Ronnie and Shades of Blue

Chris Dodd has reported on the Boat Race since 1970.

10 April 2020

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd revisits some Boat Races.

‘The motor launch Enchantress left Mortlake for Putney on Saturday bearing as dumbfounded a load of rowing correspondents as has perhaps ever made that return voyage from the realm of speculation to the homeland of incontrovertible fact. And were our faces red? …One correspondent may as well reveal the full shallowness of his fallibility…’

This year, Boat Race Day came and evaporated in common with all other activity from Putney to Mortlake, including the aircraft on the Heathrow flight path above. Having reported or blogged it from the press launch or the media centre every year since about 1970, this felt as if an enormous crab had locked its claws round my oar handle and dumped me in the drink.

The quote above is from the Manchester Guardian in 1957 when Oxford, under a revolutionary Aussie President, Rod Carnegie, were firm favourites but lost by two lengths. Carnegie, a physicist from Melbourne reading PPE, ran Hot Rod’s Gym in the boathouse, used ‘American rig’, undertook unconventional outings and introduced training methods from track and field. Coach Freddie Page once took the crew downstream from Putney to Limehouse and back, some 24 miles, during which Richard Burnell of The Times contributed to statistical history by recording ratings off Fulham power station, the Tate Gallery and Lambeth Palace.

Oxford pictured about a week before the 1957 Boat Race in their ‘new-style’ boat.

In those days, coaches were invited to coach by the President and were amateurs required to take time off their day jobs to serve OUBC. Carnegie was not the first president to hit coach rivalries. Ronnie Howard, who died in February at the age of 84, was a freshman in Carnegie’s crew but did not make the Blue Boat in the following year, instead rowing in and inspiring Isis to beat the Blues several times in practise.

He stood for President in May 1958 and won against the Yale oarsman Reed Rubin, a member of Oxford’s unsuccessful ’58 crew, by one vote. The electorate consisted of a dozen Blues in residence and all the college captains. All but a couple of Blues voted for Rubin, and thus Howard’s reign ran slap bang into mutiny at the start of the summer regatta season.

RL ‘Ronnie’ Howard.

The argument centred round coaches and their methods. Howard was a fan of Group Captain Jumbo Edwards while the rebel ‘pirate’ crew that formed around Rubin favoured Jim Rathschmidt of Yale and included the secretary of OUBC, M J W Hall, and Jumbo’s son David. Jumbo notes in his autobiography that Oxford had recently tried everything: ‘Orthodoxy, Fairbairnism, a blend of both, Cambridge coaches, Eton coaches, Aussie Fairbairnism, the Metropolitan style, Americanism, [Colin] Porterism,’ and all had failed. He thought they should try learning the art of rowing – ‘Oarsmanship, Crewmanship, Fitmanship, and Morale.’

Some sort of compromise was arrived at in November whereby most of the mutineers, including Jumbo Junior, made themselves available for the Oxford crew under Jumbo Senior as finishing coach. Rubin failed to persuade Howard to engage Yale coaches, but Jumbo lost Charlie Grimes, a giant Yale oarsman who was a 1956 Olympic champion. Jumbo was adamant that his crews were smartly and identically turned out under all circumstances, but Grimes refused to remove his blue pin-striped ‘locomotive driver’s hat’ and went off to play rugby for Balliol instead. Oxford won the Boat Race by six lengths but may have won by 12 if Grimes had been on board.

Jumbo coaching Oxford at Henley in 1959.

During the mutiny, the press had a field day pitching the upstanding stiff upper lip Salopian Ronnie Howard against the hewn-out-of-granite American cad, Reed Rubin. Ronnie rowed for Shrewsbury at Henley and continued at Worcester College. As President he proved to be a masterful tactician, avoiding circumstances where he might lose a trial or a vote of no confidence. Rubin, the rebel spokesman who did not get a seat, was character-assassinated by the Daily Express as only such nationalist sheets know how. He was billed as a giant 14 stone 6ft 4ins graduate of Yale, ‘the rowing Yank at Oxford, lounging back in his lodgings in suede shoes and hands deep in whipcord slacks… Burly, 23-year-old Merton man… his room lined with inscribed oars and old rowing prints… Hawk-featured Rubin announced the rebel plans…’ Rubin was obviously a rotten bounder, and a foreigner to boot.

Hawk-featured Rubin: ‘a bounder, a foreigner, a wearer of suede shoes’.

Ronnie was elected a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta and coached at Radley from 1960. He also became a prominent Oxford coach for a decade until Daniel Topolski revolutionised Dark Blue training methods in the 1970s. He was strongly wedded to the traditions of Oxford rowing, acknowledging that Rubin and Co did a service by questioning loyalty. His experience of mutiny and crew selection came in useful in 1965 when the famous Australian sculler Sam Mackenzie ended his first coaching job abruptly after allegedly attempting to extract money from Jim Rogers’s old man to secure Jim’s selection for the Blue Boat’s cox’s seat. Howard had to take time off teaching to take charge of Oxford full-time. Rogers, another Yalee, steered Isis in 1965 and the Blue Boat to victory in the following year.

