MARCH IS THE CRUELEST MONTH, but even more so for those who row.
While the rest of our classmates headed off to some Caribbean island to bronze their winter bodies in the sun, the 60 or so members of the Trinity crew remained on campus for spring break and settled in to row double sessions. Naturally, Coach Poole tried to sell us on the notion that rowing twice a day was a total blast and definitely a much cooler thing to do than laze about on some random beach. After all, we would get super fit, and in exchange for a few weeks of physical hardship, we would then be treated to an evening of drama fit to rival Vaudeville - the infamous Trinity Crew "skit night."
Head coach Norm Graf kicked off the first day of spring training with an impromptu pep talk to all of the squads, gathered in front of the Bliss Boathouse. Graf had barely spoken to us freshmen before, but now that we had gotten through cuts, he apparently wanted to make a small gesture of group solidarity. He also wanted to take the opportunity to emphasize why it was important not to touch a drop of alcohol during the competitive season.
All the varsity athletes, it seemed, had heard this speech before, and most of them just stared at the ground, trying to keep a straight face as Graf launched into his annual sobriety pitch:
"Now all of you have been training quite hard, and when you do that, your body starts to build these extra blood vessels, in order to allow more oxygen to get from your lungs to your arms and legs..."
"Uh-oh," someone muttered. "It's the capillary speech..."
Graf glared at the interloper, silencing him.
"Now, there are the bigger blood vessels and veins that go in and out of the heart, and of course these get smaller and smaller as they move further toward the extremities, branching out into tiny little capillaries and arterioles and so forth..."
He looked around to make sure everyone was paying attention to his biology lecture.
"...The harder you train, the more capillaries you build, and this of course allows your body to transport oxygen more efficiently. But what happens if you should even take ONE sip of alcohol?"
He held out a long, bony finger and paused for a moment, waiting to see if any of us would dare reply.
"BOOM!" he yelled, clapping his big hands together. Some of the freshmen standing beside him jumped back a bit and then laughed nervously.
"They explode like a pack of firecrackers! BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!" he cried, clapping thrice.
He paused again, lifting his bushy eyebrows for emphasis. I thought he seemed a little nutty, but I decided to keep my mouth shut. After all, I figured you had to be slightly crazed to coach crew for any length of time.
"...Then all of that good work you've done has now been wasted, because you've killed them! You've murdered all of those poor little capillaries!" he explained.
We freshman looked at each other, frowning in disbelief, and then back at Norm Graf. None of us really knew what to make of him, which was clearly the way he liked it.
"All right then, let's get on the water!" he concluded, abruptly shuffling off in his insulated pants and mad bomber hat.
We fetched our wooden boat, The Connecticut, off the rack, and then waited in line to put it into the water. It was named after the river we rowed on, and we had grown fond of it in the mildly obsessive way that all oarsmen become attached to their equipment - including their oars and even the seats they sit upon. It was a George Pocock design, built especially for lightweight oarsmen, and many good crews had rowed in it before us, including the women's varsity eight. The women were now rowing in one of the newer fiberglass shells made by Schoenbrod of Maine—not as pretty, I thought, but much stiffer and lighter.
As we waited in line to put our boat in the water, I briefly scanned the river. It was running high, with a strong current, and I knew this would make rowing quite different in opposite directions. Heading downstream, our work would be light and easy, but rowing upstream was going to be a total slog - an enterprise only useful for building muscle.
The wind had come up too, and Heidi had us bring the boat down to our waists while we waited patiently for the last crews to launch. It was cold and our fingers were already numb, even sheathed in the homemade pogies we'd fashioned from old wool socks. The coaches grumbled as they set up their aluminum skiffs, horsing the small outboards onto the transoms and then checking their gas tanks to make sure they were full.
Everything was made harder and slower in the cold, and both the coaches and the coxswains were dressed like lobstermen, insulated by down jackets and yellow rain pants. It was worse for them than it was for us, motoring about with no physical activity to keep their bodies warm.
Finally, we put The Connecticut into the grey-green water, tied in, and shoved off after a speedy count down. The current took us away almost immediately, and Heidi called upon the bow four to row us out of harm's way. There were numerous pilings to be avoided near the dock, as well as some seasonal flotsam and jetsam coursing through the stream, including half-submerged tree limbs that could easily puncture a wooden hull or at the very least strip off a rudder.
