Despite high winds and rough water on Saturday, the women’s crew team started its NCAA title defense looking very much as if it deserved its No. 1 national preseason ranking.

The Bulldogs conquered Columbia and Penn amid the white-capped waves of the Housatonic in their first regatta of the year, overcoming difficult conditions to retain the Connell Cup by winning the varsity-eight race by a margin of 2.8 seconds. The Elis then proceeded to win the regatta’s remaining three races before the second varsity four, third varsity four and novice four were cancelled because of the tumultuous water.

“The race conditions were the worst I have ever seen a race run in,” head coach Will Porter said. “I was happy with the way we handled them.”

“There was a strong gusting tailwind and the water was really rough,” captain Jennie Hansen ’08 explained. “I think we managed by being concentrated and by rowing above the conditions — we’d seen similar conditions while training here over spring break, so we were well prepared.”

The cup-winning race saw the varsity eight finish with a time of 6:20.7, coming in just ahead of the Quakers, who finished with a time of 6:23.5, and more than 18 seconds ahead of the Lions. The finish would be mirrored throughout the day, as Yale continued to rack up first-place finishes while Columbia never moved above third, leaving Penn to take second place four times over.

The second varsity eight recorded a faster time than the first boat, clocking in with the fastest time of the day, at 6:16.8, far ahead of the Quakers, who finished in with 6:33.8. The Lions crossed the finish line 15 seconds later with a time of 6:48 even.

The lineups for the varsity boats are not quite settled yet, but Saturday’s performances are a first step in hammering out the best boat arrangements, Porter said.

“We have plenty of work to do to find combinations that separate our first and second varsity boats, but we learned a bit today that should help us do that,” he said.

The novice-eight race was the closest race of the regatta, although Yale still managed a victory, albeit a narrow one. The Bulldogs clocked in at 6:43.1, just nosing out the Quakers, who managed to give the Elis something of a scare with their 6:44.3 finish. The Lions limped in 30 seconds behind the victorious crew, although the magnitude of the margin was in part the result of one of Columbia’s novice’s catching a crab — a term that describes an oar popping out of the oarlock.

“As a team, I think our performance was mixed,” Hansen said. “Our first varsity struggled a bit and was given a hard race by Penn. The novices also had a tough, close race. While we had successful results, I don’t think we are near our potential yet — we can really improve the way we are rowing and how we approach competition.”

The varsity four came out of Saturday with the largest margin of victory of all, its time of 6:54.0 an impressive 33 seconds ahead of Penn’s 7:27.0. Although the final three races of the day were cancelled, the regatta was still a successful opening for the squad, Hansen said.

“I think this race was a positive indicator for the rest of our season,” she said. “We have a long way to go still, but I think we’ll continue to pick up a lot more speed from here. Especially in these early races, we’ll learn and improve from week to week, so next weekend we’ll look to do exactly that.”