Training at Harvard
On This One; a chapter from Toby Ayer's book about Harry Parker
Harry Parker, April 2013
For several years the canonical way to imitate Harry Parker's voice was a sort of gruff sing-song. With a deep tone, sometimes with the throat slightly restricted, the official contour of every sentence was flat, then slightly down, then gradually up to a peak, then down to finish the last syllable or two. You would hear it when the rowers bantered with each other, when alums told stories, and during the nightly skits at Red Top when someone took the role of Harry for the week. This standard Voice was passed down and adopted, immediately recognizable as HP. The best thing about it was that it did not sound like Harry.
There is the deep bass, used in a quiet room, almost monotone but with the occasional word emphasized. Sometimes a long sentence fades out, so you lean in to catch the last few words. There is the barking tenor, used in the megaphone, typically a few words at a time: a name, a comment, and a quick fix. There is the happy cheerleader, exclamatory and perky, used with recruits, high-school campers, and anyone who needs to be impressed. There is the growl, used during competitive pieces: a single phrase, a single word, repeated two or three times, with two exclamation points to drive the point home, to plant these phrases in the rowers' heads. Drive it through!! Stay strong!!
Despite what everyone has said about him for more than forty years, Harry says a lot to his rowers. The appealing myth, perpetuated by reporters, authors, other coaches, and even his own athletes, is that Harry hardly ever says anything. When words do come, they are prized and scrutinized. "The Alan Greenspan of rowing," according to one. Yet Ted Washburn '65, coxswain and longtime fellow coach, says "it would never have occurred to me" to describe Harry as a silent coach. In contrast, he is "very active," but with the gift of being "comfortable in silence, letting a boat row."
It is the first week of March. The notice on the board now says "
7 6 5 weeks until race day #1". Harry leaves his original piece of paper on the board, crosses out each number, and squeezes in the new one next to it with a Sharpie.
Two eights do some very close racing on Monday afternoon, three-minute pieces, always finishing within a few seats of each other. Harry loves it. At 7:30 Tuesday morning he walks into the lounge to talk to the whole squad. He tells them that when they sign up for practice they should indicate when they are actually available, not just times that he has typically scheduled crews. He specifically wants to get crews on the water earlier if possible: 4:15 is becoming a time when "you practically can't do any work" on the river, because of all the other crews out there. MIT is finally on the water, and BU, and Northeastern, and the high schools are starting up too. If we can't get out before then, he says, we're better off rowing after 5.
He reads off the crews from his list, muttering that he hopes he gets it right. There are three eights and a four scribbled on his paper, and he has shuffled crews slightly from the day before. He stands with the paper held just above waist height, head bent over it, and reads in a low voice. As he progresses through each crew list his voice loses volume, and the last few names are almost inaudible. It is a scene easily parodied in a Red Top skit.
It's windy but warm today, the warmest day since Florida. Wayne Berger takes the four on its own, and Harry follows the three eights upstream. If not for the wind, he would have had them do two ten-minute pieces at twenty-six, but instead he opts for a lower intensity. Once they have warmed up he just tells them to go to three-quarter power, and they head all the way to the top of the rowable river by the Newton Yacht Club, where four large pleasure boats sit wrapped in white plastic at the deserted docks. There is a wide open stretch of water here, and today it is rough. Harry says the southwest wind would normally be blocked by the trees and leave this water calm, but now there are no leaves.
They turn, row two bridges downstream, about eight minutes at three-quarter pressure, come back up to the top, then down again all the way to Eliot—five minutes longer than before—before finally paddling home. On the upstream pieces there is a headwind, and Harry tells them repeatedly how to deal with the conditions: square the blade up late to get full compression before squaring, so the blade isn't being pushed back by the wind. When they turn he reminds them about the reversed wind direction and how to adjust their rowing. Spend more time on the slide, he says, and "don't get anxious" on the way forward.
Harry is getting impatient with his technical calls. One rower is over-reaching and he tells him to be "steady with the shoulders," not to hunch them over or reach more after reaching the front of the slide. "C'mon… change it!" he says. He still focuses mostly on the squaring and catch sequence. He tells another rower to "loosen your grip in the inside hand, square it later." The bow seat of one boat, the same one Harry switched last week between two eights, doesn't really get hold of the water. Harry tells him he needs to put the blade in before changing directions at the catch. In the launch he points out that this rower is strong—strong enough to be in the varsity. "But it depends on whether he figures this out… he's very wound up." He is tight in his hamstrings and calves, but also "wound up emotionally."