Chris Penny, one of the American ‘mutineers’ from 1987. The “Express” and other British newspapers dusted off all their old anti-Reed stuff and used it on Penny and his countrymen.

Curiously, Howard and Rubin both offered their services to find a solution to the ‘True Blue’ Oxford mutiny in 1987, when President Donald Macdonald and coach Topolski found themselves besieged by most contenders for the Blue Boat, including five American internationals. It was a complicated and long-lasting affair involving coaching methods, personalities and training schedules, and just as in 1958, the mutineer spokesmen were Americans – vilified in some sections of the press – while the kernel of the dispute involved British oarsmen and allegedly fixed results of seat racing trials. Macdonald asked Ronnie Howard for help and Ronnie advised the President and his coach to stick their ground.

The dispute ran from October almost to the wire before it was settled with the return of several Brits (but not the principled Americans) scarcely two weeks before the race. The final attempt to reach a compromise came from lawyer Reed Rubin.

It’s a long story, but one evening he called me out of the blue at a pub where I was staying near Oxford while reporting on the mutiny (this was pre-mobile phones and at a time when Britain’s telephone network was hobbled by a lengthy industrial dispute). Reed said he was willing to take Concorde to London next day if both parties would agree to abide by the decision of an arbitration panel consisting of a Macdonald nomination and one nominated by the committee of college captains representing the mutineers, with Rubin himself in the chair. Would I put the question to the parties?

That night, I managed to raise the captains and Donald on the phone to pass on the proposal. The former readily agreed, but the President didn’t dial Rubin’s number. He may have heard Ronnie’s voice in his ear. A blood-stained Oxford went on to win the race in freak conditions, but with a weaker crew compared with the star-studded boat they might have had.

The Oxford crew that raced and won after the 1987 ‘mutiny’. President Macdonald stands and celebrates.

Ronnie Howard was born in Ealing in 1935 and evacuated to Henley during the WWII, growing up in and around boats. Oxford followed Shrewsbury school and National Service in Germany where he lost no time in starting the British Army of the Rhine Rowing Club. In his final year at Oxford, he was forbidden to row by his tutors so that he could attend to neglected academic matters, but nevertheless turned out racing in a crew called Cherwell that he had formed under a false name. His Radley career was augmented by a leading role in the National Schools Regatta and Britain’s junior rowing programme.

After taking early retirement from teaching geography, geology and Maths at Radley, he moved to Cornwall in 1988 to go sailing, and he threw in his rowing towel. He wrote to the chairman of Henley offering to resign his stewardship on the grounds that he could no longer summon up the energy or enthusiasm to help organise the regatta. Thus Ronnie became the first Steward since Henley began in 1839 not to expire in office (a bishop appointed to a see in the Pacific offered to resign in the 19th century on the grounds that it would take him months to reach the regatta, but was refused). When I asked the chairman about this break with tradition, he said that the parting was amicable, reasoning that an unhappy steward should make way for a keen one.

In Cornwall, Ronnie held several offices at St Mawes Sailing Club and was an enthusiastic coach at Roseland Pilot Gig Club, a completely different kind of rowing to his Radley and junior rowing career. He compared notes on all things yachts and gigs with Penny Chuter, a former Oxford and GB coach who also moved to Cornwall. They campaigned to get ocean-going gig rowers to abandon their customary ‘pasty’ technique in favour of an over-hand grip. The pasty or ‘past-it’ technique is, if I have it right, rowing the end of the oar handle past the body, whereas the over-hand grip is more efficient, according to the Howard-Chuter book.

In a picture from 2012, Fergus from Falmouth Gig Club demonstrates the over-under hand grip.

After a few years in retirement, (and some having rowed under-hand grip for more than 15 years previously), Penny’s ladies crew won the 2019 world championships using over-hand grip. She says that all the top crews have now abandoned the ‘pasty’ technique, leading, she hopes, to a general improvement overall, and currently  her two clubs have adopted over-hand technique as well. Ronnie’s son John mentioned this in his eulogy to Ronnie. It raised a laugh among the assembled company except perhaps from the Roseland contingent whose ways Ronnie had tried to change. I’m sure that Ronnie would be wearing his customary beaming smile as he looked down from the Great Enclosure in the Sky.

Reed Rubin and Charlie Grimes became lawyers in New York; Jim Rogers became a venture capitalist; Sam Mackenzie, a chicken sexer by trade, went to Columbia University as coach before returning to Australia; Donald Macdonald became a banker. I last saw the gentle giant Ronnie Howard breaking the speed limit on his mobility scooter as he zoomed to Roseland Gig Club in St Mawes.

The story of Oxford’s 1959 mutiny and the Mackenzie-Rogers affair of 1965 can be found in my The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1983). For the 1987 mutiny consult Battle of the Blues (2004) and interviews 20 years after the event in Regatta, RowingVoice and Rowing News magazines.

 Thanks to Penny Chuter, Donald Legget and John Howard for help with this article.

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