The Other Parts of Rowing (TOPOR) I – Barging into Training

[March 13, 1934] “All Together, Lads – Heave Ho – U of P Oarsmen – Candidates for seats in the varsity shell of the University of Pennsylvania crew, all pull together as they skid the heavy training barge down the runway for its initial launching this season. After spending a period of rowing the barge up and down the Schuylkill River, the poor material is weeded out and likely oarsmen are given a chance to prove their worth in the light and fast, eight-oared shells”.
15 April 2020

By Thomas E. Weil

Rowing qua rowing is to most HTBS Types the act of attempting to achieve symphony in motion in a competitive context. But even that core act takes place within a smorgasbord of other activities. This, another in HTBS’s Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series, is the first in a mini-series illustrating some of those other elements of rowing, as depicted by several decades of randomly collected news photos, images that demonstrate the insatiable appetite of the popular press at a time when journalism was interested not just in the act of rowing itself, but also in the bits and pieces that make up the greater tapestry of the sport.

Most rowers do not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus (or Isis or Neptune, for that matter), but require time in training in their progress to competency. There is a long history of introducing rowers to their lessons in boats of heavier construction than a racing shell, and, in that context, prior to the introduction of composite materials boats beginning half a century ago, one encounters terms for (typically) clinker-built craft such as wherries, gigs, tubs and barges (which last term, once used for early racing craft, survives in the names of the Bachelors, Pennsylvania, Undine and University Barge Clubs of the Schuylkill Navy). Indeed, the first races between the Universities of California and Washington, held in Seattle in 1903 and 1904, were in boats described as “gigs” or “barges”, after which, as stated in the “Husky Crew” history, “The era of the ‘barge’ race was over.”

As rowing programs, especially at universities, exploded in popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, coaches faced a dual challenge – how to boat and train up to 150 novice rowers as effectively as possible, and to do so in a resource-constrained world for shells, launches and coaches. Thus, one of the more popular forms of training platforms for growing programs over the last century or so came to be a large, heavy, virtually unsinkable and indestructible flat-bottomed wood vessel, most commonly referred to as a “barge”, which could accommodate a good many more tyros (usually 16) than an eight, as well as one or two coaches who were able to watch coordination and timing of all of the oars from bow or stern or, stalking up and down a walkway dividing the port and starboard sides, stand immediately over, view and instruct each of the individuals in the craft.

The complete history of the development of the training barge has yet to be written, but we can get some sense of its role through the appearance of such barges in the press photos of the last century. The earliest reference which I have found to a training barge is that used by the University of Washington under Hiram Conibear in 1908, already then known as “Old Nero” (which was being shared with the UW women by 1910). As shown in the following paragraphs, the practice has since been utilized by programs on both coasts and across the Atlantic.

[October 21, 1931] “The coaching staff for Husky rowing activities. Left is Richard (Curly) Harris, 1931 captain and new assistant to Al Ulbrickson, who is shown in the center. Tom Bolles, freshman coach, completes the trio. The coaches were snapped on the U. of W. float as a boatload of freshmen candidates were preparing to pull away in Old Nero, work barge.”
National press photo coverage for rowing peaked in the 1930s, so it is not surprising that, by 1931, while focusing on the coaching staff of the University of Washington, the inquisitive camera’s attention also caught that successful program’s “work barge”, a very apt title for the lumbering, galley-like platform in which new rowers had a first opportunity to demonstrate their promise.

While rowing glossaries abound on the internet, it is interesting that most do not include “barge” among their defined terms. General dictionaries provide various definitions, including (a) a flat-bottomed boat for carrying freight, typically on canals and rivers, either under its own power or towed by another, (b) a long ornamental boat used for pleasure or ceremony (which would include royal barges and craft such as those used by the London trade companies in the Lord Mayor’s processions through the midst of the 19th century), and (c) a boat used by the chief officers of a warship (often called the “captain’s” or “admiral’s” barge).