Crew selection is on everyone's mind. The small, tough Irishman and his close friends have often made guesses during the spring about the racing lineups. At this time last year, they got five out of eight correct for the varsity, and by spring break, before seat-racing, it was seven out of eight. They scrutinize the daily lineups, and especially the opposite seats when two crews go out together (since they are the most likely to be switched between boats in a seat-race), and who ends up in the stern fours.
They also try to guess the workout each day while they stretch in the lounge beforehand. There are some predictable patterns, or at least a set of possibilities, and a general sense that they will rotate between them. Before practice today, one of the varsity lightweights passes one of Harry's guys, who was once a lightweight, and asks what they are doing today. The answer comes with a shrug and a smile: "probably hard pieces of some sort."
A couple of days later Harry has one eight on its own early in the afternoon. After the warm-up, when they stop just below Weeks, Harry tells them they will do some twenties to warm up more, and then "some thirties, forties, and fifties" at rate 34, so they get used to maintaining good bladework at the higher rate. The wind is nearly due west, and on many stretches of the river that means a direct headwind or tailwind and choppy water. They stay in the powerhouse stretch, doing two pieces in each direction and then spinning. On each lap they start from the catch, and do five strokes at two-thirds slide before lengthening out.
Once again, given the early start time, they are the only crew on the river for the first half of practice, and Harry relishes it. A Radcliffe four appears at one point and disappears into the Basin, and a few high school crews are launching from Riverside near the end of the session. The west side of the river is protected from the wind, and after the second trip downstream, Harry tells the coxswain that "as long as we're the only ones out here, let's go up the Boston arches." This is a complete violation of the normal traffic pattern, which on the Charles is as on the road: you must stay on the right-hand half the river, which means the Cambridge side going upstream. Two laps later, the coxswain asks if he should still go up the Boston side, and Harry says yes, "we'll pretend it's our river."
Harry has only recently realized that the Powerhouse Stretch is rowable when a west wind blows. The protection on the Boston side comes from buildings: a hotel, a biotech company, the newer additions to the Harvard Business School. But none of these were here when Harry first came to Boston. Back then a west wind would make the Powerhouse choppy and unpleasant, so he always took crews upstream from Newell in those conditions. If we had a few more buildings, he says, we'd have a great stretch of river here!
As it is, the gusts are intermittent, and as the boats head roughly north or south the wind hits them from one side or the other, and feels like a headwind either way. It's another opportunity to practice headwind-style bladework, says Harry. "Keep the blades feathered until you are at full compression," he tells them. That way the wind can't slow them down.
The strong, "wound up" starboard is in the bow seat again, and for the most part Harry is happy with him. He seems to be Harry's "project" for the year, a strong but unstable oarsman who needs attention if he is to meet his own potential. Harry thinks he might make the varsity—he was in the second four at the Tail of the Charles in November, and is one of the strongest members of the squad. But his movements are a little stiff, his blade not always in time, not always taking hold of the water well enough. Harry puts him the bow, and gives him a lot of attention.
But today it is the four-seat who gets most of Harry's coaching. His hands move away from the finish slowly, so his oar lags behind the other ports on the way forward, and then he has a sudden reach just before the catch, so his blade nearly catches up—but not quite. Mainly Harry talks to him about how he squares his blade. "You're making it harder for yourself," he says, "by squaring it too early. Leave it on the feather until the end, then square it just before the catch." On each piece, the four-seat's blade will start out in sync with the rest of the blades on his side, and then a few strokes later it starts squaring early, halfway through the recovery. "Loosen the grip with your thumb," Harry tells him. A tight grip with the inside hand, which controls the squaring, often leads to a slow turn of the handle. On every piece, every time they spin the boat, Harry talks to the four seat about his blade. He tells two others their blades are rising too high off the water before they come down for the catch, and tells them to "reach out, rather than down".
As he speaks, Harry's gloved left hand makes a little outwards swooping motion, mimicking the motion he wants to see.
"Some" pieces turns out to be: three thirties, two forties, two more thirties, a forty, a thirty, a forty, three more thirties, and one final forty. For the thirties the coxswain counts the strokes, but for the longer pieces Harry times a minute and fifteen seconds on his watch, calling out a time to start the last ten strokes.
