Sunday Afternoon on the Thames

The Thames River. New London, Conn., Sunday, May 31: A nuclear submarine surfaces. The commander of a nearby Coast Guard boat immediately radios the command, "Clear the area, the Harvard-Yale regatta is in progress.

For the past 160 years, multitudes have lined the banks of the Thames to witness "The Race." For the spectators, this regatta is more than just a sporting event--it is an annual pageant. And instead of freezing in a cold football stadium on a November weekend, they can bask in the warmth of a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon.

Ears to transistor radios, thousands of fans picnicked in the sun on the banks of the Thames and in boats, awaiting word of the start of the crucial four-mile race. On the banks, men in three-piece business suits and varsity ties read. The New York Times, while children climbed trees searching for a better view. An elegantly antique Radcliffe grad in a white lace shirt and a straw hat, smoking a Tiparillo, waited patiently under a tree while two former Harvard competitors from a race long past reminisced about their own experiences at Red Top, Harvard's special boathouse on the Thames. Paint-brush wielding students decorated the rocks with H's and Y's.

On the water, the Block Island ferry was packed with spectators. Following a New England tradition, weekend sailors and yachtsmen, with school flags on their masts, tied their vessels in long rows to share company and liquor. As one spectator said, "There was a lot of madras out there."

Even though the Elis usually outnumber the Crimson fans, Harvard traditionally dominates on the river itself. Since 1962, the Eli varsity has each year surrendered its racing shirts to the Crimson. So as the two crews pulled together at the finish to shake each others hands Sunday, a winning streak of 18 years was over.


But the experience of a training week at Red Top, with no studies to interrupt the rowing, lent a special intensity to The Race. Despite the loss, there are no regrets. As one oarsman said of the week, "Never again in my life will I ever focus that much on one all-consuming thing."