IT WAS OUR FIRST RACE OF THE SPRING SEASON, and for many of us it was our first real regatta. The Head Of The Charles hadn't really counted, for despite all of its historic hoopla and spectator appeal, the chaotic obstacle course was simply a race against the clock that just happened to have other crews. By contrast, the spring regattas, with their side-by-side format, promised an intensity and conclusiveness more akin to a boxing match, where victory was less open to debate.
For me, there was even more on the line. Trinity was going to head-to-head with Coast Guard, its arch rival, but I was going toe-to-toe with Michael Caluso, the bully who had made my life miserable back in high school.
"So what did this guy do to you again?" Richard Malabre (aka "Dak") asked. He and I were sitting together on the bus ride south, toward New London and Long Island Sound.
"Basically, he tortured me," I mumbled. "He saw himself as a much better athlete, because I ran cross-country and he played football."
"But now you're an oarsman," Dak said, grinning.
"Yeah. And so is he."
"Well, we'll see about that!" Dak said.
Dak was the quietest, nicest guy on the frosh light team, and he was our stalwart captain. Partly this was because of his prior rowing experience at Exeter, a prep school known for producing excellent oarsman, but also it was due to Dak's calm demeanor and his evenhanded, intelligent opinion on almost any subject.
"I'm going to let you in on a little secret," he said, lowering his voice. "When I was a senior at Exeter, I was 20 pounds heavier than I am now and not in very good shape. Not one of my old teammates would recognize me now, or believe that I could ever make it as a lightweight. Anyway, back then, I lost a seat race to a guy who was much bigger and better than me, and it was totally embarrassing..."
"What was the other guy's name?" I asked.
"Jon Smith," he said.
"And where is he now?"
"He rows heavyweight crew at Brown."
"Well, now you're a Trinity lightweight!" I said.
"We'll see about that, too," Dak said. "After all, we still have to weigh in!"
We both laughed. With his deep voice and measured way of speaking, Dak had a way of instantly making you feel better.
Just three days before, he had come to my dorm room and coaxed me out of a 48-hr delirium. Halfway through spring break, I'd picked up an intense flu that burned through my body and sapped all of my strength. My body felt so leaden I couldn't even drag myself over to health services. Then Dak appeared, bearing a cup of hot chicken soup from the dining hall.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Not great," I croaked, my voice scratchy and my brain abuzz with fever.
"So I gather. But here's the thing. We've got that Coast Guard race coming up in a few days, and we can't do it without you. The new boat sucks without our old seven seat - we can't even seem to set it up."
"Who is subbing in for me?" I asked, sitting up and taking a sip of the soup.
"Bill Witherspoon from the JV lights."
"Oh no," I said.
"Oh yeah," Dak said. "It's that bad."
"Okay," I said. "I'll be there tomorrow - rain or shine."
The next day, I took a handful of aspirin and forced myself up. I felt oddly disconnected from my body, as if I were wearing a snowsuit saturated with water. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, just walking to the car. I was weak, but I didn't let on.
As soon as I got in the boat and started rowing again, however, my spirits instantly lifted and my senses came alert and clarified in the open air. True, I didn't have much strength, but as I fell into rhythm with the rest of the crew, I felt my body begin to regenerate. And when the Schoenbrod started making its familiar gurgling noise, everyone knew that we had our mojo back.
Heidi called out "weigh enough," and when we feathered our blades out of the water, the boat set up like a rock.
Charlie had been following us once again, just to make sure I was going to be okay. "Welcome back, Dan," he said.
"Yeah, Bill Witherspoon sucked!" Wean said.
Everyone laughed. That was about as good as it got in terms of brotherly love. After all, we had a job to do, and there was no time to be wasted on the trivialities of affection.
AS WE HEADED SOUTH toward Long Island Sound, I was headed back to the shoreline towns of my childhood - Old Saybrook, Guilford, Branford, Westbrook. Our bus banked a left onto coastal I-95, crossing over the broad mouth of the Connecticut River and then the Thames, traversing the same two bridges that my sister and I had once taken on our way to daily sculling lessons at Blood Street Sculls. Not far beyond this lay the Mystic River and Mystic Seaport, where we'd gone to sailing camp as kids.
As the sea air wafted in through the open windows of our bus, some of these memories returned to me. There was something magical about the ocean. To be out on it, in a boat of any sort, always promised an adventure, although today our trip was directed toward a single purpose.
