Premier prep school regatta is cradle of American rowing
New England's prep school crews came back to Lake Quinsigamond here last Saturday, drawn together again to perpetuate a rite of Old School spring. It was a day representing much more than a series of boat races: an annual gathering of rival schools that were venerable back when much of the United States was considered sagebrush country.Skip to next paragraph
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But the clubbiness didn't dampen the competition.
This is a day of urgent rowing sanctioned by the New England Interscholastic Rowing Association (NEIRA), the climax of a 5-weekend season for crews from 30 schools. Officially it is the NEIRA Regatta. On school calendars it's usually just ``Worcester'' or ``Interschols.''
Really it's a sort of prep crew mecca.
``All the New England schools that row come out,'' says Peter Washburn, NEIRA chairman and coach of boys' crew at Phillips Andover Academy near Boston.
``If you throw the rest of the season out,'' he says, ``what you do on this weekend makes your season.''
Despite a chill wind, a modest crowd huddled on the shore. Members of the sport's relatively small, hard-core following swirled around among the busy, bright-colored encampments of bare-legged rowers.
Four decades after it began, this regatta perhaps represents the best grass-roots example of competitive crew racing the US has to offer.
``There's no question, in lots of different ways prep crew has been the life-blood of the sport,'' says the Rev. Thad Bennett, director of the regatta and a former prep, college, and US youth team oarsman.
``Everybody who rows knows exactly what the regatta is,'' agrees Washburn, ``and it's as much a true championship as an `event.'''
In 1947, just a handful of New England schoolboys and their sleek wooden boats were entered. Forty years on, it's still schoolboys (and since 1974, schoolgirls) who come to race: in elimination heats of six shells at a time down a 1,500-meter course on this serpentine lake.
When boats aren't actually surging past there is a significant amount of familial handshaking and backslapping going on throughout the finish-line crowd.
The perennial clusters of shirt-traders campaign to deal for the winning schools' T-shirts. Expensive foreign cars and long, low boat trailers jam the parking lot. Everybody seems to know everybody. And while that isn't quite the case, to say that an exclusive private club had been reconvened would not be too far off the mark.
``Some of those watching are old rowers who have been out of actually rowing for a while, but who just can't help but come back to see,'' according to Mr. Bennett. Often they needn't travel far.
``New England has been turning out oarsmen for years and years,'' says Washburn. ``It's really a hotbed up here.'' It is the cradle of crew in the United States, and the legacy it has fostered lends a real sense of ancestry.
The ``ancestral'' aura permeating crew actually dates back to 1811, when the sport was dreamed up at an unflinching bastion of Old World elitism: England's Eton College (basically the equivalent of the prep schools represented here). It was taken up as a competitive event by Oxford and Cambridge Universities in 1829.