To my great relief, the oarsmen that Leander coach Ted Bainbridge had assembled were wonderful guys. They were not only first-rate at their craft, entirely capable of doing justice to the Harvard and Dutch crews they were about to replicate, but they also possessed a rare combination of good humor and humility that made them easy to be around, and more or less reliable to work with - as long as they stayed out of the pubs.
The two coxswains were female, which presented a small challenge - the original helmsmen had been guys. Apparently, there was a shortage of male coxswains in UK. That left us with Zoe, who was picked to steer the "Dutch" boat, and Alex, who would pilot the "Harvard" crew. The make-up ladies solved the gender problem by pulling back their hair and giving both of the ladies baseball caps.
Alex, curiously enough, was from Philadelphia. She and I knew several people in common via Vesper Boat Club and the Kelly family, and we hit it off right away. That made it all the more difficult when some of the guys starting trash talking her coxing abilities.
"You've got to do something," Armie and Josh told me from the back seat of the chauffeur-driven car that dropped us off at Dorney Lake every morning. "The guys are complaining that they can't understand what she is saying."
Delicately, I tried to get to the bottom of things. Alex, it seemed, was equally frustrated. The guys weren't listening to her. Part of the problem, it seemed, was that the rowing commands in England and the US are different, which shouldn't have been a big deal. Except it was. Why? Because when you are working really hard and trusting someone to pilot your boat, even the slightest bit of confusion can be an annoyance.
Competitive oarsmen behave much like a pack of sled dogs, and if they are used to being told "easy all
," to stop rowing, and instead someone says "weigh enough in two
," they have to stop and think. In my experience, thinking is generally not a good thing for an oarsman. When oarsmen start thinking all sorts of random thoughts enter their brains, such as whether or not the person leading them is actually worthy of their attention.
Zoe had the plucky self-confidence that you admire in a good coxswain, combined with an impressive, spontaneous ability to curse; Alex was less certain. It didn't help matters, of course, when she ran over a few buoys during practice.
I talked to Ted, who had a different take on the matter. His guys were used to piloting small boats most of the year, sans cox'n
, so when they got into an eight they found it a general annoyance to be bossed around by anyone. In his opinion, the contentious banter between a coxswain and a crew was normal daily faire, and Alex would just have to get used to it.
I let it go. After all, I wasn't the coach anymore. I was the "technical advisor," tasked with keeping everyone calm. And stirring up the pot simply wouldn't do.
Besides, as the time for the regatta drew near, there were still one or two logistical loose ends to take care of, such as the delivery of boats and oars to the Henley enclosure tents. I had set up these contacts back home, weeks earlier, but the particulars were now being handled by Bainbridge, whose management skills up to this point had been impeccable.
I liked Ted. I liked his laissez faire
coaching style; I liked his dry, British sense of humor. I especially liked his silver BMW sport coupe. I wondered if this was standard issue to all Leander coaches, and whether I'd ever be able to afford one on my Harvard coaching salary. I kept these musings to myself as he and I stood on the shore of Dorney Lake and critiqued the New Zealand scullers as they rowed by, bonding over our mutual disdain for raw power over good form.
Ted and I differed only in one important respect. He seemed to be a great believer in delegating responsibility of various sub tasks to others, with the assumption that those under him would perform up to expectations; I tended to double-check everything and plan for the worst-case scenario.
Perhaps I had contracted a case of 1st AD-itis, but I had discovered that, in the film industry, there was almost always a crisis lurking around the corner.
Or an oarsman.
As I mentioned earlier, none of my Boston guys had been invited over to Henley. I felt badly about this, but there was nothing I could do. It was simply too expensive to bring two boatloads of oarsmen overseas, and there were also issues involving work permits. Nevertheless, a few of them had informed me that they would be in England on holiday, and I had told them to look me up at Ye Old Bell.
So when I got the message at the front desk from Henry Roosevelt one afternoon, I wasn't entirely surprised.
Henry and I spoke briefly on the phone. He told me that he had been lifting weights all winter, building up his upper body. Uh - hu
h, I said, waiting for the punch line. Was there any chance that he could get into a boat?
