Oarsmen must win to keep shirts on their backs

Since the fall of the professional oarsman in the late 19th century, American rowing has survived only as an unpopular amateur sport, carried on by a small groups of fervent, oft-ignored devotees.

In “The Amateurs,” perhaps the most professionally rendered recent account of competitive rowing, David Halberstam emphasizes the amateur nature of competitive rowing. Back in the day, he says, oarsman rowed “because they wanted to, for no reward other than the feeling itself.” And now, for true rowing enthusiasts and modern dissidents like Halberstam, the sport has come to embody a conservative aesthetic, he says — a charming, anachronistic curiosity.

‘Lost in the mists of time’

Shirt-racing, or shirt-betting, embodies this traditional aesthetic. Pre-eminent rowing collector-historian Tom Weil ’71 says losers were traditionally obliged to strip the racing shirts off their backs and hand them to their opponents on the water. The boats would pull together, shake hands, pass the shirts and push apart, with the losing crew rowing back to the dock shirtless.

Today, generally speaking, crews pass shirts on the dock or on shore, tempering, at least somewhat, the humiliation of the defeat.

The delay of the exchange has emerged in tandem with another variation on traditional shirt-racing, in which teams purchase cheaper shirts for trading purposes. This practice, according to Weil, was implemented by a savvy Athletics Department to deal with crews who were losing shirts every race, incurring a substantial cost to the University.

Despite shirt-racing’s status as an established tradition in the rowing community, its origins are strangely unclear. Weil describes the practice as one “particularly lost in the mists of time.”

Yale lightweight coach Andy Card, who rowed at Princeton in the late ’80s, recalls taking part in the tradition.

“It was certainly established when I was around,” Card said.

Presumably, shirt-racing is so old that no one remembers how it began, only romanticizing further the practice. But Weil suggests that the betting of shirts may have been introduced by a Syracuse crew in 1920, or even more recently than that. While Weil’s collection includes stories of shirt-racing dating back to the ’20s and ’30s, the collector has never seen an image of the practice before the ’60s. Weil further emphasized that one can be sure of shirt-racing’s 20th-century origins since, pre-1900, racing was done primarily without shirts.

Today, shirt-racing remains largely confined to men’s collegiate rowing in the United States. Most current rowers, including Yale oarswoman Tess Gerrand ’10, attribute the gender discrepancy to the anti-gambling regulations of the NCAA. Women’s rowing is an NCAA sport, while men’s is not. But shirt-racing was never a part of women’s rowing, even before it became an NCAA sport in 1997.

In a letter to the editor of The New York Times on June 10, 1997, Mary Gallagher, a female Princeton rower in the mid-1970s, claimed a lack of women’s shirt-racing resulted from economic constraints due to unequal funding for women’s athletics prior to Title IX.

‘An unwritten code’

As for the exportation of shirt-racing, it seems the practice remains an exclusively American tradition. At international competitions, oarsmen often exchange uniforms and team gear regardless of the result, but actual shirt-betting does not occur.

In American men’s collegiate rowing, shirt-racing happens primarily in the spring. Competitive rowers train all year, competing in the fall and spring. While in the fall rowers race 5K head races against the clock, the spring consists of side-by-side 2K races. A team’s typical spring rowing program includes a number of dual races, featuring one or two other crews in preparation for the championship regatta-style races in May and June. For Division I men’s rowing, these championship races are the Eastern Sprints and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships (IRAs). The IRA is considered the national championship.

Division I rowing schools compete in annual dual races in which shirt-racing is established tradition. Similarly, the championship regattas operate according to an unspoken winner-take-all arrangement. In these races, because of large number of competitors, competition is divided into heats, semifinals and finals. The winner of the “grand final” takes home all of the jerseys, including those of teams eliminated in earlier rounds. Thus, championship crews return to campus with piles of racing jerseys, sometimes as many as 25, which they are free to wear as emblems of conquest.

While oarsmen don the gear of vanquished competitors with pride, the exchange itself is generally characterized by respect and humility.

Yale lightweight freshman coach Joe Fallon ’06 describes shirt-racing as a time-honored practice.

“[It] adds to the camaraderie of the sport,” Fallon said, “since the shirt exchange after the race typically involves a collegial dialogue in which men, who were bitter foes only minutes before, express mutual respect for one another.”

Lightweight rower Spencer Salovaara ’10 characterizes the shirt exchange as a civil completion to the race.

“[It] operates according to an unwritten code of humility,” he said.

Halberstam traces the respectful tone of the exchange to the sense of community that has developed in the insular world of rowing, in part due to the intense physical demands of the sport.

“Humility became part of the code,” Halberstam wrote in his book, “Because your adversaries had subjected themselves to virtually the same regimen that you did, you respected them as much as you respected yourself.”

To an outsider, the civility of the exchange might disguise the intensity of the competition, but many of the rowers interviewed said it merely reinforces it.

The humiliation of losing one’s shirt is palpable and personal, described by Weil as both “symbolic” and “very real.”

“In a normal sport, if you lose, you can go hide yourself in the locker room. In this sport, you offer yourself up to the victors,” Salovarra notes.

Comments

  • Mark Schofer

    The tradition of shirt racing in rowing probably has a connection to the old English custom of dressing river ferrymen in loud colors, the better to attract business on the busy fords of the Thames. One of the earliest references to this is the famous race among boatmen which resulted in an award to a Mr. Doggett, the prize ever after being known as "Doggett's Coat". But the tradition may go even farther back than that. During Napoleonic times a regiment of soldiers would go to great lengths to capture the colors of an opposing unit, to their credit, and the disgrace of their foe. Knights of old, obscured in their armor, were identifiable by the colored shields they bore. Augustus was apoplectic upon the loss of imperial eagles to Germanic hordes on the Rhine. As far back as Homer reference can be found of the vanquished yielding their identity to their conquerers, as when the brave Achilles stripped the glowing armor from the body of noble Hector. One can only imagine cavemen clobbering each other in an attempt to purloin a particularly fetching mammoth skin. Shirt collecting has a long and noble past, and that women's rowing doesn't allow it speaks more to the neuroses of the NCAA and their concern for "betting" than anything else. Pity those deprived of this gracious opportunity to show sportsmanship in its ancient and noble form.

  • Robert

    As a member of the freshman crew in '65/'66, I don't recall any such "shirt racing."
    And not because we were undefeated, either…

  • Miles Roby

    I think the point is that shirt racing makes rowing unique, and that rowing races have a sense of the "aesthetic" and some antiquated allure, acknowledged by the exchange of the very symbol of pride for a team: their shirts. Rowing, appearing like poetry in motion to the insouciant observer, actually takes mind numbing effort to appear "smooth," so after the races it's as if the rowers show their deep respect and understanding to the winners through a rather intimate gesture.
    Quibbling about the exact day it started is beside the point of the (very well written) article.