22 October 2021
By Tom Weil
As previously celebrated by various sources following his passing last May, but particularly in row2k, the late Charlie Hamlin did many things very well. So many, in fact, that none of those tributes to his remarkable life included any mention of a very special talent through which Charlie may have personally reached more people than in most other things he did. For over three decades, longer than anyone else, on WNLC radio, Charlie broadcast the oldest U.S. collegiate athletic contest – the annual Harvard-Yale heavyweight men’s boat races covering two-, three- and four-mile courses on the Thames River above New London.
There may have been no assignment in the world of U.S. sport announcing that was quite as daunting in the days before drone coverage. The challenge was to keep an audience of excited and distractable listeners tuned in to their radio sets for three separate intervals – ranging from 15 to 30 minutes each – scattered over the course of a couple of hours on a New England summer weekend day. A large portion of the audience are knowledgeable and highly opinionated partisans for whom the stakes are meaningful. The outcome is often thought to be pre-ordained, but upsets can lie in the offing, and, for many, the success or failure of a season may hang in the balance. To the uninformed eye and ear however, each race – little of which could actually be seen until very recently – could seem as boring and uninteresting as it unfolded as watching – or listening to – two drops of paint creep slowly down a wall. Charlie took on this challenge with the enthusiastic vigor that characterized his approach to life.
Accompanied for most of his run of over 30 years by his broadcast partner Andy Card, Charlie made sure that the interval from start to finish of each race was peppered with insights and commentary that brought those contests to life and kept the audience listening. He had rowed in that annual struggle on the Thames for four years, emerging victorious each time. He knew every landmark on that four-mile test of character and will, he knew the legendary coach who ruled the river during his time at Harvard’s helm, and he was well informed about, if not actually acquainted with, many of the athletes who raced in front of him. When he finally turned over his microphone to Greg Stone after the 2017 race, Charlie had experienced over fifty years of race history, and had broadcast nearly a hundred Yale-Harvard contests.
Whether he was the sole voice of the race, as he was for a few years in the early 1990s, or paired with Andy or another person, Charlie was a knowledgeable and balanced commentator, as restrained when his beloved Crimson first crossed the finish as he was gracious to the Elis in defeat (and he got a lot of practice at that …). On the rare occasions when a crew from the Ferry bested the boys from Red Top, Charlie was equally positive, congratulating the Dark Blue as effusively as he would the Crimson when they prevailed.
His commentary, shared with Andy in an easy and comfortable manner, touched on every aspect of the sport. Charlie was as adept at providing anecdotes on past races as he was at venturing opinions regarding the likely outcome of the contest that was about to take place. He could recite how the crews had performed over the just completed season. His topics ranged from insightful reporting on the progress of the struggle, noting changes in ratings and steering issues, and the effects of energy expended as well as challenges yet to be met, to explaining elementary aspects of rowing for listeners who might be unfamiliar with its details. He was the complete and gifted guide to, and eloquent interpreter of, an activity, unique in the panoply of team sports, that appears so simple to the uninitiated, but the mastery of which can be fiendishly difficult to grasp and execute.
A cheerful champion who loved the sport of rowing, Charlie Hamlin displayed that passion in many ways throughout his life, but the longest-lasting of his contributions to rowing history, a subject that he cared strongly about, may lie not in his extraordinary life-time rowing accomplishments, now scattered through race programs and books to be flipped through in the years to come, but in the tapes of his race broadcasts. His words and his dialogue with Andy allow us to close our eyes, and to hear his voice again, refreshing memories once more of those classic aquatic battles waged every year on the Thames. Those recordings give us the privilege of re-experiencing not just an inspired description of the contests as they unfolded, but of again appreciating the warmth and wisdom of a truly remarkable man. His broadcasts are a priceless combination of both Charlie Hamlin and Harvard and Yale rowing history come to life again. Thank you, Charlie, for your service.
An informal celebration of Charlie Hamlin’s life, and the dedication of a shell in his honor, is planned to begin at 5 pm on Saturday, October 23, at Newell Boathouse, Boston.
Please, see also Bill Miller’s article “Remembering Charlie Hamlin”, published on 22 October 2021.