I explained to him that I wasn't really the coach anymore, but if he made his way to Dorney Lake the next morning I would be happy to introduce him around. Perhaps he could be a spare in case someone dropped out, although I told him this was quite unlikely. Henry dutifully showed up at the lake the next day, and everyone was quite civil. No one, however, was about to give up their seat. Henry understood, but he decided to keep hanging out anyway, hoping for the unlikely to happen.
But everything seemed to be in perfect order, including the weather. A spate of sunny days had descended upon England like a gift from Helios. And since the guys were only rowing in the mornings, I had a few afternoons off to enjoy myself alone. I appropriated a bike from the concierge at Ye Old Bell, and headed off toward the river above Hurley.
For a waterman, the upper reaches of the Thames River are an idyllic paradise. Beautiful wooden houseboats putt along the placid, narrow waterway like aquatic gypsy caravans, negotiating a series of scenic locks. And it is all very tidy in a British sort of way. Visions of Moley and Ratty danced through my head as I approached the village of Marlow. I decided that if I didn't get a BMW sport coupe by the time I retired, I'd settle for a houseboat on the upper Thames.
My cell phone rang me out of my revelry. Fincher and Wagner were going to check the camera positions along the course the next morning. Did I want to tag along?
Like the Head Of The Charles, Henley is part regatta, part reunion. One of the main differences between the two, other than the formal dress code, is that things are a lot more segregated at Henley. You need special badges to travel from one section of riverbank to another, even within the first-class Steward's enclosures. Gentile guard posts block your way, much like the series of locks I'd seen on my bike ride on the upper Thames.
Fortunately, I was able to get Steward's and Leander passes every day, courtesy of Ted Bainbridge, so that I could move freely through the various checkpoints. These were supposed to sift out Stewards members, Committee members, and Leander members, although there was a great deal of overlap among these groups, and many men strode around the riverbank armed with multiple, colored badges pinned to their coats.
The main difference I noticed between the various sections of the Steward's was the type of bar each had to offer and its proximity to the racecourse. In addition, at some places you could only get Pimms, while at others you could also get a pint of beer or even a flute of champagne - not to mention the various cakes and crèmes for which the Brits are famous. Knowing where to get the right drink and the right food made the whole affair a bit of a scavenger hunt.
Luckily, I had reinforcements. In addition to meeting up with David Fincher and Bob Wagner to walk over the course, I had arranged to rendez-vous
with a Londoner pal of mine named Nick Beadle, who normally worked at number ten Downey Street when he wasn't obsessing about rowing. I didn't really know what Nick did, but I knew it had to do with international politics. As such, I figured that he would be a good person to have in hand in case something or another went awry. He also knew how to negotiate the different bars.
We initially met at the Barn Bar for a pint, and then wandered over to the Bridge Bar for a Pimms cup. Nick then introduced me to his friend Boris, a Henley steward, who would be driving one of the umpire launches during the regatta.
Having fortified ourselves, Nick and I found Fincher and Wagner and off we all went, ushered by a Henley rep dressed in a snappy blue blazer. The welcome mat had definitely been laid down for the Hollywood hoi polloi
, although there was a lingering sense of unease about the entire film business. Fincher and Wagner didn't help much. They looked roguish in their linen suits, complete with a pair of short-brimmed straw hats that only gave them the air of being Hollywood gangsters.
But they didn't care. They had no pretense about fitting in to the Henley scene; they were there to get a job done.
"We'll need to move that booth a few feet for the camera position," Fincher said at the third camera station. My friend Nick just looked at me and laughed. It was an audacious request, and yet, it was going to happen.
Somehow, we were going to pull this whole thing off.
Sunday rolled around a little too quickly. Armie, Josh, and I gathered in front of Leander, waiting for the last of the oarsmen to arrive.
"Has anyone seen Ray?" Ted Bainbridge queried. Ray was the six seat of the "Dutch" eight. A few mumbles came dribbling forward from the group like a collective confession:
"Pub...last night... a bit too much to drink... sorry... lost track of him."
So began the first crisis of the morning: Ray was AWOL, probably sleeping it off somewhere in a farmer's field.
