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It happens every early spring morning for six weeks. Just as the sun begins to climb into the sky. Nearly 500 Harvard students make their way down to the Charles River and take part in a 100-year college tradition.
This is not some Dionysian rite. It's Harvard House Crew.
Perhaps the oldest "recreational" sport on campus, and definitely the largest, intramural rowing attracts a variety of undergraduate participants; male and female, experienced and inexperienced.
Each house usually boats between two to five crews, all sharing the same shell and oars. Generally the veterans compose the "A" crews, the intermediate rowers make up the "B" boats, and the novices comprise the "C's."
Although the ranks generally remain segegrated as male and female, it is more common now to see co-ed crews, who are given the choice of racing among each other or in men's heats.
The house crew season reaches it's climax in early May, when the crews have it out over distances of 1000 and 1500 meters. Never a dull experience, the races often lead to six boats of eight rowers battling each other side-by-side, stroke for stroke.
The race can be so nerve-racking that less experienced crews sometimes lose their composure and experience "crabs"--the colloquial term used to describe what happens when a rower doesn't push his or her blade out of the moving water behind it quickly enough. (The force of a "crab" is sometimes great enough to eject the hapless person out of the boat).
Having a good coxswain--who sits at the stern and guides the boat and the crew--is a critical factor in the success of any crew.
In fact, quite a few members of the varsity men's and women's teams often serve as good coaches for beginning crews. While intramural rules dictate that no varsity rower can "row" house crew, it is permissible for them to cox.
Likewise, varsity coxsawins can't cox house crew boats, but they are welcome to row in them. Many do, and the experience of switching roles can lead to an increased respect between oarsmen and coxswains.
The House Crew program, in its present form, was established in 1932, and is a lot like a condensed version of the collegiate club rowing program used at British universities.
At schools like Cambridge and Oxford, there are only a few "varsity" or "university" crews, and the majority of undergraduates and graduates row with club or "house" crews.
The Harvard House crews seem to share have this sense of camaraderie and "sport for sport" sake--a perspective which is often harder to maintain on a varsity level.
Quite a number of former varsity rowers, in fact, often find themselves rowing house crew to better balance their studies and other extra-curricular activities.
Some house crew participants, however, find that their rowing needs are only teased by the short, informal house season, and end up trying out for and successfully rowing on the Radcliffe and Harvard crews.
George Walker Weld, benefactor of the boat house which bears his name, would smile on this relationship. In 1889, when he founded "The Harvard Rowing club," he donated the initial building and a store of boats to function "as a University-wide facility for students who are not members of a rowing club, but who wish to participate in the sport for recreation."
Weld rejoiced in high level Harvard-Yale competitions as much as anyone, but he also believed that establishing rowing in a broader foundation than that afforded by the "University eight and the four class crews" was a worthwhile goal.
Informal recreational rowing actually began at Harvard in the 1840's--long before the first Harvard-Yale race. At that time the club crews were often organized less for competition and more for pleasure outings to Boston.
In 1852 and 1855, races against Yale were in really rowed by individual clubs. It wasn't until 1856 that the first recognized crew picked to represent the entire college.
With the advent of Harvard-Yale regattas in the mid-1800's, and later the formation of the Rowing Association of American Colleges in 1871, Harvard rowing moved into a more competitive stance, focussing on varsity rowing and de-emphasizing the club rowing system from which it grew In the past several years, however, Harvard House Crew seems to have enjoyed a bit of a renaissance.
Through generous alumni donations and fund-raising by individual houses, equipment has been upgraded to include carbon-fiber oars and electronic "cox-box" systems. The boats remain traditional in hull-shape and undifferentiated from one another, in order to avoid unfair advantages between the crews.
Another recent change has been the relinquishing of the Eliot coaching launch--a boat owned by Eliot House that could travel along side it crew.
The Eliot launch was the last and often troublesome vestige of an era when every house had its own coach and launch. For lack of funding, not every house could sustain the expense of keeping a launch.
Now all the crews are coached the old-fashioned way: from the coxswain's seat or a bicycle pedalled along the shore.
Rumor has it that Eliot, which usually dominates the May races, will be given a serious challenge this year by Leverett and Dunster.
But only the and of the season will really tell which crew is on top.
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