In his technical calls he focuses on the catch sequence, but reminds them often to be "solid in the water." For these pieces he says not to put a maximum effort into each stroke, but rather to focus on a solid push from the catch to the finish, to be consistent with this at the higher rate. After three laps he asks the four-seat how his bad knee is holding up, and the seven-seat about his back. All is well, so they keep going.
The oarsmen are clearly exhausted at the day's effort—intense work that adds up in time to more than three full two-thousand meter races—and they are visibly gasping after each piece on the last two laps. The very last piece is a "forty," and Harry almost forgets to call the last ten. A coach can lose track of time, and a coxswain will often lose count, but the rowers are aware of every stroke they take. That last piece was forty-four strokes, they say afterwards. The others were forty-three.
With spring break two weeks away, many classes have mid-terms and papers coming due, so time is precious. One morning the rowers are sprawled around the lounge, stretching on the mat, sitting on the benches. One is perched on the bench-pull apparatus with sunlight bathing his shoulders through the large balcony window. Harry stands by the fireplace, rocking slowly from foot to foot as he talks to them. When they are pressed for time, the rowers will write "OYO" by their names when they sign up for a practice time, meaning "on your own"—they are opting out of the team practice. Harry asks the men to be judicious and only do this when necessary. But he adds that it is an acceptable option: "it is also understood on my end."
This morning they do longer pieces, the three eights chasing each other like a head race, at two-thirds pressure for a minute or so, then three-quarters, and then the last several minutes at ninety percent. BU to Eliot, Eliot to North Beacon, North Beacon to Eliot, and then a short paddle home. Harry stays close to the last of the three crews as they follow the other two up the river. The wind is westerly again but today a bit from the north, so there are no swirls from the buildings along the Powerhouse Stretch. But when they go through the Weeks footbridge and turn ninety degrees left, they emerge into a full headwind. Just as they do this Harry tells them to increase the pressure from three-quarters to ninety percent. "Let's really get our teeth into it!!" he growls at them. As each coxswain crosses the designated finishing marker (the Belmont Hill School dock for the first piece, the downstream edge of the North Beacon Street Bridge for the second) she sticks a hand in the air for Harry to see, so he can mark times. But today he is not timing. "Perfectly conditioned," says Harry with a chuckle.
As they rest, waiting for the last piece heading downstream, the guys look tired. "Whadda ya say?" says Harry, before starting them off. Several minutes in, with a mile still to go, Harry encourages the third crew in line as he follows them: "That's good guys, stay focused, good relaxed recovery, good rhythm, moving well on the other two boats, moving well!" He has seen the gaps between the boats reduce slightly as the minutes tick by. "Good power each stroke! Keep the discipline! Good control!"
Heading down the last stretch of this piece, below the Northeastern boathouse, Harry says he is still happy with the bow-man he has been eying for the varsity. He has said nothing to him during the row today: he has just watched his blade, and it has behaved well.
The next afternoon the wind is southwesterly, and though the day was comfortable enough while the sun shone, by 3:00 the clouds have hidden it and the wind is biting. Harry takes the first crew downstream, warming up to thirty strokes per minute. While they are rowing by fours, Harry sees a couple of blades feathering in a way he doesn't like. "Don't flip the blade when you feather it, so your wrist goes down," he says; "just turn it". While the stern four rows he tells them to feather the blade with just the fingers of the inside hand, and keep their wrists flat above the handle the whole time. After twenty strokes or so he is satisfied, and they turn and head downstream by sixes.
When they reach the BU Bridge they turn, and Harry tells them they are doing a four-mile piece at twenty-eight strokes per minute. Some of them smile ruefully as they take off a layer of clothing and start to gird themselves. It's a long piece—twenty minutes of hard work—and they had no idea it was coming.
In fact, they never know what is coming. They can often guess the general style of workout—high or low intensity, long or short pieces—and they make predictions amongst themselves in the lounge before practice. But apart from seat-racing, and Basin pieces on Saturday morning, Harry doesn't tell them what the workout is until they finish warming up. Today, Harry himself didn't decide until they got downstream, and he says that is not unusual. He was thinking about two three-mile pieces, but when he saw the flat water and the lack of other crews on the river, he decided on the four-miler. It is not a workout they do often, partly because of river traffic, but partly because when water-time is limited, Harry likes to focus on other kinds of work. The later groups today probably won't do the four-mile piece, since by 4:15 the river will be full of other crews and it will be hard to do a long piece without being interrupted.
