The Beginning of the MRA
By Dr. Howard Levenson, Founding Member
As the person who had the original idea to bring recreational and competitive rowing to Marin, and a founding member of the Marin Rowing Association, I am happy to continue my association with the MRA.
I originally approached Bob Cumming after seeing an article in the Marin IJ about his coaching the Dominican College (now University) Women’s Crew at Lake Merritt in Oakland. He was a patient of mine, and I had no idea that he was an oarsman (sculler). After talking to him about my experience at Cal, I suggested I go over to Berkeley and talk to the Crew Coach to see if I could get a list of alumni oarsman living in Marin County. The file had many names, and I sent out postcards inviting them to meet to discuss the possibility of rowing on weekends. Bob offered to be the coach. Cal offered to lend us two 8+ oared shells with oars.
The first meeting had over 60 attendees from varies universities including: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and of course Cal. They were all very interested in rowing again. Bob made arrangements to use an old unused storage shed at McNears Brick Yard Landing which is now the McNears Park in San Rafael.
Finding the open water of San Pablo Bay difficult, Bob eventually found a place on the Corte Madera Creek on the east side of the railroad bridge crossing where the water was more friendly for rowers. He got the old telephone poles delivered, and a crew of oarsman set the pier pilings by hand, and built the docks and shed to store the shells.
Eventually, we started to think about how to get the youth involved, and Redwood High was approached. Originally, I had thought San Rafael High School and the San Rafael canal would be a good place for rowing, but the school wasn’t interested, and the canal had too much boat traffic for rowing crews to navigate safely. Bob was the point man, and did most of the negotiating and all the coaching. He was a one-man show, doing whatever it took to make sure rowing was an integral part of Marin sports.
There are very few people that know the beginning history of the MRA. It hasn’t been recorded as far as I know. I no longer row, but the spirit to enjoy seeing others enjoy the sport is wonderful. Thanks for helping to make rowing such an important sport for Marin County and the Country.
The Early Years of Redwood Crew
by Bill Duff, JV Lightweights 1971, Varsity Lightweights 1972-3
Although we called him RC among ourselves, as far as I remember there was only one kid, Eric Gray, who called him RC to his face. The rest of us called him Mr. Cumming.
Mr. Cumming was of another era. He may have lived in Marin in 1970 but his mannerisms, his neatly-center-parted hair, his herky-jerky body movements and Scottish colloquialisms harkened back to the pip-pip, cheere-o England of WWII. RC was an anachronism – from an era when a sport like crew was part of the training that turned boys into gentlemen. No matter how shabby our quonset hut garage was, no matter how rag-tag and hippyish we were, no matter how badly the slough stank, in his expectations we carried on a grand tradition in a beautiful boathouse on the shores of a Scottish loch. Mr. Cumming’s greatest strength is that he treated us all and treated the sport as if we were all rowing on that loch.
Our Relationship with Redwood
Whether Mr. Cumming realized it or not, his viewpoint on sports flew in the face of the American sports ideal that existed in the 1970s. It’s hard, today, to imagine high school sports as a battlefront for cultural wars but that’s exactly what was happening in schools like Redwood. The Vietnam War was raging and the country was divided on so many fronts. Sports was viewed by many coaches as a surrogate for military discipline. At Redwood, in the 70s, coaches enforced a buzz-cut regimentation on their teams. Football and baseball were viewed as the core of American strength, and athletes in “other” sports were assumed to be different, undisciplined and lesser athletes than those in the mainstream American sports. Crew was only one of the sports that was viewed as odd, hippyish and undisciplined; some of the other sports that fit into this category were such currently accepted sports as cross-country running, cycling and soccer.
It wasn’t difficult to see the divide. There were the long-haired sports and the short-haired sports. The crew team fell on the side of (mostly) long haired boys who were anti-authoritarian or radicals or guys who followed their own star. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that we were just a bunch of hippies, though. I wasn’t a hippie and there were plenty of other guys on the crew who would have fit into a football or baseball team of the time. But they chose not to. Some of them even left those other sports to follow the muse of crew.
That, especially, pissed off the Redwood coaches. Not only did they not understand why crew qualified as a sport, they were especially incredulous of the allure of the sport – it was incomprehensible to them that fine linebackers or pitchers could ignore their “true” calling in order to waste their time paddling a skinny little boat.
