Despite cold wind, choppy water, and racing only three boats against Brown’s five, the heavyweight crew team managed to sweep all three races of its season-opening regatta on Saturday morning.
Yale hosted Brown at the Gilder Boathouse in Derby, Conn., for the annual Yale-Brown regatta, which consisted of three races: the freshman eight, the junior varsity eight and the varsity eight. The Bulldogs have not won this varsity race in five years and have not swept the regatta in at least 10 years.
“It was incredibly gratifying to see the work we have put in over the last seven months begin to pay off,” varsity oarsman Zach Johnson ’14 said. “Most of the rowing community was expecting Brown not to have a problem with us. This was an excellent start to the season.”
Fellow oarsman Joe Alagna ’12 and varsity coxswain Oliver Fletcher ’14 agreed, but added that the team will not rest on its laurels of the day and will continue to improve throughout the season.
“It’s still very early days [in the season], and we won’t let any complacency creep into our mindset for the months ahead,” Fletcher said.
The Bulldogs certainly did not show complacency on Saturday morning. In the first race of the day, their first freshman eight boat bested the Bears’ top freshmen by a full boat length, with times of 6:21.6 to 6:24 for the 2000m course on the Housatonic River. Brown’s second freshman boat was 40 seconds back.
During the regatta, the upstream headwind started to pick up and create particularly rough water in the middle of the course, where the river turns slightly. The boathouse commentator described these worsening adverse conditions as “rowable, but not ideal for the early season,” and as the morning went on, race times got progressively slower.
“In a head wind like that it becomes increasingly hard to control your blade, particularly as fatigue sets in,” Johnson said.
In the second race, Yale’s JV 8+ managed to get a third of a boat length lead on Brown’s JV 8+ by the 800m mark, despite a slower race cadence. The Bulldogs held onto their lead in this hotly contested race, crossing the line at 6:26.7 — half a boat length ahead of Brown at 6:27.9. Brown’s second JV boat fell behind early on and finished at 6:44.1.
Junior varsity coxswain Morgan Welch ’12 said her crew’s technique is well suited to the harsh conditions and that the oarsmen stayed relaxed and focused.
“Our stroke rate was slightly lower than usual because of the headwind, but the guys moved very efficiently, and we walked away from Brown while rating a few beats lower,” Welch said.
While the two varsity squads were positioning themselves at the starting line in preparation for their race, the main and final event of the day, the Bears discovered that one of the footplates in their boat was broken. A launch boat had to return to the boathouse two kilometers down the river to fetch a replacement part, forcing the rowers to sit at the start line for 20 minutes.
During the delay, Alagna said that Fletcher helped the crew to stay warm and focused on the race. He added that the coaching staff has prepared the rowers “to face even the toughest conditions.”
“We tried to keep our oars higher off the water and away from the chop and waves,” he said. “Our results are a testament to that.”
The Bulldogs were positioned in the lane in the middle of the river, which meant the water was choppier for them and allowed the Bears to gain nearly a boat length’s advantage in the first half of the race, Johnson said.
However, Yale had the advantage of being on the inside of the mid-course turn and managed to make up time and level the boats. In the last 1000 meters of the race, Yale’s varsity was able to pull ahead and crossed the finish line at 6:43.7, beating the Bears by 1.9 seconds.
Johnson noted that in neutral conditions, the team could complete the same course around a full minute faster.
The Blue and White only raced three boats in the regatta because of a smaller roster this year. Last year, the team graduated a large senior class, and head coach Stephen Gladstone set higher expectations of the oarsmen returning after the summer, pushing some less committed athletes to leave the team.
“At the end of last season, the coach made it clear that only people who were entirely committed to the team and to going fast were welcome back,” Johnson said, adding that basic fitness requirements were introduced for team members. “The idea was essentially to create a small elite unit, and that is exactly what we have done.”
Johnson said the weekend’s victories prove the smaller squad is a “force to be reckoned with.”
The heavyweight crew team will next race on April 7 against Dartmouth, in the last home regatta of the season.