They do one final twenty upstream, then build up to twenty-eight at Riverside Boat Club. The four-miler takes them all the way to North Beacon Street, and they pass exactly one other crew, their own teammates in a four with Wayne coaching them. Harry is still reveling in this early-afternoon luxury, but knows it will end soon when the private schools come back from their spring break.
Every minute or so Harry raises the megaphone and urges them on. Mostly it is positive ("Well done!... Good pace, good bladework!"), but he has some comments for a few of them. Today a big rower in the four seat gets special attention. He tends to speed up as he approaches the catch, and he puts his blade in early. Harry tells him over and over that he has to slow down, both during the warm-up and then during the piece. The four-seat shakes his head a lot, stymied and frustrated. When he does manage to slow down, he ends up slightly too short, and his blade wavers in mid-air, rather than moving down and getting buried in the water. And then Harry gets on him about this, instead. Meanwhile, the two-seat is the oarsman with the bad knee from last week, and he is still struggling to feather and square his blade when Harry wants him to. Harry says, "two and four aren't really working together today." But he is happy with the starboard side today, and mostly lets them be.
After the four-miler upstream they do a second piece of just over a mile and a half, from North Beacon to just above Eliot Bridge. The southwest wind gave them a tailwind most of the way upstream, so now they row home in a headwind, and it is cold. Halfway through, blades are faltering in the wind, and the crew looks tired and disjointed. As they line up for the final straight shot after the Northeastern boathouse Harry says, "alright, just about three minutes to go—let's take it up to thirty... higher and stronger!" As they start to push for this final stretch, the focus seems to bring the crew together. Two minutes later Harry calls it up again to thirty-two for the final minute. And again they rise to it: faces are set with determination, legs and bodies moving deliberately and forcefully. It looks like they enjoy the challenge of going faster despite the fatigue. The stern pair mutter enthusiastically to the coxswain. When they stop, someone in the boat says, "awesome."
Two weeks before the first race, Harvard's Spring Break begins. They have seat-raced a couple of times per week since the middle of March, on days when Harry can arrange two even eights. But this week he can schedule whomever he wants, whenever he wants, and there will be a lot of racing. Last week there was some hard work—two-minute pieces at full pressure—but also some more two- or three-milers at twenty-eight. Friday was low-key, the calm before the storm, and then on Saturday the racing begins. Harry sets up two groups, one practicing at 7:30am and 2:30pm, the other at 11am and 5pm. The earlier group is two fours, apparently racing for spots in the varsity eight. The later group is racing in eights to determine the second and third boats. Wayne joins Harry in the launch and they watch the races together, keeping track of margins, watching the rowers, talking about who to switch next. Wayne takes some video during the pieces.
The process known as "seat-racing" did not exist until the late 1960's, but it is now the ubiquitous standard, the way the rowing world assumes that athletes will be compared to each other and crews will be selected. It is as basic to the sport as the sliding seat, and Harry invented it. Or, at the very least, developed what are now the basic parameters: two roughly equal crews repeating the identical pieces of work, with a single swap of rowers in between pieces. Any change of margins should reflect the difference between just those two rowers.
Harry used this system select the United States national team crews in 1972, and the following year he wrote an explanatory note in Oarsman magazine. While traditionally a coach might have run time trials with different versions of a full lineup, Harry posited that the rowers would feel more empowered, more in control of their own fate, if they are compared individually. Racing in any size boat is possible, he suggested, but since one man has less of an effect on an eight, and not all the rowers will be equally skillful in a pair, using fours is a "reasonable compromise." He laid out the reasoning behind the three-minute piece—long enough to test endurance, but not too long to be unrepeatable—but warned that the coach may overrule the result of the race if he suspects the "beaten" man will be a "better bet" over the longer 2,000 meters. Harry also allowed that the other rowers in the boat may not be consistent cogs from one piece to the next, thus eliminating any confidence that the comparison is a pure one, and that the "somewhat more acute distress encountered at racing cadence" should be taken into account.