Ray was an extremely nice guy with one unfortunate foible. When he drank too much he liked to get into fights. He seldom remembered these scuffles the next day, apparently. But that interesting little fun fact didn't help us much right now.
Ted seemed at a bit of a loss.
"We do have Henry," I suggested.
"Good," Ted agreed. "Let's have Henry suit up."
Henry, of course, was on it in a flash. This was the chance he had been waiting for all week.
I wandered off to the boat tents to inspect the eights. Two extra boats had been delivered that morning, but unfortunately they were not rigged, and Empachers were not the easiest boats to put together. Not only that, but one didn't even have a cox-box wiring system.
I tried to have a pow-wow with Ted, but had his hands full with other problems. The Dutch oars, apparently, had been painted the wrong colors, and they needed a quick touching up. Also, the buttons had not yet been affixed.
Launch time was less than two hours away. We had a missing oarsman and a slew of equipment issues. It was a less than ideal situation. Suddenly I felt the stress that a 1st AD must feel every day. It hit me in the gut like a sucker punch.
Luckily, right on cue, I bumped right into the Harvard Boatman, Joe Shea.
"Joe, by any chance do you have an extra cox-box system?"
"Sure, no problem," he said.
Joe was like me; he always planned for the worst.
Finally, we were set to go. We stood in front of the docks, watching the real Harvard crews get ready for their races. Then, about forty-five minutes before we were set to launch, Ray came wandering into the boat tents.
He looked a little groggy and hung over, but more or less intact. I loved the guy, but if it had been my call, I would have sacked him for the day. Instead, he was quickly rushed off to wardrobe and Henry Roosevelt was left high and dry. I felt badly for Henry, standing there in his Harvard unisuit. He was just starting to absorb the situation. When it finally sunk into his skull that he was not going to row, he looked at me and held up his hands. I shook my head, powerless. The Leander guys wanted to row with Ray, even in his current state.
Ted and I were quickly ushered off to the umpires' launching station, armed with earpieces and concealed walkie-talkies. We would meet the oarsmen halfway down the course, where we would cut through the booms and set up on the second half of the racecourse. We would be in two separate umpire launches - one for each of the two flights.
In retrospect I should have checked over all the equipment, including the oars that had only just received their buttons. This thought occurred to me when my two crews started to build into their first power twenty and a button suddenly popped off one of the oars in the "Harvard Boat."
The boat skidded into the booms and came to a dead stop. It was an ugly sight, and the knot in my stomach tightened.
"Screwdriver!" I shouted. Luckily, the launch driver had one. We motored up to the eight and made the hand - off.
"Keep calm, guys, but hurry up!" I said.
It took perhaps a minute to reaffix the button. Each take was costing us roughly twenty thousand dollars, so if you broke that sum down by the minute about a thousand buck had been lost so far.
Then we were off again, this time with out a hitch. Using my earpiece and a handheld mini-microphone, I directed the two eights down the course, communicating with the coxswains like a flight controller. We needed to maintain the margin of the original race, which was about a boat length between the Dutch and Harvard crews.
As we made our way down the course, the crowds clapped. People waved. Some of them actually thought it was a real race. As Ted had predicted, Alex steered an excellent course at Henley and removed any doubt about her capabilities. Boris and Nick waved and smiled from the umpire's stand. In the end, it all worked out.
"Great job," said Bob Wagner, when I bumped into him back at the production trailer.
"Really?" I said. "But didn't you see what happened?"
He shook his head. Apparently, we had begun our row up the course a little early, about a minute before the cameras starting rolling. None of the crash had made it onto film. The footage, apparently, was absolutely beautiful.
Everyone was happy, and everyone was celebrating. It was the big shot, the huge gamble, and it had all worked out. Even the real Winkelvoss twins were there, congratulating Armie and Josh as they helped themselves to the food at the crafts table.
I relaxed for the first time that day. The worst was over, and the rest of the shoot would be a piece of cake. Cake? It was time to wander back to the food tents to have some clotted cream and strawberries, and perhaps a Pimms cup. Or two.
See and purchase Dan's books on rowing here:
Kelly, A father, a son, and American Quest
Red Rose Crew