence that he considers the outcome secondary. When the folks at ESPN broadcast the 1979 regatta, they asked each coach for permission to fit his coxswain with a remote microphone so viewers might hear the actual stroke cadences and get a more realistic feel for the race. Johnson agreed. Parker didn't. Whatever Parker's reasons, those few extra ounces in the Yale boat had nothing to do with the fact that Harvard beat Yale by the smallest margin of victory—2.5 seconds—since 1962, as TV recorded the Yale coxswain's increasingly desperate call.

While Johnson has the affability of Dick Van Dyke, Parker has, in the words of Harvard sports publicist Frank Cicero, "the voice you're glad your father didn't have." Says former Crimson oarsman Andy Hawley, "From Wednesday till race day, Harry gets more and more paranoid. He's tightening bolts that have already been tightened a hundred times."

Race day isn't what it was back when special trains of private railroad cars and flatbeds rigged with bleacher seats made their way to New London. In the '20s, scalpers could get as much as $50 a ticket. In those days some 100,000 spectators came to the race. About one-tenth of that number shows up now, and $16 will get you a splendid seat and a lavish box lunch at Red Top, where old Elis and Crimson intermingle.

On race day from Red Top, you will see the stunning committee boat, the Aphrodite, which was once owned by the financier and publisher Jock Whitney. You will also find Tom Mendenhall, a retired Yale professor of history and former president of Smith College, who is writing a history of the race. "History never repeats itself," Mendenhall likes to say in his mock-fussbudget manner. "Historians only repeat each other."

In fact, Mendenhall has the role of race chronicler pretty much to himself. Back in his study on Martha's Vineyard, under the watch of the musty books and monographs on naval history, he recently completed Volume I (to 1924).

Mendenhall, 78, began working on the history in the late '30s, becoming more earnest in 1975 after his retirement as president of Smith. His work has been slowed by the difficulty of sorting out such arcana as the 1882 Eelgrass Controversy. "The mysterious eelgrass!" Mendenhall says, warming up. "Supposedly located on the east side, at the third mile upstream. If you drew that lane, you were going to be appreciably slowed up. People tried to go out and cut the grass down, but that wasn't considered cricket."

From 1963 through 1980, Yale lost all 18 races, so for a time the Eli athletic department replaced the team's sashed singlets with blue T-shirts. Since then no school has won more than four consecutive times. However, the lions-and-Christians period didn't diminish the value of the experience. "People thought this thing was dead in the early '70s, when everything since Aristotle was being questioned," says Nick Bancroft, an old Crimson on the race committee and a fourth-generation oarsmen. "When you think about the time and money involved, there does seem to be some superfluity to it. But when you question the people who have actually done it, they say it's the most important thing they did in college."

THREE PHOTOSBRIAN HILLA Yalie checks a shell (below); Harvard takes practice strokes; an Eli coxswain weighs in.PHOTOBRIAN HILLThe painting of the Rock is but another part of the race's tradition.PHOTOBRIAN HILLLike their Harvard counterparts, Yale's rowers unwind with eccentric games of croquet.PHOTOBRIAN HILLDuring a morning practice run, Yale coach Johnson follows his oarsmen's progress.PHOTOBRIAN HILLAfter spending a day in the water, the blades get a bath.PHOTOBRIAN HILLLast year some varsity denizens of Red Top celebrated their victory over Gales Ferry.