The Other Boys (and a Girl) in the Boat
I was 20 years old, and everything was possible
I am at bottom left, holding the number of our team.
The recent release of George Clooney’s film The Boys in the Boat, the inspiring story of the eight young men who rowed for the United States in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, sent me scurrying to retrieve this 1974 photograph from my final undergraduate year at university. I was 20 years old, and everything was possible.
Our team was assembled for the Head of the Charles rowing regatta, not by competitive tryouts but rather by coincidence. We were all roommates, with two exceptions; one of the rowers lived elsewhere in our residence, and our petite female coxswain (missing from the photo) lived there as well. We put the word “motley” into crew.
Our matching yellow t-shirts reflected our team’s sponsorship by a Cambridge hot-dog restaurant near the university called The Underdog—rated the best hot dog by Boston Magazine in 1975.
We decided that competing in this illustrious event would be a seminal part of our Harvard experience and did not feel constrained by our complete lack of expertise or training. So for six weeks prior to the race, every morning at 6 a.m., we trained on the Charles River. We were ably coached by the younger brother of one of our crew, also an undergraduate, but unlike us, he was already a varsity rower. On the early mornings that he remembered to show up, he was extremely helpful.
At that time of day, the river was almost always glacially calm, its veneer punctured only by the oars slicing through it. The idea that varsity teams spent many months training on rowing machines, lifting weights, and doing “stadiums” (running up and down the stairs of the enormous football stadium) seemed laughably excessive to me, devoted as I was (and am) to maximum return on minimum investment.
We were understandably assigned to the novice eights category of the many heats throughout the day. By comparison, the final heat of the day, the elite eights, featured varsity teams from various Ivy League schools, as well as Oxford and Cambridge. It was the focus of the crowds gathered all along the shore of the Charles River, as well as the many people poised on the seven bridges along the race route.
Somehow, we negotiated a transfer to that elite eights heat, by swapping with another boat that really wanted to clean up in an easier race. The regatta was only nine years old then, staffed by volunteers with clipboards, and it allowed for this kind of subterfuge in a way unimaginable today with computers, QR codes, and video monitoring.
We rowed to the starting line and realized the race was a greater distance than we had ever covered in practice. We found it pretty tiring to get there and still faced a three-mile race. Along the way to the starting line, we (inadvertently) bumped into the Yale women’s varsity boat and had eight muscular women extremely angry with us.
And then, Jimmy announced, “I have to pee.” Seven of us listed to starboard as he tilted portside and emptied his bladder into the Charles River.
I still recall looking to my left and right at the starting line, admiring the impressive other shells while we waited for the crack of the starter’s pistol. Within roughly four seconds of the bang, we essentially had the river to ourselves as the other shells rapidly shrunk to specks on the horizon.
As we rowed in rough unison on our sliding glides, I watched with horror as a scene out of Ben-Hur unfolded. Tyler was seated directly in front of me. One of the rear wheels of his slide wobbled along the track and then fell off its axle. He needed full butt power to drag the slide up and down the track with each stroke. I anticipated sparks from the wood-on-wood friction but took comfort in the fact we were surrounded by water.
The Charles River is the antithesis of a straight line and likely the inspiration for the unnavigable streets of Boston. Since rowing involves having your back to your destination along a serpentine route, we relied heavily on our forward-facing coxswain to steer us to safe harbour as well as to synchronize our oars by rhythmically yelling “Stroke” over and over for three miles.
Some semantic confusion led to our collision en route with Anderson Bridge. Our fearless coxswain, the only one of us who saw the impending and immobile bridge, called out for “Port – pull harder.” The problem was that in facing us rowers, her definition of the left side of the shell was the exact opposite of ours, and we hadn’t agreed beforehand on a shared nomenclature. The shell struck the bridge at a 90-degree angle to the boat’s long axis. This could have been a fatal collision—initially from the impact and subsequently from the laughter. But we didn’t sink or flip over.
When we crossed the finish line, the crowd had dissipated—from many thousands of people to fewer than ten—our girlfriends (in my case, my future wife, who remembers the event as well).
Our team came in 23rd in our elite eights category. By amazing coincidence, there were exactly 23 shells in that final heat. As for our time of 21 minutes, 40.6 seconds, the decimal point, let alone the total number of seconds, was painfully superfluous, as we finished at least seven minutes behind the first-place boat. But we finished.
None of us ever rowed again. I might add that, prior to six weeks before the regatta, none of us had ever rowed before. We went our separate ways at the end of that school year. We seized a moment, experienced a grand tradition, and had fun, and I never once thought half a century later, I would be inspired to look back.