In those days Harry was still a young legend. His Harvard crews were unbeaten for several years, and he had been given the reigns of the national program. What was the wizard up to? How did he do it? In a reply to Harry's article, coach Emory Clark declared that his "great respect for coach Parker was still intact and so was his secret." Considering all the variables that must be weighed in addition to the measurable race margins, Clark advised the oarsman who is being seat-raced to "kiss your momentarily inflated sense of control good-bye." Harry's article confirmed for Clark that ultimately, "coaches liken themselves unto the Deity and do exactly what they bloody well please."
As Spring Break begins, the Harvard squad seat-race in the first of the Saturday practices, twice on Sunday, and then both Monday and Tuesday mornings. The fours do six three-minute pieces Sunday morning: two races with the same lineup before switching men between crews, and then four more races in the afternoon.
On Monday morning Harry greets the eights group in the lounge and compliments them on the music playing in the erg room. It is Country-Western, which Harry says he can stand for longer than the techno and club mixes that often blast during erg sessions. He also has two things to say about the seat-racing. The first is that it is important to really focus on good rowing during the race pieces, rather than just tearing wildly into each stroke. Pay attention to the rhythm of the boat during the first strokes of the piece, he says, and make sure the whole crew is rowing well together. The second remark is that the rowers should "exercise a little discretion in drawing conclusions" from the racing, "and in spreading those conclusions." He and Wayne have heard, third-hand, the outcomes of the seat-racing, reported incorrectly, "and we look at each other and say, 'Oh! We didn't know that was the result!'" Harry points out that the relative margins from different races are important, but they are not the whole story, and then notes with a chuckle that clearly the rowers understand this, since when an oarsmen is disappointed in a result he will come and remind the coaches of the other factors in play. Sleep, stress, water conditions, equipment, the coxswain's steering, and other rowers' inconsistencies and attitudes, are all potential flaws in the "objective" system of man-for-man seat-racing. (Kiss your sense of control good-bye.)
On Monday the eights are doing five-minute seat-racing pieces. As the crews do their final clothing adjustments, drink water, and align the boats, Harry explains. "When we go off, we'll go off the paddle. Make sure you're building it carefully, setting the blades, getting a good pry, moving together. We'll go five short-of-full, ten full at 34. We're gonna settle right to 30, and we're gonna go for five minutes, five minutes at a thirty. Let's have good headwind rowing." He tells the strokes to watch each other as they paddle off level, to adjust cadence and pressure to keep level until they start the piece. They only paddle for a few strokes before Harry yells, "ooooooooon this one." It's the deep, extended "on" that you hear, lasting two or three full seconds. The words "this one" are lost as his voice dies down—he starts dropping the megaphone even as he says them.
During the first piece one crew "stole the start" by rating higher than the prescribed cadences. The other crew is at 29, a beat low. "Not the sign of a good stroke," Harry chuckles. He yells to the high-rating stroke: "just a little high… give it a little more time". Harry recalls another, small-ish rower he often puts in the stroke seat, and how he "always cheats a bit" on the rating. When Wayne replies that he would take offense at calling it "cheating," Harry says, "but that is the fact of the matter."
At two minutes in Harry says "good pressure, stay focused, stay strong," and checks rates with his stroke watch. These crews are nearly the same as the previous day's last lineups, but with the bow-seats switched. Harry asks Wayne how they finished yesterday, since this race, compared with yesterday's last, is essentially a comparison between those bow-men. One minute later, the crew that was called down earlier has taken the rate back up a little, in response to the other crew moving on them. Harry notices. "That's a good response; that's what a stroke should do." Wayne agrees, and suggests that this stroke could a good two-man for the JV. Harry counters that he would be a good stroke for the third boat, if that's where he ends up in the ranking. "One minute!" he calls out. The boats finish with a few seats of overlap. The coaches think they have learned what they need to about the bow-men. Harry decides to switch the five-seats.
"Well done, good rowing, really well done, guys. Very nice rowing." As the boats start to approach each other gradually, he says, "Careful, catch the blades, careful.
You've gotta synchronize when you weigh enough." Harry micro-manages the whole switching operation: where coxswains should aim (or "point") their bows as they approach each other, when each crew drops out some rowers to slow down, how many more strokes to take, when the rowers should grab each other's blades and pull across. He tells them to be careful as they climb across between boats. He seems not to trust them to pull this off without mishap.
