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The Big Bang Theory

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Dear Doctor Rowing,

A couple of months ago, upon entering the musty, comfortably disheveled boathouse that I love, I noticed a poster board with birthday greetings attached. Happy 150th Birthday Potomac Boat Club! It was sent from FRG Germania of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and mentioned other clubs around the world that were all founded in the same year:1869. What was going on in 1869 that produced so many new rowing clubs?

Yer Pal,
Stu

An excellent question, Stu. Just why are so many clubs celebrating their sesquicentennials? Let’s see: In 1869 the country was still recovering from the Civil War, the industrial revolution was in full swing, the Cincinnati Redlegs, the first professional baseball team, were organized, and Rutgers played Princeton in the first game of American football. Harvard and Yale had initiated their rowing rivalry, the first American intercollegiate athletic competition, 17 years earlier. Organized sport was obviously catching on. But was there a spark that ignited so many rowing clubs?

By 1869, there were already approximately 90 American rowing clubs and rowing was probably the top spectator sport in the land. But what really kicked the formation of rowing clubs into high gear was the first transatlantic dual competition. Harvard took a coxed four to London to race against their counterparts from Oxford in The Great International Boat Race. Called the most important race in history, it was the Ali-Frazier fight of its day. People sat up and took notice.  

The intercontinental challenge had been brewing for a while. In 1867, Harvard had hoped to enter a regatta at the Paris International Exposition where they might have raced Oxford and Cambridge, London Rowing Club, and boats from France, Holland, Germany, and the fearsome victors from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.  But only seven oarsmen could be mustered, and Harvard stayed home. The next year was spent squabbling over whether to race in a four with or without coxswain. Finally, in April of 1869, William Simmons sent a challenge to the president of the Oxford University Boat Club. Harvard “hereby challenges the OUBC to row a race in outrigger boats from Putney to Mortlake, some time between the middle of August and the 1st of September, 1869, each boat to carry four rowers and a coxswain… This challenge to remain open for acceptance one week after date of reception.”

Harvard, with about 1,100 students, chose a coxed four to compete against the larger 2,000-strong Oxford. They also sent a challenge to Cambridge. Oxford accepted, although there was grumbling that the OUBC existed for the sole purpose of racing Cambridge, not some upstart Americans. But accept they did. (Cambridge delayed answering until it was too late.) Oxford went into training on May 19. Harvard had been together a month longer. 

The course that was stipulated, was, of course, the already-famous four-and-a-half-mile Boat Race course on the Thames in London. Harvard rowed a series of tune-up races throughout the early summer, culminating in the Boston City Regatta on July 5, which featured a large prize and drew boats from all over the East Coast.

The press jumped into the ring with the British papers giving Harvard no chance of winning. National pride bloomed, Americans claiming that Harvard would have to change its rowing style in order to deal with the “turbid, muddy, chemical mixture of the Thames.” There was genuine admiration on both sides of the Atlantic for the courage of Harvard and their willingness to embrace such manly competition. With the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858, news traveled between Europe and North America with unprecedented speed. 

Harvard student theatrical performances raised some money and alumni kicked in. On July 10, the crew boarded the steamer City of Paris in New York and set sail, landing in Liverpool 10 days later. They moved into a house in Putney and began to prepare. Harvard tried out six different shells before settling on their racing craft. Every detail of their training, their diet, their moods, was mentioned and debated. 

There was probably no greater difference between the crews than in their technique. Oxford sat up “almost painfully straight” as Harper’s Magazine described it. “The Harvard men…had longer outriggers proportionately. They did not seem to be trying to look so grand as their rivals.”

The race itself on August 27 was said to have been viewed from along the river banks by as many as a million spectators. The carnival atmosphere and prodigious betting that spilled out from pubs made it the greatest sporting event of its time. Harvard took an early lead, but with a couple lengths of open water, the Harvard coxswain, Arthur Burnham, made an inexplicable gaffe: on the winding course he did not move to the inside of the Surrey turn, staying wide. Oxford caught Harvard in the second half of the race and won by about “half a length of clear (open) water.” The British press lambasted the poor coxswain, but he said that the habit of moving in front of your opponent and taking their water was a professional’s tactic and something that gentlemen should refrain from.

The race was reported on throughout the world, and rowing, already popular in Europe, spread quickly, as the host of boat clubs that were founded in 1869 shows. In the United States, the number of boat clubs went from 90 in 1869 to 289 in 1873. American colleges started to row and the first governing body of college sports, the Rowing Association of American Colleges, was founded in 1871. Let’s raise a glass to the nine clubs celebrating their 150th year: our very own Riverside Boat Club; Grosvenor Rowing Club in Chester, England; Scarborough Rowing Club in Scarborough, England; Auckland Rowing Club in New Zealand; FRG Germania from Frankfurt am Main, Germany; Canottieri Armida in Torino, Italy; Clonmel Rowing Club from Ireland; and Koninklijke Roeivereniging in Brugge, Belgium. Ready all, row!

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