At Red Top during Defeat

Different Harvard dress styles during the 2015 Harvard-Yale Boat Race.
Different Harvard dress styles during the 2015 Harvard-Yale Boat Race.

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

On Sunday, as several times before covering the Yale-Harvard Regatta, I headed to Red Top, Harvard’s boathouse by the Thames River at Gales Ferry. I must confess that I do not feel a particularly close relationship or affiliation to the Crimson, it is mostly because of practical reasons I end up at Red Top. Yale’s boathouse, further up the Thames, is more off limits to the ‘public’, while Harvard’s Red Top does not seem to mind a foreigner, an outsider and a simple rowing blogger.

So on Sunday morning, which was a beautiful day for a rowing regatta, I found myself among a lot of Crimson-coloured men and women, who eagerly waited for the first race to start between Harvard and their arch-rival Yale, a team that also goes under the name of ‘the Bulldogs’ or ‘the Elis’.

Old Crimson fashion style - looking good!
Old Crimson fashion style – looking good!

The 2015 races between the crews had attracted more than the usual amount of alums as it was the 150th race since the two heavyweights’ crews began their contest in 1852. The previous day, several boats from both the institutions had embarked from Red Top for celebratory rows on the Thames River, which in Connecticut is pronounced with the th as in ‘thin’ and so it rhymes with the first-name ‘James’, and not how the River Thames is pronounced in England. Several of the ‘old boys’ were still wearing their old rowing shirts from the day before – a shirt that probably fitted perfectly 30, 40 years ago – and some of these oarsmen seemed not embarrassed at all that these shirts now had a very tight fit, which come to think of it, is the fashion among younger men these days, who like to wear their clothes in a snug style – so good on you, ‘old’ Crimson men.

Crimson alums taking a closer look at the technical wonders of the 21th century.
Crimson alums taking a closer look at the technical wonders of the 21th century.
A Harvard snack table.
A Harvard snack table.

A large tent was raised over tables and chairs where everyone had sat down to enjoy a breakfast. There was also a large TV screen, as the three races of the day were to be broadcast on the Ivy League Digital Network. This was particularly welcomed as from Red Top you cannot see any of the starts, not even the 2-mile Freshman/Third Varsity Race, which always begins this regatta. Despite cameras now offering the world to see the screening of the races, many prefer to hear the races through the voices of Andy Card, Yale’s lightweight coach, and former Harvard oarsman Charlie Hamlin ’70, two experts who have guided many listeners through the races for many years.

On Saturday, the 2-mile Combination Race, which went downstream between Barlett’s Cove and Mamacoke Hill, was won by Harvard, which, although, not counted as a real race among the Harvard-Yale Races series, at least gives a sort of warm feeling for the supporters of the winning crew. During the last seven years, a member of the Crimson Freshman crew has brought the broom from the broom closet in the boathouse out into the open and raised it high in the air when the last of the three races has been won by Harvard to indicate a ‘clean sweep’.

It was a good start for Harvard, when the Crimson freshmen was the quickest crew out and at mid-course had a boat length’s lead. Harvard won in 9:23.0, while Yale’s time was 9:27.4. The New London Cup, which was donated by the city of New London (the place where the races are officially held) in celebration of the race’s bicentennial, will again have Harvard’s name etched. The last time the Bulldogs name ended up on the New London Cup was in 2006, and before that in 2000.

Two wet oarsmen, a sign of victory.
Two wet oarsmen, a sign of victory.

Harvard’s Freshman crew was greeted by applause and cheers when they arrived back at Red Top, their shell was carried up, rinsed and carried into the boathouse whereupon the traditional throwing the coxswain in the water proceeded. When eventually, the oarsmen had decided to let go of their cox, Jack Smith, he sort of seemed to be hanging in the air before gravity pulled him into the Thames. The rest of the crew followed him into the water, either voluntarily, or with a helping hand from a crew mate.

A winning, wet Jack Smith, Harvard Freshman cox.
A winning, wet Jack Smith, Harvard Freshman cox.

But then and there ended the 2015 Glory for the Crimson crews.

Or, maybe it ended for Harvard slightly before the first mile mark in the next race, the Junior/Second Varsity 3-mile race, when the Elis made a big push and took several seats of the Crimson. With one mile to go, and Yale in a comfortable led, the Harvard supporters understood that the race was lost for their young heroes out on the water. If the ‘clean sweep broom’ had ever been out of the broom closet, now was the time to put it back.

A disappointed Crimson cox, Jessi Izhakoff, who steered the Junior Varsity crew.
A disappointed Crimson cox, Jessi Izhakoff, who steered the Second Varsity crew.

In good time before the start of the Varsity crews’ race, people at Red Top gathered in front of ­­the TV screen. Four miles down, under the Gold Star Bridge on the Thames, lay the Bulldogs boat and the Crimson boat. When the news of the outcome from the previous race reached the oarsmen in the two crews, it must have felt satisfying for the Elis that their team mates in the Second Varsity boat had crossed the finish line first, breaking Harvard’s victory spell. Maybe it gave Yale’s Varsity eight an extra boost because they seemed to shoot out at the start and had a length lead at the first mile mark. After that, Harvard was not a threat to Yale any more. Very comfortably, the Bulldogs held the Crimson at bay and crossed the finish line in the brilliant time of 18:35.0 – a new upstream record, overtaking the Crimson’s previous record time from 1995 of 18:41.9.

During most of the race, it was dead quiet where I sat to watch the race on the screen in the open-sided tent. When the crews came closer to the finish line, people began to walk away from the TV, looking out on the river, where the two crews now came into sight. No one uttered a word, no cries of support came, only eyes followed the eighteen young men out on the river. It was as the world stood still at the Harvard camp, the only things moving, were the men in the shells on the water.

When the losing Crimson crew came closer to the dock, the oarsmen were met with warm applause, and helping hands grabbed the oar blades to help them in. Quickly, the crew disappeared into the boathouse where they stayed for a long time, thinking of what had happened and what went amiss. Coach Charley Butt soon joined them in the boathouse, while the oarsmen’s families and Harvard friends stood outside, patiently waiting for them to come out, ready to comfort them….

Red Top
Waiting at Red Top.

Was what we saw on Sunday a new era of Yale dominance on the Thames River after decades of Harvard triumphs? Time will tell.

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