"STRONGER ON STARBOARD," Heidi called out.
"Bite me!" Wean replied from the bow.
"What did he say?" Heidi asked Pete Tyson.
"Oh, just ignore him," Tyson replied.
"Yo! No talking in the boat!" Dak boomed from the five seat. His deep voice carried more weight than anyone.
The boat fell silent as we made our way upstream, barely making headway in the strong current.
Our new lineup was working well, with a few caveats. One was that Wean saw fit to mouth off from the hinterland of the bow seat, either to embarrass or impress Heidi. An experienced coxswain would have quickly told him to "shut up," but she was new to the job and didn't yet know how deal with backtalk. Most of us didn't really mind these outbursts, which were mildly indecent and humorous in equal measure, but we felt sorry for Heidi, who was a kind and somewhat innocent soul.
The other challenge was that Pete Tyson, while being an excellent stroke, had a tendency to get excited and take up the stroke rating whenever we started to race against the frosh heavies. I tried to settle him down a bit whenever this happened, like a jockey with a thoroughbred, but he had little patience for the concept of ratio. It didn't help that Coach Poole had recently praised Peter as "the guy with the fastest legs in the boat," making our new stroke and the rest of us believe that leg speed was directly correlated to boat speed.
Collectively, those of us in the stern had also developed a slight attitude of superiority over our bow four counterparts, based on the ill-founded belief that we were somehow more relevant to the success of the boat. Peter's manic proclivities aside, we were smoother and longer drawing our blades through the water, while the bow four were short and punchy. I could feel the jerkiness of their strokes as they rowed us away from the dock, but I could also sense that they had undeniable power. Recently I had gotten into a wrestling match with Rob Leavitt, who was not much more than 5'6" tall, and I was surprised to find that I could not move him. Porgy and Rhino were equally solid, and Wean of course was insanely strong, to match his overall personality.
Sensing our snobbish attitude, the bow four embraced their outlier status, inciting moments of comic relief whenever possible. They often engaged in farting contests, and constantly made fun of one another, bickering like a bunch of school children.
As Heidi added in Dak and Henry Phillips, bringing us to sixes, the bow four launched into their daily banter:
"Robman, can you try to keep your blade in the water?" Wean quipped.
"OH...is that what I'm supposed to be doing!" Rob shot back.
"Uh - yeah," Porgy chimed in.
"Shut up, butthead! How can you tell what my stroke looks like?"
"I have eyes in the back of my head," Porgy explained.
"That's funny," Rob said. "I've never seen a butt with eyes on it."
"Har! Har! Har!" Porgy barked, like a seal.
"Speaking of butts," he continued, "I think Rhino just farted."
"Did not!" said Rhino, indignantly.
Peter and I could hear them up in the bow, carrying on, but there was nothing we could do until Heidi learned to be more assertive. In the meantime, however, we had a larger problem on our hands.
We had been doing short race pieces with the heavyweights, and they had been winning most of the time. On paper, heavyweights should beat lightweights, but we didn't know that - nor did we care. We just wanted to win. But as they came out on top more and more, Charlie began to spend more time with them. Naturally, we began to equate their success with the lopsided amount of time he focused there.
"Look at that, Charlie is talking with the heavyweights again," Wean pointed out, as we began to row all eight, completing our warmup.
"Leave it alone," Dak boomed. "Don't say anything!"
And so, for the moment, everyone kept their mouths shut. But secretly, even Peter and I agreed that something had to be done. In the short run, we decided that we were going to beat the heavies today, whatever the cost might be.
We had barely gotten through our warmup - a series of power 10s and 20s - when the wind began to gust. It came out of the south, and pushed hard against the flow of the current, creating standing waves. A few of the larger ones broke over the bow.
"Shit! I just got soaked!" Wean shouted.
"Okay, spin both boats!" Charlie Poole called out, noticing the conditions. "We'll do the first piece heading downstream."
As the two crews lined up, we eyed each other with gentle malice. We liked the heavies, but we needed a win.
"Let's take them on this one," Tyson whispered to Heidi.
I knew what that meant, and as we paddled forward and took it up to full power, Peter brought the rate up to 40 strokes a minute. We jumped ahead of the heavies a few seats, but it wasn't pretty. Our blades bounced off of random waves, and we struggled to keep the boat balanced.
"Take it down!" I said to Peter. But of course, he was too excited to listen.