We were certainly going to the right place for a water-borne battle. Both the Groton naval sub base and the Coast Guard Academy were tucked away along the Thames, flanking each other on either side of the river. I spotted one of the Coast Guard gunboats as we went over the Gold Star Bridge, as well as a classic training vessel called the Eagle. Both were painted white with a trademark red and blue stripe running diagonally down the bow.
The Thames was also well known to many as the site of the Harvard-Yale regatta, the oldest intercollegiate competition in the country. Nobody in our crew really knew or cared about that race, of course, for it was an exclusive rivalry that didn't include us, or the local crews that plied the Thames every day, including Coast Guard and Connecticut College. To them, these two Ivy Leagues schools were merely summer tourists who came and went, occupying their prime river real estate, or "camps," for only a week or so.
As we pulled into Coast Guard, the austere-looking, gated campus certainly didn't evoke a relaxed, summer camp atmosphere. We spotted some cadets in full dress uniform, drilling in formation on the playing fields. It was a bit intimidating to those of us from the laid-back, liberal arts campus at Trinity, and we suspected that the rules here were a bit more severe.
The Coast Guard boathouse
As soon as we got off the bus, we felt the bite of the sea breeze. Charlie looked out at the river to check the water conditions. The Thames afforded a much wider swatch of water than what we were used to back in Hartford, and bearings would have to be taken from buoys more so than landmarks. Heidi trundled off to the coxswains' meeting to get the exact details, while the rest of us prepared to weigh in.
"157...142...141...159.5...155...139...145...152," an official called out as we each took our turn on the scale.
Then it was Coast Guard's turn.
"158, 151, 155, 157, 154, 156, 152, 156."
Coast Guard outweighed us by more than 5 pounds per man.
Like Dak, I knew that Michael Caluso had been even heavier in high school, but as I caught sight of him, I noticed that we were now remarkably similar in build. As I took in his full measure, it suddenly struck me as odd that two people so disparate in physical strength and size could somehow, in such a short period of time, come to almost resemble one another. The main difference between us now was that he had a crew cut and I had long hair.
I noticed him chatting with his boatmates, pointing over at me and chuckling, then slapping them on the back. I imagined him saying something like, "Look at those wimps - this race is going to be a cinch."
But somehow, I wasn't afraid of him. I had my team and I knew that we were good.
Charlie had told us to be polite but not chatty until after the race, so we all kept our distance. We were representing Trinity College, after all, and it was expected that our performance would be exemplary on all fronts - especially at Coast Guard.
We rigged our boat on their grassy playing fields, now devoid of drilling cadets, and I noticed that Caluso's crew, too, had a Schoenbrod shell, set up with the standard port stroke configuration. At least that was something different between us, I thought - Caluso was a starboard and I was a port, even though we were both seven seats. And maybe our mysterious bucket rig would intimidate Coast Guard. I could see them eyeing us, too, as the pre-race tension mounted.
Athletes exhibit a variety of odd behaviors before competitions, and oarsmen are no exception to the rule. Some play loud music, seeking to drown out their nervousness, while others go off and sit quietly, trying to visualize their ultimate performance. On our team, only Joe Rhineman seemed to be capable of the latter - I spotted him seated in a cross-legged yoga position under the shell trailer - while the rest of us engaged in more juvenile behavior. Wean started chattering like an angry squirrel, then climbed the shell trailer as if it were a jungle gym. Porgy and Rob began to wrestle with one another. All of us took turns dashing off to the Port-O-Potty.
Thankfully, Heidi called for "hands on" before anyone got hurt. And from that moment on, everything became a blur. Drugged with adrenaline, we now relied on her commands and our pre-rowing rituals to guide us.
"TIE IN! COUNT DOWN FROM BOW WHEN READY! SHOVE OFF IN TWO - ONE! TWO!"
We were off, rowing in fours, then sixes, doing our pick drills as flawlessly as possible as we slowly moved away from the dock. Much later on in my rowing career, I would observe crews as they warmed up, and I came to the conclusion that how they executed these simple preliminaries often predicted their success or failure.
We had excellent technique, or so Charlie had told us. But did we have enough power? I myself was still at only 75 percent, coming off my week of illness. How strong was Caluso and his crew of cadets? Focus on each stroke, I repeated to myself, echoing a phrase that Charlie had told us. Before we left, he had explained that the race might be decided in the last 500 meters, where the course was less protected from the wind and the water got rough.
"Remember, some races are decided by a single stroke," he said. "Focus on each one and make all of them count."
His words were prophetic.