[March 16, 1936] “The ‘Leviathan II’ Is A Sure Sign of Spring – When the oarsmen of Harvard University bring their barge, ‘Leviathan 2nd’ out of Newell Boat House for a pull on the Charles river, it is a sign of spring that is even more reliable than the first robin. … Head coach Charles Whiteside and his coaching aides rode on the barge to watch the early form of the Crimson Navy men.”
Of note in this classic view of a barge training session are the presence of three coaches on the vessel, the fact that there was clearly at least one predecessor to Leviathan II in the history of Harvard rowing, and the elongated stern of the craft, allowing a coxswain in training to use the same system of rope and rudder utilized in a racing shell, albeit with a craft far less responsive to whatever changes in course he may have to make.

[October 13, 1937] “National Champions Take to the Water for Early Season Practice … a boatload of freshmen warping ‘Old Nero’ barge into the Lake Washington canal.” (Under the watchful gaze of University of Washington Coach Al Ulbrickson, it would appear.)
A stoutly constructed training barge could endure generations of new rowers, survive a good deal of rough handling, and enjoy a long life. Whether or not, three decades later, this is the same “Old Nero” that was carrying UW novices in 1908 is unclear, but it is more than likely that this very craft served as the introduction to rowing for each of The Boys in the Boat of 1936. This image clearly shows the typical arrangement of eight port and eight starboard stations, with the steersman (often another coach) standing over the rudder in the stern accompanied by a couple of spares.

[August 17, 1943] “WAVES Take to Water – WAVES stationed at Radcliffe College … are shown on Harvard University’s giant training barge in which they are learning the art of rowing under the direction of Harvard coach Blake Dennision. The girls proved their fitness for life in the Navy, with their skill in boats.”
One can only guess whether putting these service women to the oars on Leviathon II was done for exercise or for morale, because the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, formed “to free up officers and men for duty at sea and to replace them with WAVES at shore stations on the home front” … “were prohibited from boarding naval ships or combat aircraft”, so rowing was not a skill that they would have needed to master in the course of their duties.

[March 20 1957] “Galley Slaves? Lack of an indoor rowing tank hasn’t stopped the Dartmouth College crew. A hole in the ice of a pond near the campus and the crew went to work, limbering their muscles and learning the art of rowing.”
No rowing tank? Ah, well. The second piece in this mini-series will focus on that element of the larger rowing story. In the meantime, one can only wonder at the dedication of those who would transport that unwieldy behemoth from the banks of the Connecticut River to a local pond in order to have the pleasure of learning how to row in the midst of a New Hampshire winter. Note also, that, firmly secured to the banks of the pond in which it floats, the barge requires no steersman to guide it on its way.

[January 24, 1959] “Thames Teamwork – Oxford university’s varsity and scrub crews – the varsity on the right – get a dual workout on the Thames river in their ingenious twin training boat. H.R. Edwards, the coach, keeps an eye on his charges from the bow, at far end, as they prep for an inter-varsity race.”
Here the barge “Leviathon” is depicted being used, not for the training of novices, but for both the conditioning and the comparison of the most highly skilled members of the Dark Blue squad, who demonstrate the form that a coach would hope to see in his best rowers. Note, too, that the steersman here, with tiller firmly in hand, would appear to be another coach rather than a coxswain candidate.

[October 3, 1972] “Ready All … Row – There are 177 women among the freshman class at Dartmouth College this fall and more than 20 of them, including the young ladies in this training barge … are the nucleus of the first coed crew at the college. Dennis Bell, a former Big Green oarsman, and now coach of Dartmouth’s frosh rowing program, gives the orders for this practice session.”
Half a century ago, the face of rowing saw a sea change with the explosion of programs accommodating women. And innovation was not limited to the gender of participants. Five decades later, the training barge is still to be found at some university boat houses, but it is now more likely to be constructed of much lighter materials, or in some creative form, such as this craft, constructed of two eights, one bearing only port riggers and one bearing only starboard riggers, with the hulls fastened to a center float. And, as coverage of the sport has all but disappeared from the print media, it is unlikely that any image reflecting this “other element” of rowing will be seen again on the pages of your local paper …

One comment

  1. I don’t recall the barge at Penn having a name, but it was where I was first introduced to rowing in the Fall of 1960. Suppose it is safe to say that all of the newbies really looked forward to graduating to the shells. I will say that I actually liked rowing in the barge more than I did the workouts in the indoor tanks. Good memories…

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