Each May, after fellow students have long since departed for summer jobs and family vacations, the heavyweight crew team travels to Gales Ferry, Conn., to train for the oldest collegiate competition in the country: the Yale-Harvard race. First contested in 1852 between the two crews on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, it marked the first intercollegiate athletic contest in the United States.
More than 150 years later, sports such as football and basketball have eclipsed crew in popularity both at Yale and at the national level. The annual four-mile showdown between the Elis and the Cantabs on the Thames River no longer draws thousands of spectators in boats and on the shore as it once did. Yet the two teams continue to sequester themselves mere miles apart for a week of preparation, and loyal crew alumni still turn out to watch.
While many sports at Yale have traditions, few have the rich history of crew. In addition to the heavyweight compound at Gales Ferry, which is used solely by the heavyweights for the week of May training, rowing has unique and deep-rooted customs that team members said they cherish long after they have graduated.
After most spring races in which the heavyweight, lightweight and women’s teams compete, for example, the winner receives a silver cup on which the school’s name is engraved for posterity. In addition to winning a cup, the heavyweights also take home another prize: after the teams have showered and changed, members of the losing team must hand over their school shirts. Camaraderie between the crews develops as they talk about the race and their college experiences.
“I still have some good friends who I met by trading shirts,” Yale Crew Association President James Millar ’80 said. “Every time I get together with one man from Penn, we argue over who has more shirts of whose.”
Trading shirts is a strong tradition among all collegiate crews, but Gales Ferry is unique to Yale rowing. The site is made up of three buildings: a dining hall supplied by Yale Dining Services, a spartan dormitory and a boathouse where the freshmen sleep. Bulldog rowers have trained there since 1878 — when the Yale-Harvard race was moved to the Thames site — for anywhere from 10 days to a month. There are no phones, computers or distractions. Some alumni said Gales Ferry is a place where championship crews are made and where rowers bond for life.
Theodore McGraw ’77, a third-generation Eli rower, said he traveled to Gales Ferry his freshman year, although the varsity team did not row against the Crimson that year and for the first time, Yale did not send a cook. Although the number of rowers was limited that season, the coaches wanted the team to have the same experience as many before it.
“It was probably a combination of the Vietnam War and other factors, but rowing at Yale had waned,” McGraw said. “Then we had two boats for our freshman team, and by the following year the crew reinvigorated itself and we got to have the complete Gales Ferry experience.”
Gales Ferry is one of three sites used by the three Yale crews. All of the teams practice in the tanks at Payne Whitney Gymnasium during winter training and at the Gilder Boathouse on the Housatonic River in Derby, Conn., during the fall and spring seasons. The boathouse was completed in 2000 on a site that has been used for 106 years. Former Olympic rower Virginia Gilder ’79 and her father Richard Gilder ’54 funded $4 million of the $7 million cost.
The remaining $3 million was funded by crew alumni — a testament to their love for Yale and rowing, which persists even as they move farther away and find it difficult to attend races, alumni said. Millar estimated that between 150 and 200 people attended the Yale Crew Association’s annual dinner in New York last year, including a large contingent from the Class of 2005 as well as a member of the Class of 1938.
Bulldog rowers said crew is unique because although it is a team sport, upperclassmen and freshmen do not interact during races. For the lightweights and the heavyweights, there are three varsity boats made up of upperclassmen in addition to the freshmen boats.
“Integrating the freshmen into the team early on is really important, because unlike in other sports, there are freshman-specific events,” lightweight captain Joe Fallon ’06 said. “This leads to the freshmen rowing together, which decreases the time spent with the upperclassmen.”
To make the freshmen feel welcome, the team holds events such as the lightweight Pizza Night, held early each fall. The event involves dividing the freshmen up into small groups and sending them on a mission to get pizza from all over New Haven. After they deliver it to the lightweight house, the team eats together and its newest members are responsible for designing a class shirt.
Lightweight crew began at Yale in 1920, and its traditions vary from year to year. Compared to both men’s squads, the history of the women’s team is infantile, dating back only to 1972. But even though the women’s team is much more youthful than the men’s teams, the female rowers have earned names for themselves in their own rights. The Bulldogs gained national recognition in 1976 when members walked into the athletic office, scantily clad with paint on their bodies, to protest for equal facilities. This demonstration came after the famous Title IX provision that banned sex discrimination in schools for academics and sports and led to a documentary film, “A Hero for Daisy.”
Today, women’s crew traditions range from superstitiously tapping a championship cup in the locker room on the way out to practice, to the Halloween row, during which team members compete in themed costumes and bring in bribes to convince their coaches why they should win the overall prize. Rowers also cherish receiving their unisuit at the winter banquet, which marks the end of indoor training and signifies that they have earned the right to compete in spring races.
Although all three Yale squads sing “Bulldog,” written by Cole Porter, Class of 1913, at the launch of every boat on its way to the starting line, Lilah Hume ’09 said the women’s team has adjusted the lyrics to make it unique to their program.
“My favorite tradition is definitely the song we sing to send boats off every time we race,” she said. “None of the other teams have songs, only cheers, so it is a unique custom that we do.”