Some coaches reduce seat-racing pieces to silent, precise exercises. The coach watches and takes note of times, stroke-rates, and margins. The coxswains are forbidden to motivate and drive the rowers; they simply steer straight and inform the crew of the stroke-rate and the passage of time. Harry knows that others do it this way, and agrees that "it can work". But these Harvard crews are really racing each other. The coxswains call power moves within the piece, Harry himself yells at the rowers, and they are totally invested in each outcome. It is not just selection. It is race training.
In the middle of the next piece: "that's good, feel the boat, nobody rushing, good compression, drive it through. That's two minutes. Keep digging, be stubborn. Good persistence now. Poise and power, poise and power." One crew pulls ahead, the other holds, then starts coming back. "That's good, hold the cadences steady. A minute and a half to go." The five-man who seems to be winning is a sophomore, who had come to Harry's summer youth rowing camp a couple of times, and sculled some after his freshman year, but hadn't raced much. Plus he spends his falls playing water polo, at which he excels. But he has a good rowing pedigree: both his father and uncle were in Harvard crews of the early 1970s. "That's good, good poise, finish it out. That's good guys, that's really good rowing, really well done."
Downstream, as the boats recover and turn around near the Longfellow Bridge, Harry is thinking about bicycling. Some years ago on a cycling trip to Switzerland with some Harvard rowing alums, the group attempted the steepest climb around. The roads were narrow, the switchbacks tight. He was feeling good on that climb because he had managed to pull back and then "jump" one of the others, who he described as "a really good rider." Postal trucks have right of way on these roads, and one passed them coming around a tight bend. Harry was pinned against the side of the mountain, "hoping he wasn't going to crush me." Coming out of the situation intact, Harry was then delighted to see a sign for the Reichenbach Falls (where Sherlock Holmes died). Soon after came a lookout point where a set of binoculars were set up. They looked through to see rock climbers on their way up the face of the Eiger.
Before the fourth piece: "We've had a really solid row today, let's keep it up, let's finish the workout in just the same way, make sure everybody is focused on getting the boat moving, getting it up to speed strongly, settling into a really good rhythm, and then maintain the rhythm and the power." This time both strokes go off in unison, neither one giving up even one beat to the other.
First minute: "Good rhythm, feel the boat, drop in it, drive it through!.. Set it in... accelerate!"
Second minute: "That's good. Now be strong! See how strong you can be!"
Third minute: "Two minutes gone… that's good. Stay focused. Good discipline, good rowing! Pay attention."
Fourth minute (to the trailing crew): "Bring 'em back! Dig your heels in, guys, dig your heels in!"
Near the end of the fourth minute, the crew that dropped back can feel their opponents slipping away. The men at bow, two, and three, who still overlap the other crew and see them off to the side, make little shouts of encouragement, and the entire crew responds. These men haven't been switched, and they probably think this is the last piece, so there is no personal gain to be had—they just want to win. The stroke-rate comes up slightly, they start to move, and the crews are nearly level when the five minutes are up. Wayne and Harry are impressed.
Now the coaches aren't sure what they want to do: they have done the switches they were interested in, but there is still time and space on the river to get some more work in. They decide to make one more switch, not because the outcome is vital, but because one of these rowers hasn't had the opportunity this spring, and the others have. They paddle upstream, past BU, and line the crews up at the bottom of the Powerhouse Stretch. One more piece, at a higher stroke-rate but shorter by more than a minute. "Dig in guys, be stubborn, stay strong. That's it, dig in, dig in."
Afterwards Harry talks with both coxswains in the shop as they put away their cox-box equipment. He corrected both of them on their steering during the pieces today, and he now gives further advice on how to steer straight while next to another crew and while approaching the arch of a bridge. They also discuss how the different stroke-men respond to the start of a piece, some forcing the rate high initially, some holding back—the coxswains could make direct comparisons today since Harry switched the strokes between the crews today. These two coxswains are destined for the third and fourth eights, and those crews will be a re-seating of all of today's rowers.
The next morning, two fours are racing in the Powerhouse Stretch.
Readying for the first piece, Harry tells the coxswains where to point their bows ("I want you on the left side of the arch, close to the abutment"), and makes sure they are level. "Alright, five and ten at 34, then settle to 30…. Alright, let's sit ready… ready, go!" And a few seconds later, "Ooooooon this one!" There is a headwind from the south-west. As the crews settle Harry says, "Lengthen out, establish your rhythm. Set the blades in, and accelerate. Lean back into this wind!" He checks the stroke-rates during the piece; one crew is a little higher, and they take a lead of over a length. Harry and Wayne aren't sure what to do, and decide to just leave the crews as they are and race again upstream. The crews finish with half a length of overlap this time, and Wayne asks, "so do you just throw out the result of the first one?" and Harry nods. He says he always prefers to do two pieces between switches, and points out that the slower crew rowed the first piece out of the current and in low water near the shore (against his instructions), which probably slowed them.
