The following excerpt is from Hovey Kemp's self-published book that was previously reviewed here: "THE HAMMERS--The Story of Harvard's Underdog and Undefeated 1976 Crew." Writing about how his crew was getting ready for their first race of the season at the San Diego Crew Classic, Hovey paused to write about the importance of a great cox.
In 1976, our coxswain Bruce Larson played an oversized role in helping the '76 varsity to our undefeated record.
So much so, in fact, that it is worth taking a moment here to give credit where credit is due.
Undertaking this book project caused me to reach out and connect with oarsmen from the '76 heavies, including a few with whom I had had little contact over the years. In fact, of all the boys in the boat, Bruce was the one guy with whom I had had zero contact since our last race. I caught up with him on a video call this past summer and he regaled me with a number of colorful memories about his time at Newell, including what it was like coxing the '75 Rude and Smooth boat, in contrast to our '76 season. During our call Bruce provided a number of insights about the racing strategies Harry imparted to him during the '75 and '76 seasons.
Indeed, quite a few of these were news to me, and they shed light on various aspects of his coxing that obviously contributed mightily to our success in '76. For that reason, it is worth taking the time to describe them here in some detail.
The first of Bruce's revelations was about how he compared his coxswain's role in '76 to what he was asked to do coxing the Rude and Smooth boat in '75. I'll get to his comments about the '76 season in a moment, but first, regarding his role in '75, Bruce told me that for that season, Harry put him on an extremely short leash. As Bruce put it, Harry's instructions were based on the fact that he knew he had a very fast boat. Another factor may well have been that Bruce would be stepping into the shoes of the extremely talented cox of the '74 varsity, Dave Weinberg, and in Harry's mind, Bruce was less of a known quantity. In any event, prior to every race, Harry would give Bruce an exacting "race plan" that tended to map out the race in precise sections. Bruce said that this meant he basically kept his eyes inside the boat, and his communications with Al and the rest of the crew over his microphone tended to be almost scripted, as he barked out the orders for the specific cadence changes, power tens and twenties and sprints which Harry had outlined to Bruce before the race. Indeed, Bruce told me that he said little else during the '75 races. Apparently, at one point during the season, Al got annoyed and asked Bruce why he always said the exact same things during the races, to which Bruce exclaimed, "That's because I'm not allowed to say anything else!"
Bruce also made the point that Harry had made it clear to him that in '75, the coxswain's job was to avoid doing anything that would cause the boat to lose. In Bruce's mind, this meant he was in the hot seat every race, where the tension he felt was pretty extreme, knowing that his primary job was to avoid screwing things up. Again, this meant keeping an eye inside the boat, especially when it came time to make sure the oarsmen were all in sync as the boat settled after a start or when the race plan called for a power move or an increase in the cadence for a race-ending sprint. In those instances, Bruce would be laser-focused on watching the oar blades of his boat, making sure that everybody was in sync with the change in power or cadence that he ordered. He knew how important it was for the whole boat to perfectly match the pace change being set by the oarsman in the stroke seat. If the other seven oarsmen failed to follow the stroke's adjustment, the boat would inevitably lose its rhythm and slow down. When we spoke last summer, Bruce also passed along some interesting perspectives on a wide range of topics, including steering, boat speed, his feet (oddly enough) and coaching from the cox's seat. In addition, he provided me with one final revelation that truly caught me by surprise.
It is probably easy for non-oarsmen to discount the importance of steering when many collegiate 2,000-meter races are held on courses with buoyed lanes. However, Bruce talked about how important it was to make sure he was not over-correcting his steering as the boat moved down the course. As he put it, "It's not just about going straight, it's about going straight and not steering!" He explained that even the slightest correction of the tiller by the cox can actually slow the boat down, so that the best coxswains align the boat and, to the greatest extent possible, just let the boat run with as few tiller moves as possible. This was critical at Henley where, for example, only two boats race down the course at one time, but there are no buoys separating the two boats as only the outside lines of the course are buoyed or barricaded.
Related to this point, Bruce said that it was clear that the '75 varsity eight was blazingly fast off the starting line, and thus Bruce's job that year was to "keep command" of each race. In this connection, he talked about how important it was to use steering as an actual weapon.
Knowing that the '75 boat would likely be out in front of its rival crews after one of its typically fast starts, Bruce said he learned to look for opportunities to deliberately steer close to the buoys on any side where a top contender might be rowing behind his Harvard eight. In this way, he could cause the puddles from the Harvard oarsmen on that side to be right in the path of the near side of the trailing crew, making their lives even more difficult. The race stewards in the launches following the crews might raise a white flag in order to force Bruce to move back toward his lane's center, but as Bruce told me, he would keep doing it because he knew Harvard would not get penalized no matter how many white flags they waved. He explained that only red flags, which are waved when a shell actually veers all the way outside its lane or when a boat's oars interfere with another boat's blades, could lead to an outright disqualification.