Of course, in addition to the guys who would have made great football players there were also guys, like me, who were rabble-rousers looking for a good sport to play. In the opinions of teachers like Al Endriss and Bob Tropman, we were guys who didn’t belong on a Redwood team… or on ANY team, for that matter. It was irksome to them that we could find any excuse to call ourselves athletes.
Mr. Cumming was right in the middle of this cultural warfare, a human shield protecting a bunch of ne’er do wells against the Pantheon of Vince Lombardi. Mutual disrespect oozed between the crew team and the Redwood sports establishment. And for this reason, Mr. Cumming had to constantly badger the school district to recognize crew as a “legitimate” sport, for should Redwood do this, it would mean that rowers would get PE credit for their training and be eligible for Varsity letters.
Redwood athletics resisted – they piled reason upon reason why we were less than qualified to be a school sport: we were a club, not a school team (although 100% of the rowers came from Redwood). We did not follow prescribed practices for a “school sport”. Our “coach” was not a “teacher”.
For our part, we wanted the recognition but many of us held the Redwood sports establishment in complete contempt. We flaunted our anti-establishment views, were cheeky with PE teachers, joked about the regimentation of other sports and, more annoying to Redwood coaches than anything else we could possibly have done…
And, after we’d won a few races in a row, we realized we were on to something we could be proud of. Even for the Redwood coaches who were not fond of us, it was hard to ignore the merit of 4 teams who were racking-up nearly undefeated records.
In the end, the head of Redwood Athletics, Al Endriss did come around. He recognized us as athletes and complimented our achievements. He and Mr. Cumming never did patch things up, though, and I’m sure RC had good reason to hold the Redwood coach at arm’s length. RC took a lot of abuse for us. And he never lost sight of the team and his vision.
The Big Picture
RC’s vision wasn’t just of building a team; he wanted to build a league that extended up and down the west coast. He was constantly reaching out to other high school teams and setting up regattas. His first was the Thanksgiving Day Regatta, a friendly pre-season race, Thanksgiving Day, on Corte Madera Creek. RC’s idea was: you put the Turkey in the oven, head down to the regatta, watch a few races and be back in time to baste. We usually raced another school, but if they didn’t bring a full 4 teams, we’d race against ourselves.
In the spring and summer, Mr. Cumming was always trying to pit us against the perceived best crew on the west coast. I remember racing Shaunessey Lake (on the slough) and Corvallis (up at their lake). Nowadays, as I walk around CJs, past crew after crew from all over the western states, I think how much
Mr. Cumming would have loved to see it. That was RC’s vision.
I was first introduced to crew at a lunchtime presentation in the Redwood High School Little Theater. Mr. Cumming gave a very formal presentation and showed a home movie about rowing. A few of us sat in the audience giggling “did you get a load of that crazy little old man?!” Then we joined up. It was weird. Who knows why we came down to the boathouse to try out? Heck, who knows why, when we saw the weather-beaten quonset hut, we didn’t turn tail and run away?
Mr. Cumming was a relentless promoter in the community. He had built a board (who none of us knew) and seemed to be constantly aligning the club with whatever group could lend any support – some of this jockeying is what created barriers to us becoming a school sport. When I joined, we were officially a chapter of the Sea Scouts, an arm of the Boy Scouts. We didn’t follow any Boy Scout regulations and never once mentioned the organization at the boathouse; RC made the connection just to get the rowers the insurance we needed to participate.
I think the Sea Scout connection is where Mr. Ruby became involved. He was with us for all three years that I rowed – a nice man who was dedicated to the team, and good with us rowdy boys, but totally inexperienced (and I assume uninterested) in rowing, himself. He was no taller than RC, had a brush moustache and was a little round around the waist. Mr. Ruby usually dressed in dark slacks, a windbreaker, dark horned rim glasses and topped-off his wardrobe with a pork pie hat – hardly the attire one would need around any boat. The two of the them, together, made quite a sight – like a pair of bowling pins.