The heavies started to catch up, but we held them off. When we stopped rowing, everyone was happy.
"Hell yes!" Wean said, expressing the group sentiment.
"Okay, spin again!" Charlie called out. "Next piece will be upstream."
"Now we're screwed," Rob pointed out. Against the current, the heavies would have the advantage.
The ports backed and the starboards rowed, and we had just gotten our boat turned around in the freshening breeze when Charlie called us into the second piece:
"Three to build!" he shouted.
Again, Peter tried to take up the rate, but this time it was a useless strategy. A few rollers came up over the stern and sloshed more water into the boat. We were barely making headway.
"F—K!" Peter yelled.
"Keep rowing!" Dak bellowed.
"KEEP ROWING," Heidi echoed.
We were the furthest two crews away from the boathouse, and after we finished the piece, losing badly, we saw the heavies quickly spin their boat and begin to row back toward the dock as fast as they could. Either someone was sick, or something else was wrong. Charlie was with them, and he whipped his head around and called out:
"Head back. NOW!"
We tried to row, but the wind had gotten so strong that it began to blow us sideways to the current. Several more waves swept over our gunnels in rapid succession, and suddenly our wooden hull was completely swamped.
"UNTIE! UNTIE!" Pete Tyson yelled. The icy water encircled our waists like a snake, squeezing the breath out of us.
"Stay with the boat!" Dak commanded. "Wait for coach!"
But Charlie, of course, was with the heavyweights.
"Fuck that!" Wean said. There was a set of wooden pilings nearby, and he swam for them. The rest of the bow four followed his lead, abandoning ship.
By now the eight had rolled upside down in the current, making it harder to cling to the slippery cedar hull. Charlie motored up, flustered and worried.
"Get in!" he shouted. "Stern four first!"
We clambered into the launch, one at a time, and then Charlie revved forward to try and maneuver toward the bow four. Suddenly a gust of wind shoved his launch much faster forward than he intended.
"Damn!" he said. But it was too late.
His launch ran up and over our submerged eight, and we heard the prop begin to tear into the hull. It made a sickening noise, like tree branches snapping. Finally he shifted into neutral and then dislodged himself from the eight by reversing directions.
But now the current took him too quickly the other way, and straight toward Rob Leavitt, clinging to the pilings.
"Watch out!" Rob cried, holding out one arm. The half submerged engine came grinding toward him, with the prop spinning wildly in reverse. It was inches from his legs, and Rob had to put his hand on the small outboard to hold it at bay. Charlie finally reversed directions, and we moved away.
"I can't take you guys!" he shouted to the bow four. "Stay here and I'll come back."
As we left the bow four clinging to the pilings, I immediately felt a new sense of respect for Wean, Porgy, Rob, and Rhino, for none of them was complaining now. Wean, in fact, had managed to shimmy up one of the poles like a monkey, and he soon had the other three laughing at his antics, taking their minds off their precarious situation. Fortunately, another coach soon came by and collected them before hypothermia set in.
Back at the dock, we stripped off most of our wet clothes, and the coxswains began to scurry about doing head counts. Ours was the only boat that had swamped, and as Charlie towed it back to the dock, we were still in a mild state of shock, wondering what had happened to it. We took the oars out of the oarlocks, and then drained the water out of the inside of the hull by alternately tilting and lifting it. It was only after we bore it back to the boathouse on our shoulders and put it in slings, that we saw the huge holes, like shark bites in the side of a whale.
"Get back to campus and get warm," Charlie said. "I'll deal with this."
No one said a word. We all knew it was destroyed.
"Rob man, are you okay?" Heidi asked, as we walked toward the van. Rob nodded.
Heidi went down the whole boat, making sure everyone was okay. We were all present, but we were not all right. We had lost our boat for the remainder of the season and didn't know if there was anything to replace it. Something else had changed, too, although we could not talk about it. Riding back to campus in the post-row silence, I felt like any dissention existing within the crew had all been washed away. We had survived a cruel baptism in the Connecticut River, and we knew we were lucky just to be alive.
(Author's Note: This is a work of "creative non-fiction," which means that it is more or less true. Some of the names of the characters have been altered, mostly to protect them from identification. The story takes place in the mid-1970s, a time in when the sport of rowing was in a period of change, and so was the author's life. Enjoy!)
For more on Dan Boyne, go to www.danboyne.com.