By the time crews rowed up to the Mercer Lake start platform for the opening heats of the 2018 IRA Regatta, a thick fog had enveloped the race course. With troubling weather forecasts pressing in from seemingly all directions, and the schedule already compacted, there was no call for a delay.
Besides, the windless conditions that allowed the fog to hang around for hours, and shroud the racing from all but the athletes and on water officials, kept the water flat and calm and completely fair. But it did lend a bit of mystery to a day that really would not have many surprises.
By the time the Friday race schedule was completed, every top seeded team that had been expected to advance from the heats or the reps, had claimed their place in the Saturday mornings semifinals. And that is when the racing will heat up for real.
But for the first morning of racing, the biggest story was the fog.
"The warmup area was the worst," said freshman coxswain Sydney Edwards, who was piloting the Princeton lightweight men's varsity eight. "The race course wasn't too bad, but it was pretty ghostly. We could see for about 250 meters, and I could see all the boats to my right and everything in the general area. But anything forward, I couldn't see."
Edwards, however, could see exactly what she needed to see from her lane one position, which were the crews from Pennsylvania, Yale and Cornell in lanes two, three and four. She didn't need to see much of anything forward of her bow man because Yale and Pennsylvania were fighting her crew every stroke for the length of the race.
"It was just very ghostly in the sense where you are all just fighting seat for seat in the fog like that, going bow ball to bow ball the whole race."
By the time the crews emerged from the mist and became somewhat visible to the fans - and the live stream cameras on the top of the finish tower - Princeton was ahead and crossed the line first, claiming a place in the A final with Penn and Yale.
"It was pretty amazing," Edwards said. "Usually, you don't get as tough a race in the heats at the IRA. It's a pretty remarkable experience to be able to have a great race in the heat and then to just look forward to the final. It was a really great way to start off a regatta."
That Princeton advanced is not really a surprise. Of the eight lightweight crews competing at the national championship regatta, the Tigers were seeded second behind Columbia, which also advanced by winng its heat in the men's lightweight varsity eight and entered the racing a favorite to win in the Grands.
Columbia won their heat over Harvard and Navy. Missing out on the Grand Final was Cornell, the defending national champions, and Mercyhurst.
"The race went as expected," said Columbia freshman stroke man Alexandros Zisimidis. "In the beginning, all of the crews went hard, but our base is strong enough and we were able to maintain our rhythm."
Zisimidis said that having the first race over and the finals in hand was a relief.
Columbia took the Sprints championship trophy two weekends before this and were hoping for a more relaxed training period than actually happened. "Unfortunately, I had an injury and we had some changes in the lineup. Thank God everything is OK now. We're ready for the final. I would say it was a relief to win the heat, but it doesn't mean anything. The final is all that matters now. So, we're excited for it."
With the lightweight finals determined, the conversation on the venue will now switch to the morning semis. Unlike in the lightweight ranks, were the limited number of crews eliminates the need for reps and semifinals, the heavyweights still have some sorting out to do.
The heats all went pretty much according to what was expected from the rankings and seeding. Washington, Cal, Yale and Harvard all won their heats in the varsity eight. Followed with second place heat finishes from Syracuse, Northeastern, Princeton and Brown.
"I think of this as just round one of our three-day regatta," said Washington head coach Mike Callahan. "It's just nice to get into racing. I think the last couple of days everyone has been just like a dog in a kennel.
"So, it was nice to go down the course at full speed again and I think we're going to learn a lot more tomorrow, when it gets really heated. The semifinals are really exciting, close racing, so we'll know a lot more about ourselves and our competitors tomorrow."
That may be an understatement because the two of the three top crews in the pre-regatta seeding polls, Washington (1) and Cal (3), will face each other in the first of the varsity eight semifinals. It is going to be hard, fast racing and crews hoping to advance into the A final, and contend for medals in the varsity eight, have their work in front of them.
Joining that first semifinal are Northeastern, Brown, Stanford and Wisconsin. In the second semifinal, two seed Yale will race Harvard, Syracuse, Princeton, Dartmouth and BU.
Asked what he learned from the morning racing, Cal head coach Mike Teti said:
"We learned that all the good crews are good, that's what we learned. I think things will get a little bit tighter tomorrow, and then even tighter on Sunday. So, I think all the crews that were good all year, are still pretty good, and the ones that weren't so good got a little bit improved."
Notes from the Course
Trying to stay one step ahead of any possible weather problems, a meeting was held between the head coaches, regatta officials and referees to talk about the possibility of moving the entire regatta schedule onto Saturday, eliminating the Sunday schedule completely.
Ultimately, the decision was made to "hold fast" and keep the Sunday schedule - for now.
The Saturday schedule was altered and can be found here.
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