Crew Crash

Check out today’s story of a swimmer interfering with the Oxford and Cambridge University boat race: slideshow. And then savor my crew disaster from 1956-57 on Princeton’s Lake Carnegie.

My father had rowed at Columbia. So when the freshman coach approached me to join his team I was receptive; except he wanted skinny me for coxwain! If I were to row it would be to build myself up; not to get even thinner and weaker. Oh, but Al, just graduated from UPa and coaching his first team, was persuasive. He tipped the scales with promise of “training table”: subsidized meals. I needed to save any way I could. So: I coxed the heavyweight freshmen for that season.

Columbia blue
(that building wasn’t there in 1956!)

I remember winning an intramural race on the Harlem River. My men threw me into the sewer, um, er, river. I came up with a prophylactic over my ear, bumped on the current side by a zillion toilet-trout.

Soon we were racing for real at Princeton: Columbia vs. Princeton and UPa.

Princeton boat house
Princeton boat house, Lake Carnegie

As we rowed out to the starting line Al murmured to us through his bull horn. The coach’s launch was always at our side except during an actual race. In theory the cox was the captain; in fact the cox was just a robot for the coach. (I believe we would have done much better if the coach had coached us: and trained me to help at the same time. But no, crew is like baseball: the manager is never the star the way Joe D was the star, but most players never achieve the stardom of old Casey. I like tennis: keep the coach off the playing surface during competition.

Anyway, Al pointed out that we would see lots of small sailing craft tacking about the finish area. “Don’t worry about them,” he instructed us. “They always stay out of the way.”

Three quarters of the way through the race we were running second, but rowing well. We were advancing a seat on Pennsylvania every other stroke. I saw us winning: so long as the finish line didn’t come too quickly. But a dozen strokes from the finish one of the small sail craft, carrying two sailors, a guy and a really pretty gal, crossed our bow. I waved to them to stay put: I’d go around them. Now you can’t stop a boat the way you stop a car on dry pavement. Still, I wanted a stationary target to miss; not an unpredictable lit fuse.
(That’s why we wish for one God; multiple gods, each with shis own agenda, is bedlam.)

Every adjustment to the tiller costs forward momentum. A cox has to compromise velocity, choosing a line maximally between the best speed and the best line. Avoiding a collision might cost us the victory after all. But what else was I to do? The couple, out of the way, panicked and tried to reverse course. I called “way enough” to my crew several strokes they knew before the finish line could be reached. Understand: I’m the crew’s eyes: they’re looking aft. They knew it was odd, wrong, not what they wanted, but they obeyed. I told them to hold water and they obeyed that too. Our bow hit the sail boat amidships. We penetrated their starboard side, pierced them through. Our bow rode up over their port gunnel. The starboard hole would have sunk them, but our penetration held them taking only a little water at the surface.

If I could practice that collision all day every day I don’t think I could do it more perfectly. We lost the race, but no one was hurt. Their craft was destroyed, but that was entirely their own doing. Our shell was damaged: minimally. The coach commended my captaincy of the disaster. I never did commend the coaches’ or Princeton’s carelessness in polluting my race course with saboteur pests.

2013 09 23 I posted the above without remembering that I’d already told the story. I’m gonna read that version in here and edit, weave, dedup another time:

Lake Carnegie Collision: Crew Shell Spears Dinky Sloop
2006 01 22

Today’s report on a near collision between an Austrian downhill racer and a course worker reminds me of a collision I had as coxswain for the Columbia crew team on Princeton’s Lake Carnegie in the spring of 1957. It was a sprint: three heavyweight shells, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton. As freshmen making our first trip as a crew team, we’d never been on Lake Carnegie. Coach Al warned us as we rowed to the starting line that there would be pleasure sloops cruising the finish area, but not to worry: they “always stayed out of the way.”

As we bore down toward the finish line we were doing OK. We had just gained a few seats on Pennsylvania. Another few seats and we might just nip Princeton as well. In other words, we were running last, but it was a close race, and we were closing all gaps.

Told to ignore them, I still had my eye on the sail boats: one in particular. It still had plenty of time on its broad reach to clear the path of all three shells. The girl was lounged at the gunnel, the skipper seemed in control. But then I also saw panic come into his eyes. He decided to come about, retreat the other way. He flubbed his manoeuver, lost his wind, and stalled right in the path of only one shell. The girl’s languidness snapped. Terror elongated her blond face. She started paddling with her bare hands, canceling anything her friend was trying to do.

I held our line until the last second. The rudder on a shell can make only the most marginal corrections to direction. A shell’s velocity, by design, is straight ahead, and fast. The wallowing sloop needed a miracle. It needed to fly straight up like a helicopter. There was no miracle. Mere yards before collision, dozens of meters from the finish line, I called “weigh enough.” My crewmen, every one of them I am sure knowing that we had not yet completed the Henley distance, distance, time, stroke number being in our blood by them, instantly ceased rowing. Our forward momentum intersected the starboard flank of the sloop right in its middle. Our needlepoint bow pierced her amidship, lifted the starboard side upward, pierced athwart the sloop, and rode up and over the port gunnel. The girl was thrown sternward. Her boyfriend was already in the stern. Our needle bow I am pleased to say tasted no flesh.

Later, Coach Al commended my handling of the emergency. Hell, all I knew was that we were out of the race. I felt sure we’d have a close second place, passing UPa, but not quite catching Princeton.

The sailors were shaken, but OK. I never did learn who paid for our damaged shell. I hope, but doubt, that it was that hour’s captain of the sloop. I further doubt that he even paid his father or whoever for the ruined sloop.

College. What a ridiculous institution. Did the guy have an income? other than from his parents? I bet he had a Corvette too.

A shell has some momentum, and the bow is narrow; but I know of no cases and any life forms getting speared. Skiing though, wow. A downhill racer, the women too, averages over sixty miles an hour! At some points they’ll be doing close to eighty! Today’s skis, shorter for all alpine purposes than in my day, will still be plenty long. I knew guys who skied downhill on boards each 220 centimeters. Let’s say today’s woman’s skis were only 190 or 200. Still, that’s four steel edges, razor sharp; two metal poles, maybe fiberglass but with steel points: and the woman herself, maybe 130 pounds, maybe a little less, and going say seventy … The course worker was also on skis, had mistaken a radio report, thought the course was clear. Maybe he weights two hundred, maybe he’s going twenty mph …

I know one guy who left the course practicing for a downhill. He hit a tree head first, sheared the tree leaving just stump, still had lymph and shit running out of his eyes years later: not that it slowed his subsequent skiing down one bit!

I know another guy, left the practice course. The tree hit him, speared him: went in one side, came out the other, taking his spleen along with it. Didn’t slow him down a bit either.

But that’s skiing. Who ever thought that crew was dangerous? Or sailing a little sloop on a shallow, largely artificial, lake on a fine spring day: crew racing day? At idyllic Princeton for chrisake!


Stories by Age

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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