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."