As noted previously, Bruce had been coxing for many years by the time our 1976 season rolled around. When we spoke in connection with this book, Bruce admitted that by the time our senior season approached, he was able to judge the true speed of his boats quite accurately. The key was to watch the puddles. Every good oarsman knows the drill. At the cadence that a particular crew is rowing during the body of a 2,000 meter race, the "spacing" of those puddles is critical. The faster and stronger a boat is rowing at that cadence, the greater the distance between the puddle from the bowman's last stroke and the point at which the stroke's oar enters the water at the next catch. Put another way, the distance the bowman's puddle travels between strokes can tell a trained eye a lot about just how fast and powerfully the boat is moving through the water. Over the years, Bruce developed an extremely accurate feel for taking what he saw from the puddles and, based on how many strokes per minute his crew was rowing, translating those inputs into a close approximation of the speed of the boat over the 2,000 meter course. In other words, while also taking into account the wind and water conditions during a particular race, Bruce could tell from the puddles whether the boat was on pace for a 5:50 time, or perhaps a slower, say, 6:00 time. This learned behavior led him to be particularly adept at in-race strategies, when he had to judge the speed with which his crew was racing and, if necessary, call for a change of tactics and even more speed.
(To the uninitiated, what I mean by this can be explained as follows: As the eight oarsmen reach the end of each stroke, they are leaning back as they pull the oar handles into their chests. As they reach the "finish" of the stroke, they "release" their oar blades from the water by rotating their blade-side hands on the oar handle downward in such a way as to "feather" their oar blades out of the water (i.e., so that the blades, which were being pulled through the water during the stroke, exit smoothly from and are now parallel to the water). The eight oarsmen then begin to roll up their slides toward the stern to get to the next "catch," i.e., the point in the stroke where the blades re-enter the water. At the catch, the oarsmen lean forward, with their arms outstretched and their legs compressed. They then rotate their blade-side wrist to turn the oar blade back to being perpendicular to the surface of the water and, all in one simultaneous motion, raise their hands and drop their oar blades back into the water to commence the next stroke. After each release, the eight puddles from the last stroke go racing by the coxswain on each side and, if he had one, into his rear view mirror.)
On his feet
During our senior season, Bruce started going barefoot in the boat, setting them delicately on the hull of the shell. He felt this was critical in any race where his attention was being drawn outside the boat-for example, when the boat he was steering had fallen behind and he was required to look outside the boat in order to gauge the speed of his own boat relative to the competition. Bruce says he could actually feel, and his feet would communicate to him, subtle changes in rhythm and timing of the oars inside his boat, whereupon he would promptly return his concentration to the eight men in front of him and do his best to get things back in order.
On coaching from the coxswain's seat
Another comment from Bruce had to do with how Harry taught him to be proficient at correcting an oarsman's technical deficiencies. I should have known about this one since, from a technical standpoint, I was an oarsman that used to produce a constant stream or running commentary from Ted's and then Harry's megaphones during practice. While it may sound simple enough, correcting the technical aspects of one's rowing deficiencies can be a challenge. Why? Much like in golf and other sports, muscle memory plays a role in rowing. By way of example, if an oarsman has a particular proclivity toward dropping his hands just before the catch (causing his blade to sky a bit before dropping into the water), or if he is early or late at the catch, or if his stroke is "short" because he is not reaching out far enough at the catch, it is likely that he will fall back on those habits if given free rein, especially during the stress of a race. As our 1976 season progressed and as we descended into the tanks to practice during the winter months in Cambridge, Bruce learned some valuable coaching skills thanks to Harry.
When we rowed in the mid-seventies, Newell Boathouse had two indoor rowing tanks. One was an older one with static water on either side of the central platform where the eight sliding seats for the oarsmen were located. Here, the cores of the thick wooden oar blades were hollowed out and the idea was that the combination of the non-moving water and the less- than-normal resistance of the hollowed-out blades moving through that water meant that the motion approximated, more or less, the true action and feeling of rowing on water. The second tank room was newer, featuring moving water on each side of the oarsmen that moved in a constant loop, flowing past each side of the rowing platform from bow to stern and then back underneath to begin the loop once more. The speed with which the water traveled in a loop could be moderated to keep up with the cadence, speeds and power with which the oarsmen were rowing. Accordingly, these newer tanks felt much more realistic, nearly approximating the feel of a very stable boat rowing on flat water.