When you’re a kid you don’t pay much attention to the way the adult world works. You just assume things get done. But looking back on the way Mr. Ruby circled around the happenings of the boathouse, it seems clear that he was RC’s go-to guy. Mr. Cumming was the energetic one, the guy out-front, the leader of the team and the face to the community. Mr. Ruby was the guy who watched the business side and kept the lights on. And even though he didn’t row, he was at the boathouse 2-3 times a week and in the launch with RC.
We started out by rowing wherries. I don’t know what wherry means, but wherries are the tugboats of crew. They’re a cross between a canoe and shell. A plastic, open-hulled thing with a sliding seat and oar locks. You could run them into a rock (and we did) at full speed and they wouldn’t sink.
In those days we scraped by with boats we could salvage from other clubs. We had two 4-man boats when I first started, and they were both classics. There was the George Blair, the flagship of our fleet, a boat that raced in the Olympics (in the 50s, I think). In such a classic commentary on our meager existence at that time, the Blair had raced in the Olympics as an 8-man and somewhere afterward lost structural integrity. It came to us, having had the middle 4 cut out and patched back together, bow pair to stern pair, to make a passable (though rock-heavy) four. Nonetheless, the sight of the Olympic rings on the bow was one of my early inspirations – walk in the footsteps of giants and all that…
The Vernon Shoal was less storied. I think it came from the South End Rowing Club and was a narrow, light four made of a dark wood. Because it was the lighter of the two, it became the lightweight boat. With its lightness (and age) also came structural instability. Rowing it was an interesting challenge. It used to twist like a helix when you rowed, bow and stern each leaning to opposite directions on the same stroke. I think the flip flopping forced us to hone our technique – it was the only way to get the boat to set-up.
One day, the Vernon Shoal lost it and sank, rowers on board. They were right near the dock when it happened. What happened no one knew, but it think it just splintered all along the hull. It only took seconds for the boat to fill with water. Everyone bailed-out and pushed it back to the dock. There was no saving it. Fortunately, we had a third four by then, the Charlie Brown (not named after the Peanuts comic character). The Charlie Brown was big, and almost as heavy as the George Blair. I think it sank, too.
Wooden boats are fragile. A misstep would send you right through the hull. Of course, you didn’t have to go all the way through to sink a boat – just enough to create parallel hairline fractures. Most of the boats we raced in, back then, were hand-me-downs and each boat carried scars that told its story. They’d usually been abused in some way and patched. And that’s why we got them: they were usually no good by then.
Every year, we had to pull at least one of the boats out and refinish it. That was usually a summer project. Everyone took turns sanding and varnishing. If you were on the crew team you were also responsible for maintaining the boats and the boathouse (maybe that’s why our boats sank and the boathouse was a shambles). One summer, Mr. Cumming refinished his shell. He worked carefully on the hull and a bunch of us watched him cut and stretch the parchment (I think that’s what it was) over the top of the shell, fore and aft. The final step (which we got to do) was to paint the parchment with a couple coats of shellac.
I guess a lot has been recalled about the old boathouse. It makes for a perfect “humble beginnings” story. At the time, the whole area – everything east of Hwy 101 – was industrial. The railroad ran across the trestle behind the boathouse. Across the street was an abandoned rock quarry – with the wonderful, camel-backed Hutchinson building in the center. That quarry is the site Clint Eastwood chose for the climactic scene in Dirty Harry. I remember us all trying to get in the movie. The buildings that housed the boathouse were probably old quarry shops. Down our gravel driveway was a welder and machine shop, piles of scrap iron and a big barn-like shed filled with scrap. The ferry terminal hadn’t been built yet and the whole area was pretty rough-hewn.
The boathouse was a garage in a corrugated-metal building. There wasn’t much to it. It was single-walled construction on a concrete pad. We put hooks into the exposed wall studs to hang up our clothes. Next to the roll-up garage door was the log book. Every team, every rower had to sign out and in. Next to it was a can of Crisco that we used to lubricate the collar of the oars.
In the back of the building, through a plywood door, was “the Pissoir,” an open-air platform enclosed by a 4-foot high wall with a removed slat to pee out of and a shower head. You just peed into the marsh and, sometimes when a locomotive would come by on the drawbridge, you’d pee and wave at the engineer.