Though he told them these races would be at rate thirty, in the first one both crews settle to thirty-two and Harry just lets them stay there. When they start the next piece, he tells them to row at the same rate as before. The start sequence is, build off the paddle to thirty-six for ten strokes, then settle to thirty-two for the remainder.
Twenty seconds into the first piece, Harry stops both crews: "It's thirty-six, not forty-one!" he yells at of the strokes. On the restart, one crew takes a length of open water. With no switch for the second piece, they get the same result. The two-seats are swapped for the third piece, and the margins completely reverse: a full length advantage for the crew that had lost the first two pieces by open water. As they start to pull ahead, Harry points out that the man switched into the now-slower crew has good endurance, and says that "they might come back," but probably not until the last minute. He also notes that the other three men in that boat—two clear varsity members, and one of the twins—are mature racers, and will not be discouraged by an early deficit; they will keep going even though they are down. At about a minute to go, Harry starts exhorting both crews: stay strong, be persistent, keep the pressure on. The trailing crew stops the move and holds the margin to just about a length, bow slightly overlapping the other stern.
This change of margin is dramatic. This was conceived as a race to earn a place in the varsity, but the result now does more: it puts into question the loser's spot in the second boat. (And indeed, when lineups are named after this week, he is in the third boat.)
The bow-seats are switched for the fifth piece. The margin barely changes, though it might be slightly smaller. When they spin with no switching of oarsmen, there is probably four minutes of rest between the finish of one piece and the start of the next. Switching rowers between crews adds another four minutes. Eight minutes is a lot of rest, enough to repeat their performance without slowing down, but it gets progressively harder. One of the strokes looks spent at the end of the fourth race, grimacing as he leans forward, grasping the gunnel with his hands, sliding his seat forward and back to work the burn out of his legs. All the rowers are clearly fatigued as they line up for the sixth and final piece. Harry lets them know they can keep going. "Whaddaya say!" he exclaims. He tells them to keep the rowing strong when they're tired, but also to maintain their technique. "Power and poise," he reminds them.
Halfway through the last piece Harry looks up and sees that the slower crew has stopped the momentum of the faster one, and he starts nodding and saying, "yeah, that's it" before he even picks up the megaphone. He encourages them—"Yeah, draw them back! Keep on them, now!"—and for a moment it looks like they might start to reel in the leading crew, but in the end they have lost more ground than on the previous piece. The bow-men, it seems, are essentially equal.
A loon pops up between the two crews just after they weigh oars, and then disappears again underneath them. Harry lets the crews head home and spins the launch to try to get a look at the loon; he has seen it a few times recently but isn't quite sure what it is. He knows by the beak and the coloring that it is not a cormorant, but if it is a loon he thinks it is still immature. The loon surfaces and dives several more times as Harry circles towards it and Wayne tries to zoom in on it with his camera to get a better look. At one point the loon dives and Wayne pans his camera to the right in anticipation, but Harry points to the left, saying, "no, he'll come up over there," and he is right. Eventually satisfied, Harry heads in.
Back on the dock, two of the men who were just seat-raced ease themselves out of their respective boats, approach each other, and embrace. In the shop, standing by the workbench near the computer, Harry and Wayne review a list of starboard oarsmen, maybe half a dozen, with little to choose between them. One may end up in the first boat, but that leaves five, and Harry points out that one of them won't even make the JV.
There are a couple more decisions to be made, and Harry expects to know his lineups by Friday. But he won't tell the team until the following Monday, after they have had the weekend off. They will have to wait.
On that Friday morning, Harry finds his coaching launch transformed into a tropical pirate party barge. Tiki lamps, a pink flamingo, and a black flag have been erected. A cocktail cup with umbrella is in the cup holder, and a hat labeled "Capt'n Harry" awaits him. Harry quietly removes some of the festoonery within a day, but the flamingo and flag stay in place for a full week. He has no idea who did it or why. He chuckles to himself, but never discusses it with the rowers.
©Toby Ayer, 2013