During our tank sessions, Harry tended to walk along the walkways that extended slightly above the tanks, watching our hands, our arms, our bodies, our leg presses and, of course, our oars and blades as we sweated through our pieces. These workouts tended to be long ones, aimed at building up our endurance. The tank sessions were like an open laboratory, where an oarsman's technical problems were hard to hide. On the walkways above the tanks, as the oarsmen rowed, Bruce would station himself alongside Harry, who would quietly point out to Bruce technical problems he saw with respect to particular oarsmen. Harry would not say anything at this point to the oarsmen in question. Then Harry would tell Bruce to take his position just ahead of the stroke in the tank, looking down the row of oarsmen, so he would have the same perspective that he would have in a moving boat. Then, one by one, Harry would pick out each oarsman about whom he had just spoken privately to Bruce. Harry would spend several minutes speaking to the offending oarsman in a loud enough voice for Bruce to hear, pointing out the technical issue that was the problem and instructing the oarsman how to correct it. As a result, Bruce got a coxswains-eye-view of each oarsman's technical deficiencies, plus he learned what to say to get the rower to correct those flaws. This would turn out to be a critical skill of Bruce's during the '76 racing season. After all, we didn't earn the nickname "The Hammers" because we were good carpenters.
His ultimate revelation
Bruce then contrasted his role in 1976 to his role steering the '75 Rude and Smooth eight and, in so doing, Bruce provided his final and most interesting revelation. It also struck me as the most surprising, because it illuminates a rather unique take on Harry. It was the Friday night after our light pre-race practice in San Diego-the varsity lineup had been set the day before and our first races in 1976 were the next day-we would row in both the Crew Classic's preliminary heat and the finals on Saturday. We were at dinner. After the meal, Harry pulled Bruce aside. He asked Bruce whether he had ever looked at the stars from the desert. Taken somewhat aback by the odd question, Bruce said that although he'd been in desert-like environments during the day, he did not think he had ever viewed the stars at night. Harry told Bruce to follow him outside. They left the dinner, got in Harry's rental car and drove east, away from San Diego. Once they got far enough from the city that the overall darkness met Harry's standards, Harry pulled the car over and the two of them got out of the car. Bruce joined Harry as he sat on top of the car's hood, looking up at the stars.
After some small talk about the night skies, Harry surprised Bruce with a question about the varsity boat he had named only 24 hours before. He asked, "So, Bruce, what do you think -is the boat fast?" Bruce responded, "I don't really know, Harry. We go really fast at times, but I don't know how fast we'll be in a race." Harry replied, "That's the way I feel as well." Harry then went on to explain to Bruce what he thought was required with such a crew that had unknown, or at least unproven, speed. He told Bruce that they would dispense with the specific "race plans" they had used in '75. Instead, they would need to come up with some flexible "race strategies" for every race, meaning that instead of Harry dictating a specific plan for the race and Bruce keeping his concentration inside his own boat as he did the year before, he needed Bruce to be flexible and reactive to what the other crews were doing outside his boat. Then Harry got down to the business at hand of how he thought Bruce should approach the varsity's preliminary heat the following day, where the first three of the six boats to finish would qualify for the final.
Harry and Bruce went through "Plan A," which would be the strategy for the day if, after five or six hundred meters, Bruce concluded that we were, indeed, a fast boat. In this instance, assuming "Plan A" actually unfolded and we were fast enough to qualify, the strategy would be to effectively "sandbag" the heat. In that scenario, Bruce's most important job would be to help us both conceal our true speed and preserve our energy for the all-important final. Harry made it clear that Bruce should not push the boat to finish first, or even second if he did not need to do so. This meant that Bruce was going to need to keep his eyes outside the boat, staying aware of what was going on ahead and behind the boat in terms of the other contending crews. If, on the other hand, Bruce concluded that we were not moving that fast at that same 500 or 600 meter juncture, then he and Harry discussed going to "Plan B," which would call for Bruce to use some power moves and/or cadence changes to help the boat find more speed.
Bruce was going to have to be ready to adapt on the fly.
As he went to bed later that night, Bruce's mind was chock-full of the instructions that Harry had imparted from the hood of his car in the desert. Everything would depend on figuring out how fast we really were, and the preliminary heat would be our first chance to find out.
Hovey tells us that he still has a few copies left from his second printing run of THE HAMMERS, and depending on demand he may be contemplating a third edition. If you would like to inquire about availability, email him at jhoveykemp @ gmail.com. Tell him row2k sent you!