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Racing on the Nile

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO PROVIDED

How many of you woke up on Jan. 2 and discovered that you had been forwarded an article from The New York Times titledRowing the Nile: A Soothing Respite in a Chaotic Metropolis?” Besides mentioning the importance of the Nile to the pharaohs and the belief that the sun was rowed from east to west each day–the Greek myth was that it was driven in a chariot from sunrise to sunset–the article talked about the growth of rowing in Cairo as young Egyptians discover the pleasures of escaping the madding crowd in a boat. And there was a brief mention that in the ’70s there was an international regatta on the Nile.

Holy cow! I thought. I know some people who rowed in that regatta. And I’ve never asked them much about it. My first call was to Gary Caldwell, who coxed Yale in the second regatta, the first to which Americans were invited, in December 1971. The Egyptians were eager to revive tourism after 1967’s Six-Day War with Israel and they put on a terrific event for Yale, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. Two local clubs, the Cairo Police and the Arab Contractors, filled out the field. Caldwell remembers climbing the Great Pyramid after the races finished. “It was fantastic, the best trip I ever had.”

For the 14 years that the Nile International Rowing Festival was in existence, the pattern was the same. Crews flew to London and then boarded Egypt Air to Cairo, where they were treated magnificently. They took a short flight to the first race at Luxor, 420 miles south of Cairo.

Gregg Stone of Harvard describes the 1974 trip: “We began the trip in Luxor, the first capital of ancient Thebes and across the river from the Valley of the Kings. Luxor was partially a tourist town and partially full of archaeologists. We rowed in Egyptian copies of Donoraticos. The slides were too short and they were warped, but no boat was better than any other. Six boats across, no buoys, quite a bit of stream, and of course the lanes were not even across the course.”

Harvard’s Al Shealy picks up the story: “The ceremony at Luxor was a real hoot. The New York Times reported, ‘To the triumphal march from Verdi’s Aida, the competing crews paraded into the court holding their oars like martial staffs. Egyptian schoolchildren in native dress chanted welcomes in both Egyptian and English and strew rose petals in the paths of the entering oarsmen. The ceremony re-enacted the pharaonic parades of 4,000 years ago, when ancient rowing teams raced on the same stretch of the Nile where today’s racing took place The ancient crews raced for the honor of leading the funeral processions of the deceased kings.’

“After the race in Luxor, which we won by a half-length, overtaking a quick-starting Cairo Police, we spent a beautiful evening on a houseboat drinking champagne, gazing at the stunning silhouette of the moonlit Luxor Temple, and conversing with a general in the Egyptian army. Ebullient, with an Errol Flynn mustache, he regaled us with stories of his involvement in the Six-Day War. My sense was that if he had been able to so entertain the Israelis, the conflict would have been known as the Three- Hour War.”

The crews returned to Cairo for the second and final race. Stone says, “When we went out to Giza, we all tried to climb the pyramids without getting caught. It was against the law, but ever so tempting. Just a big version of running the stadium. Coach Harry Parker figured out that a little bribe went a long way, and while some guys were climbing, a few of us paid a guide to take us into a pyramid. What a stupid idea. Ever been claustrophobic? The passageways get smaller quite quickly, and very dark, especially when your guide blows out the candle and asks for more money. I remember buying a Roman coin, which was fake, and stupidly giving a guide my camera when I got on a camel. More money to get the camera back. It was a great trip, but we all wanted to leave before the appointed day, largely because it was Christmas vacation and those not sick feared getting sick.”

Shealy did get sick and was unable to row in the Cairo race. “This time, we lost ignominiously to the Cairo Police, probably because various Nile-borne pathogens were arranging their Barcaloungers in the alimentary grottoes of our crew.”

The regatta continued for the rest of the 1970s. In 1977, the British and French national teams were invited, and so was the U.S. national team. In December, however, it wasn’t possible to name a U.S. boat, so it was decided that the University of Washington, which had won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley five months before, would represent the USA.

 Dave Magee, who rowed six in the boat, recalls, “It was a phenomenal experience. Prior to leaving, we consulted a University of Washington physician. He advised us on diet, what foods were safe to eat and which were not, what to do about drinking water, what to do if falling ill. He also gave a brief summary of a curious parasitic organism native to the waters of the Nile called a ‘trematode.’

“As I recall, their normal host was some Nile ‘snail.’ They were prevalent in the waters we would be rowing and that we should avoid immersing ourselves in that medium if at all possible. Trematodes, he explained, can get into the bloodstream by burrowing into the skin, travel one’s circulatory system, and become lodged in the liver, causing cirrhosis–more specifically a condition called schistosomiasis. ‘Schistosomiasis’ became our battle call. We were terrified to get splashed and couldn’t believe the locals bathed, washed and cooked in Nile waters. We brought big jars of peanut butter for emergency nutrition. We ate only baked foods and peeled fruit. Washed our hands until they were chapped. Luckily we stayed healthy.

“At Luxor, we were stunned by the magnificence of the architecture. How something so ornate and immense could’ve been built over centuries, starting some 4,000 years prior, and remain still so fabulously preserved defied belief. I should mention here that, in advance of leaving, we boned up on our Egyptian history by watching, for historical relevance, The Spy Who Loved Me, a summer of ’77 James Bond flick, several scenes from which were filmed at the Temple of Karnak. We were impressed by the unexpectedly large crowds. We weren’t sure how the sport had so many fans–or how they knew enough to show up. But they did. In really large numbers. We and the other teams marched through the 134-column Hypostyle Hall and other relics, oars in hand, to the shores of the Nile.

“The race in Luxor was nuts. We had practiced the course on the eastern shore and knew where we would start and where we would finish. The 500-, 1,000-, and 1,500-meter marks were guesswork. We put in, took our prescribed warmups, and headed to the ‘start.’ The shores now obscured by the crowds start to finish, we and the other boats had to negotiate with officials where the precise starting line was. We had a good race; we sprinted perfectly to win–the British and French boats congratulating us–until we found out we were in second or third place, the French declared the winners, to their surprise. I guess the ‘finish line’ was 50 or so meters back from where we all thought it was.”

Washington returned a few more times before the regatta was abandoned. But for those lucky enough to have participated, it was an experience that they never forgot, a regatta run primarily for fun, in contrast to the high seriousness with which most rowing events are conducted.

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