5 May 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 fourth 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.
Any number of catastrophes can befall a crew in the midst of a race. Catching a crab, shown above (note the charming practice of the supplemental illustration), is probably the most common. The mid-race collapse of a rower, and collisions (with a competitor, another craft, flotsam, or a buoy or pier) are not infrequent. But the most dramatic event must be a sinking, and this piece captures some of that particularly waterlogged aspect of the sport.
Most of the wire photos heretofore displayed in the TOPOR posts have been U.S. or UK images, but, as shown in this scene from Sydney, a shell sinking, having a pathetic drama of their own, appear to have claimed more international newsworthiness and attention. One of two classic poses, displayed here, is that which shows the swamped rowers seated at rest in their submerged craft.
The other classic view, as portrayed here in this contest from Tokyo, is the dynamic sinking, showing the shell going under the waves, which is particularly impressive when even the oars have disappeared from sight. This event underscores another aspect of racing in trying conditions – being sufficiently prepared. Waseda thought to bring bailing cups, while Keio didn’t. Almost 60 years later, Harvard, carrying four pumps, dove into the Thames shortly after the start, while Yale, carrying eight pumps, safely completed the four-mile course.
Much more embarrassing than a sinking underway is an incident at the dock. It is not clear from the somewhat confusing caption what actually transpired (did the boat flip when rowers got in without having fastened their oarlocks?), but any view of a torrent of water sluicing out of a shell suggests that some form of aquatic accident must have occurred.
This image suggests a certain theatricality of the absurd – the dilemma, in which the shell is clearly not swamped (were it actually submerged, bailing by any means would be futile) is far from dire, and the means of salvation is a common shoe, but finishing DFL in any contest is sufficiently traumatic to warrant our sympathy.
Half a century later, as more attention is given to the potential for adverse conditions at rowing venues, changes include having abandoned the often unpredictable and inhospitable Lake Onondaga for more protected sites, thus reducing the likelihood of such swampings. Of more immediate interest here, however, might be the paramount and disturbing question of the fates that may have befallen the three of the eight rowers who are no longer visible …