The early heats at Orchard Beach gave the experts no reason to alter their opinions. With its short, quick stroke, California covered the Olympic distance a length faster than three opponents, and Harvard's exquisite precision gave it an easy victory over three others. Then the Harvard boys in their sleek, cigarette-thin Pocock boat went up against Vesper in that ridiculous, high-sided Italian-built shell whose designer must have been inspired by a Spanish galleon. "She's tippy, all right," said the Vesper's Budd apologetically as he took his seat, "but I swear she goes faster."
She went so fast that within 300 meters in the semifinal race Vesper's crew had left Harvard far behind, and nothing about this boatload of funny old men could be considered funny anymore.
Harvard had something of an alibi in this race. Geoffrey Gratwick's back, injured a month before, was acting up. But Coach Harry Parker would as soon have his fingernails yanked out one by one as use an injury to excuse a losing Harvard effort. "We'll be all right tomorrow," he promised, departing for the crew's motel in Larchmont. But, injury or not, Harvard was badly outclassed by a Vesper crew desperately eager to prove its worth in its first tough race. California also had reason for worry, despite an apparently easy victory over Yale in the other semifinal. "You could see signs of fatigue in the Cal boat despite their length lead," said one expert. "It's hard to explain if you haven't rowed yourself. It's like a runner when he's laboring. You know how he looks—it's as if he were trying to climb up a rope."
The night before the finals the men of Vesper went to bed full of optimism, an attitude that put Rosenberg in the same worrier's class with Harvard's Parker and California's Jim Lemmon. "I told them that I'd had good crews who had managed to blow it before," Rosenberg said later. But Vesper didn't blow it, although for a while it seemed a near thing. Harvard got off to what Parker said was its best start all year and continued to row as if there weren't a bad back in the boat. As for Vesper, Stroke Bill Stowe explained it best: "I hate to say our start was bad. But it was. In fact, it was terrible." One third of the way down the course, Harvard was leading, with California and Vesper a good deck length behind.
"When they got that jump on us," Budd said, "most of my thoughts were obscene. I thought they were out to shake us by getting the quick lead. They got the lead all right, but we don't shake so easy."
About 300 meters farther on, Vesper's superior strength and experience began to tell. The John B. Kelly came even with Harvard, which was rowing just as beautifully as ever and at a higher stroke than ever before—35. "I called for 15 right when we got even," said Stowe, "hoping we'd get open water on them. But all we got was three-quarters of a length. After that we couldn't risk going for a record time with things so tight, so we played it cool."
Near the end Harvard made one more magnificent bid, but Stowe simply upped the count of his own boat to nearly 40 to regain control, settled back to a steady 39 and swept on to victory. And that was that.
After the race Coxswain Zimonyi, who knows what it is to win boat races, patiently allowed himself to be tossed into Orchard Beach Lagoon three times, once for tradition's sake, twice more for the benefit of photographers. On the third immersion Tom Amlong called an abrupt halt to the game. "You guys better get it this time," he told the newsmen. "He's got rheumatism, you know." After all, you can't treat an old man like he was just a boy.