When I started rowing for Stuart, we were still meeting at Thompson’s Boathouse on the Potomac, just upriver from the Kennedy Center. We were still rowing the Bear and the Miss Fairfax. Miss Fairfax was, as I recall, a Pocock 4 rigged for sweeps — all our boats were rigged sweep at the time.
Miss Fairfax was the same boat Stuart Crew took to the Henley Regatta in 1968, and won the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup. Judging by the times over the 1-mile, 550-yard course, all boats were rowing into a heavy headwind that year; only one race posted a winning time under 8 minutes.
Interesting note: the next year that same award was claimed by our cross-town rivals, Washington-Lee HS.
We struggled with low finances and not a lot of student interest during my freshman year, but after that my dad became involved with the Crew Boosters at that time, and unfortunately, I didn’t pay close attention to what he was doing, because the Boosters became very vigorous about that time, and we were able to afford some things: new oars, for instance, and a spot at the new boathouse on the Occoquan Reservoir.
Occoquan was a huge improvement. No barges or other large craft creating big rocky wakes that shipped a lot of water over the gunwales, no dead fish floating past, no storm surge making the river nearly unnavigable — I remember one wild afternoon when we pushed off from the dock and had to drop directly into a dead sprint. We kept it up at a full race pace for about three minutes and stayed pretty much level with the dock. We pulled the boat out that day and ran the Exorcist Stairs.
Write me back, I’ll tell you about the Exorcist Stairs.
I believe it was my senior year that we finally got what we had been needing for so long: a new boat. I don’t remember the exact process by which the boat was purchased — Dad could tell you that — but it was the first new boat Stuart had fielded in, I think, over ten years. It was a brand-new, never rowed Schoenbrod. It was beautiful. We christened it BobKat after our two faculty sponsors, Roberta Ricci and Kathy Gleason.
Wow. I didn’t expect to remember those names. It’s been a while.
BobKat’s first race was off to a great start. Our starts were always fantastic, our 100m times were some of the best in the county. But we could never sustain that thrust because our aging wooden shells were heavy and rough. Not BobKat: she bounced across the water like a skipped stone. It was as if we were rowing only half a boat, she was so light. We leapt out to an early lead, like we so often did, but unlike every other race I’d ever rowed in, we kept it. It opened. It opened. At the halfway mark there was two lengths’ worth of open water between us and our nearest competitor, and we continued to open the gap. It was amazing. We had been racing in a lead boat, it seemed. Miss Fairfax had history, but BobKat was the future.
At about the 2/3 mark, #2 (Mike Lind)’s rigger came loose. We had carefully adjusted all the gear and the boat fit us like a glove, but Mike was one of the biggest rowers on the entire team, and he proved just a bit too much for the hardware, and it folded up on him.
You would not believe how furious a debate you can have even as you are exerting yourself to the utmost. Mike wanted to bail to eliminate his dead weight so we’d still have a chance at winning. His despair was wrenching to the rest of us.
#1 (Grant Dinehart) offered to jump out too, to keep the thrust even. #3 (Brian Weihs) pointed out that if we didn’t cross the line with all hands aboard, we’d be DQ’d regardless, and their sacrifice would be wasted.
Everybody stayed aboard.
I poured everything I had into it, trying to compensate for the loss of Mike’s input. I was ridiculously strong for a guy my size at that time, but so was Mike — and Mike was a lot bigger than me. Brian and Grant subtly altered their pulls to increase the thrust at the very end of their strokes, pulling the boat slightly back toward their side.
It wasn’t enough. The gap closed inexorably, relentlessly. Two boats beat us to the line, but we made them work for it. To their credit they congratulated us on a hard-fought battle that, had our equipment held together, would have fallen to us by a large margin. As it was, we missed Second place by less than half a boat length.
Mike was nearly inconsolable. I couldn’t blame him. Later, we rebuilt his rigger and doubled up the nuts. Seeing the damage at the time, I was kind of surprised it held together as long as it did.
That was our best race. In all the races I competed in, it was our highest finish. It is both an eminently frustrating failure and a huge testament to what we might have accomplished.
Keep rowing! I check up on you guys from time to time. I’m glad to see Raiders still on the water.
— Leif H.
Stuart Oarsman 1982–1986