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Oars and Old Ivy
Alexander Wolff
June 06, 1988
Every year, Harvard and Yale athletes bivouac at riverside to prepare for America's longest-running collegiate event
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June 06, 1988

Oars And Old Ivy

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

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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.

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."

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