When Collegiate Rowing WAS a Class Sport

Program Yale University BC Annual Spring Regatta, on 22 May 1920. The Thomas E. Weil Collection.

31 October 2017

Thomas E. Weil writes:

Despite its deeply lower-class origins, rowing has long borne – and suffered – a reputation as a sport enjoyed and indulged in principally by the elite in a class-divided society. This perception arose as modern transportation displaced the working-class watermen who gave birth to the sport, and left rowing in the hands of club and college amateurs in an era when only a small percentage of students, assumed to be the privileged, went on to university. Putting aside whatever considerations of wealth and exclusivity may have validly attached to that view, collegiate rowing was more popular on campus a century ago than its modern streamlined and high-octane version, and it indeed reflected class divisions, just not in the way that public opinion tilted.

Rowing at most colleges today takes place in varsity or club systems with no formal intramural regattas. Whatever this development has done to encourage intercollegiate rowing, it has decimated what was at many schools a century ago a robust and widespread interest in the sport within student bodies. Several factors contributed to this shrinkage, but, to better appreciate how far the arc of history has bent, here’s a snapshot of intramural rowing at the 1920 Annual Spring Regatta (there was also a fall regatta) of the Yale University Boat Club.

Among the notables involved as coaches, judges and timers were Guy Nickalls, Payne Whitney and Averill Harriman. The schedule for this May 22 Saturday afternoon called for twelve races, four over 5/8 of a mile in barges, six over the “Henley” distance, one, over a mile, for “Social Eights” – the Night Boat, The Sweepers (a combination of the Gentlemen and the Muckers), The Gondoliers and The Leapers – and a final event for single sculls.

The Thomas E. Weil Collection.

Coming at 15 minute centers starting at 2:00 p.m., the first race was a Henley-distance exhibition by the varsity A and B boats. Then began the fun for everyone else. The second race matched the freshman F, G and H barges, followed by a freshman D and E barge race (showing that there were at least 72 freshman rowing in 1920). The fourth race was among the B juniors and the B and C sophomores in barges. The next three races, over the Henley distance, involved visiting crews: the Championship Class Crews pitted Harvard seniors against Yale juniors, while the following two contests matched the freshman B and C crews against the Choate School A and B boats, respectively. Then came the Social Eights race, followed by a barge race among the C juniors and the D and E sophomores (not counting those in the varsity or 150 lb. boats, there were at least 45 sophomores and 27 juniors rowing).

Yale oarsman, 1920s.

150 lbs? Indeed. The first recorded races for Yale lightweights of which I am aware were in this 1920 spring intramural regatta. The 150 Pound B boat took on the A seniors and A sophomores over the Henley distance, and the 150 Pound A crew faced the A freshman in another exhibition race. After the singles race, the 1920 Spring Regatta, having put 18 class crews on display, came to a conclusion.

The use of class years as an organizing standard dates to the beginning of collegiate rowing, when the first boat club was formed by Yale classmates in 1843, and the first U.S. intercollegiate athletic contest, in 1852, was initiated by class crews from Yale and Harvard. Even after the creation of university (or ‘varsity) squads, the class crew system offered a popular means for undergraduates to continue to enjoy non-varsity rowing, and that approach sustained intramural rowing at Yale for almost a century. The establishment of the residential college system in the 1930s, based on the Oxbridge precedent, led to the introduction of “college” crews in place of class crews. The college boat club model of intramural competition – which has sustained Oxbridge rowing for two centuries – lasted roughly 50 years at Yale, with diminishing participation until, for a variety of reasons, it died out in the 1980s.

The Thomas E. Weil Collection.

Not including the “Social Eights” and the singles, of the 198 collegians rowing in the 1920 Spring Regatta, 162 were in class crews. Even with the demise of intramural rowing, class-based boats survived at the university level, in the form of freshman crews, until 2014, when the insidious creep of NCAA practices led to their eclipse on the collegiate spectrum. The number of participants in non-varsity or class-based crews at Yale today: none. Another great tradition, together with the special bonds of that unique group identity of rowing with your classmates, has been lost to the sport, but let the record show – and celebrate – that there was a time when collegiate rowing legitimately reflected class distinctions!

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