Both crews went off the line hard and fast, at a 42, and settled down to a reasonable 35 strokes per minute.
"We have two seats!" Heidi shouted, "Let's take two more."
Peter pushed the stroke rate up two beats to a 37 and we edged forward. But Coast Guard hung on and then started to advance. By 1000 meters, we still held on to a small lead, but then our boat started slowly veering away from them, as if Heidi were heading toward the wrong finish line.
"HARDER ON STARBOARD!" she shouted, trying to get us back on course. The Schoenbrod responded, but it wasn't pretty.
Because our boat had strayed from its original lane, it was now hard to tell who had the advantage. Both crews entered the last 500, where the water became choppy and made any final moves more difficult to execute.
"SPRINT!" I heard the Coast Guard coxswain shout. Their boat starting moving on us, and the some of their guys were shouting - urging each other to make one last push. We were already at a 39, and couldn't seem to take it any higher. Our starboards were still working overtime to keep us pointed.
Then suddenly, Coast Guard faded, and out of the corner of my eye I saw that one of their guys had crabbed, just 20 strokes from the finish line. It wasn't a boat stopper, but by the time they found their rhythm again, our Trinity boat had cruised across the finish line, a boat length and bit of open water ahead.
We shouted with delight, but also with confusion.
"What the hell happened, Heidi?" Wean demanded. He was super pissed off about the steering and the need for the starboards to pull extra hard.
"I don't know," Heidi said. "It must have been the current, or something."
"Bullshit. We could have lost!" he said. "If they hadn't crabbed - "
"But we didn't," Dak said. "So leave it alone."
Everyone finally calmed down. Postrace emotions, it seemed, could run as high as pre-race jitters. We paddled back to the dock and took our boat out of the water. The mystery of the bad steering was quickly revealed when Charlie came over and noticed that our fin had gotten knocked off during the race. Heidi was exonerated and Wean pacified. Now the rest of us were free to enjoy our win.
After our boat was de-rigged and put away, we waited for the spoils of victory and the sweet moment when our opponents would have to give us their shirts. It was one of the best rituals of spring rowing, supposedly started by Harvard and Yale, not far from where we stood. For me, it was a nearly inconceivable moment, and as I watched Caluso and his crew slowly advance toward us, shirts in hand, I could tell that they were suffering from a state of shock.
"Good race," I said, extending my hand.
"Yeah - one of our guys caught a crab," Caluso quickly replied, avoiding my handshake by handing me his shirt, which he'd bundled up into a messy ball.
"We lost our fin," I countered.
He nodded, taking in this new information. There was an awkward moment of silence. Both of us had played our trump cards, and now neither one of us knew what to say.
"How's Trinity?" he finally asked.
"Great," I said. "How's Coast Guard?
Caluso shrugged. "It's okay. If you join the crew team, you get extra off-campus privileges," he volunteered, alluding to the fact that almost every minute of his day was scheduled.
"Oh," I said, "that must suck."
He shrugged again. Another awkward silence followed.
"Okay, well, we'll meet you again at the Nationals," he said. "Then we'll really see who has the better crew."
"See you then," I said, flat of affect.
After Caluso walked away, I quickly opened up my prize to admire it. That's when I noticed all the dirty boat grease smeared into the white fabric.
"Nice shirt," Dak said, leaning over my shoulder.
"Thanks," I said. I glanced at his betting shirt, and it was spotless.
"Don't worry, that crud should wash off with a little detergent," he said.
"I hope so," I said, looking down at the dirty betting shirt.
"Hey," Dak said. "Lighten up. The main thing is that you beat him, right? And we just won our first race!"
"Yeah," I said. "You're right."
I gave him a high five, and then we collected our gear and started to walk back to the bus. We were moving slower now, as the adrenaline of the race wore off and exhaustion set in. "Still feeling sick?" Dak asked.
I shook my head.
"I don't know," I finally admitted, after we'd boarded the bus. "Somehow it didn't feel clean - I mean with that Coast Guard guy catching a crab and all."
"Hey, that's part of racing," Dak said. "Remember what Charlie said - every stroke counts."
I nodded, then leaned over against the bus window to rest.
But during the bus ride back to Hartford, after everyone had fallen into a post-race slumber, I was still awake. My mind kept replaying the race over again, and the awkward exchange I had with Caluso afterwards. Then we'll really see who has the better crew, he had said. Those words stung me like a bee, and deep in my brain I knew that I'd have to face him and his Coast Guard crew again, to erase any doubt as to which crew was the best.
(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.