row2k Features
Book Excerpt: Chapter Four, More Porcupine - from Four Years at Four, by John Escher
December 17, 2021
John Escher and Philip Makanna

Over the winter there were personnel changes. All in all though we felt good. We had stayed with big league MIT and now in effect if not schedule we were the varsity. And the Stein was a really nice Pocock from Seattle whether aficionados from other colleges said it was too broad in the beam or not. Those snobs had the temerity to call the Stein a workboat rather than a top-of-the-line racing shell, but actually a less tippy boat was a good thing for us.

Bassick, Burns, Olson – 1960 – Photo by Whitey
Bassick, Burns, Olson – 1960 – Photo by Whitey

Except for its end Spring season 1958 is a blur in my mind. Whom did we compete against: Amherst, Iona, Fordham, St. John's? Not our most traditional rival other than Columbia, Dartmouth. Couldn't be. Since the previous varsity had dissolved, the 1958 Brown-Dartmouth races for the Atalanta Cup were canceled as if there were a pandemic.

I know we won some races in borrowed boats and made two trips to Philadelphia rowing the same heavy clunker from Drexel University both times.

Both LaSalle and Drexel beat us the first time. Just LaSalle beat us the second time in the freshmen final of the huge Dad Vail Regatta.

Forty-five years later I met the coxswain of that LaSalle boat during intermission in a New York theater. He spoke of that victory over us in which we finished second as one of the lifetime achievements of him and his eight guys. Well okay. I didn't think he wanted to hear our Brown excuses so I didn't offer any.

Makanna 2, Escher 4, Ashley 3, Burns 6 – 1960 – Photo by Whitey
Makanna 2, Escher 4, Ashley 3, Burns 6 – 1960 – Photo by Whitey

The Dad Vail Rowing Association is an association impossible to explain to anybody. I know because I once tried to explain it to members of the original 1960 Kiel-Ratzeburg Olympic gold medal eight on the west bank of the Ruderbahn in Duisburg, Germany.

And again to an editor at Sports Illustrated Magazine telling him also my ideas for copying the new German rowing style. No one at SI really wanted to know who Dad Vail was or why he was a dad. And the staff thought I came across a bit on the technical side. But they nevertheless felt sorry for me and so I received a letter from the former New York Giants fullback Frank Gifford informing me that his brother-in-law Boyce Budd rowed at Yale.

Well the Dad Vail Regatta held every May in Philadelphia is just the biggest regatta in North America. You win the varsity race at the end of the last day of that one and your name goes in the Almanac.

Everyone always talks about how big the Head-of-the-Charles is but forgets to mention the Dad Vail. Maybe the sponsors of each can designate a crew for a Decision Day with two races. The first will be to decide by race which is bigger, Dad Vail or Head-of-the-Charles. The second shall be to decide which is older, Detroit Boat Club or Narragansett Boat Club.

Up the ramp and into the NBC: Clark 1, Makanna 2, Ashley 3, Escher 4 – 1960 – Photo by Whitey
Up the ramp and into the NBC: Clark 1, Makanna 2, Ashley 3, Escher 4 – 1960 – Photo by Whitey

About at the time of that Dad Vail freshmen final so loved by LaSalle College Coach Fullerton gave me the most improved oarsman award. This meant I was really bad.

Even back then we all had the idea of lifting the shoulders to hit the catch which in some cases led to atrocious form. To row well you hit the catch simultaneously with all three muscle groups as hard as you can. Then the legs overcome the back which overcomes the arms thus creating desired sequence in the most natural way possible.

The late Harvard Coach Harry Parker told me that over a banquet table in Cincinnati. While he and Bill Engeman, organizer of the Cincinnati Regatta, certainly became tight friends they never found out who was faster in a single scull.

They were they, I was me, a guy who looked like a loose tooth at the most anonymous spot in an eight-oared shell.

All positions in an eight other than 4 have special purpose. The bow pair are picked for their "niftiness." That means clean blade-work and not doing a single thing that might slow the boat down during the glide portion between strokes and yes doing a special thing to prolong that glide (more later).

Makanna 2 – 1960 – Photo by Whitey
Makanna 2 – 1960 – Photo by Whitey

Seat 3 can also get pasted with the niftiness label depending on personal interpretation. If the crew coach is looking for extraordinary power at 3, he or she may well declare that 3-4-5-6-7 are the boat's "engine room."

Another coach might attribute "engine room" to 3-4-5-6 while pasting the niftiness label this time to bow pair and 7 and 8 (stroke).

This was probably the case with Navy when Brown and Navy tangled for the first time in rowing history at the Eastern Sprints on Lake Carnegie in Princeton.

Joe Baldwin at 4 was college heavyweight boxing champion and therefore heavy while I at 4 for the Brown club at six foot five inches, one hundred seventy-eight pounds was at middleweight one year and lightest person aside from Mouse in two of the other years.

So I don't think of myself as engine room and I declare that all 4's everywhere are nondescript. Except that a splash stroke from 4 and nowhere else can hit the coxswain hard enough to knock him out of the boat-- it's just a fact of natural angle peculiar to that position.

The coxswain, Mouse in our case, is the steersman, the jockey, the psychologist, the surrogate coach. Since 8 is the model for everyone his oarsmanship needs to be especially good. He sets the rate and can do no wrong.

7 is the Ginger Rogers position that many coaches would say is most difficult in that the person must do everything that Fred does only backward and in high heels. Some macho 7 might resist that characterization without acknowledging that shell-boat racing is like dancing and hang-gliding more than galley-slaving.

Simultaneous power at the catch was a fine point of the sport however that for my first couple of years in a shell I may not perfectly have understood. Which to a neutral observer gave me that aspect of a loose tooth particularly in one rough-water race against Dartmouth.

Our two regular coaches however starting with Jim Fullerton knew everything about training and getting in shape, e.g., we ran to the river and after a twelve-mile practice ran hard back to our rooms.

The 1958 Dad Vail freshman race conclusion, LaSalle first Brown second, I attribute to sail effect. As I reported, Jim Fullerton and I were greatly impressed by MIT's ability to sail between strokes. So Jim spent a month teaching us how to turn our blades into sails early.

Unfortunately however there was a Philadelphia headwind not a tailwind on the Schuylkill River and we blew backward between strokes.

Meanwhile back in Providence the porcupine dock, alive, was preparing her next trick.

To events seen from a distance of sixty years there is not much sequence.

A freshmen shell collided with a bridge then limped home with its bow compartment full of water.

I have never in my life seen any kind of boat move more slowly than that one, in fact I did not see this incident but rather dreamt it. The coxswain pulled on his rudder rope to bring the shell parallel to the dock for a landing.

His big mahogany rudder swung in one direction with no response.

The bowsprit just kept sliding into the black porcupine. So Ed Ashley, who would be 3 to my 4 for two years, listened to what people were shouting at him and put down his hand to make a catch.

He will elaborate.

The pencil-thin bowsprit went through the flesh of his hand.

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