The Boathouse Characters
Next to the boathouse, in a beat-up, sun-bleached trailer, lived an old alcoholic named Roy. He was an archetypical wino of a kind that you only see in movies and comics from the 50s. It’s not like we had much interaction with him but he was nice to us exuberant boys most of the time. We’d be pulling the boats in after a Saturday morning practice, the trailer door would open and he’d come out wearing a ragged shirt and slacks that smelled of B-O and cigarettes. He was one step away from sleeping in an alley and was lucky he had found this place, in the lee of our boathouse, to hide. He usually looked like the sun was beating on him pretty hard. He’d sit on the steps outside his trailer door, smoke a cigarette and watch us wash off the boats. He didn’t say much to us – when he did it was bum talk. Simple, obvious stuff – sun’s sure bright, train came by yesterday – that sort of talk. We’d go over and talk bum talk to him, too.
He had a great mangy yellow-haired mutt of a dog named Butch. Somewhere in Butch there was German Shepherd. He was a friendly, simple-minded dog with a laser-like focus. Butch was a rock dog. Throw a rock anywhere, into any pile of rusted junk, into the gooey mud, off the dock into the water and he’d go get it. If the rock was under something – like a car or scrap metal – he’d stare at the spot, using his doggy will power as if it could remove the obstacle. After three or four minutes, Butch would finally lose interest. That’s when he’d go get another rock and bring it to you. He’d lay it at your feet in a wet drooly pile and stare at it – never flinching, never averting his attention. If you didn’t throw it or kick it within seconds, Butch would jump on your foot. If you delayed another couple of seconds, he’d jump on your foot again. And so on, until you relented. Every boathouse conversation had a meter to it as we paused to kick or throw the rock for Butch. Butch was as much a part of the boathouse as the boats in it. He couldn’t help but become our mascot.
The old wino was gone, one day after the holidays. He used to get in drunken, pissy moods every once in awhile. Sometimes he’d yell at us. One time I think he threatened one of the rowers, Eric Gray, and I think RC just threw him out.
Almost as soon as the wino was gone, another homesteader took his place. Denny was an artist and a bohemian. He was a member of the Baha’i religion and didn’t drink or take drugs. He was as far out as you could get, though. As I recall, Butch adopted Denny and vice-versa.
In the 70s, a lot of people were building houseboats on old barges and mooring them around the bay. One day, Denny pushed his houseboat onto the mud next to the boathouse and squeezed it in-between our dock and the railroad drawbridge. He was part of the healthy, bohemian artist community that grew in the industrial park to the north of the Cost Plus shopping center. Denny’s work is known to darn near everyone in Marin. The statue of “Sir Francis Drake” that stands across from Larkspur Landing is his. He built that while he was our neighbor – except that it was originally meant to be a statue of Don Quixote.
Training with RC
I’ve already described the schism between mainstream athletics and the ragtag Redwood Crew Team. There was a schism in the way we trained, too. The mainstream sports were into that gladiator stuff – mental and physical fortitude. The crew team never subscribed to any of it. Not that we were averse to work, but all that Vince Lombardi stuff just wasn’t part of how we learned to be athletes.
You see, Mr. Cumming wasn’t wrapped up in sports ideology. For him, crew was a simple meditation on putting an oar in the water, pulling like hell, finishing cleanly and maintaining a slow slide on the return.
In the beginning, Mr. Cumming taught us an antiquated, shoulder-catch style where you’d catch hard with your shoulders first; then, when your back was upright, ram your legs down and lean a bit backward as you flipped the oar out for the release. That was the way people rowed, beginning in about 1930.
I think one of the real credits to Mr. Cumming as a coach is that, with two years of championship crews behind him, he changed our style and based it on what the Cal Crew Team was doing at the time – a leg and butt catch followed by the shoulders with everything coming together at the end of the stroke.
Everyone learned by sculling. Your first exposure to crew was rowing a wherry at the end of a rope with Mr. Cumming standing on the dock talking you through the stroke. After a week of mucking around between our boathouse and the mouth of Corte Madera Creek, you’d graduate to a four-man.
Our training regimen was simple: you rowed, you listened to Mr. Cumming and you rowed more. There were no ergometers, no weights, no running. You just went to the boathouse and rowed.
Mr. Cumming and Mr. Ruby would follow along in the “launch,” an old aluminum fishing boat that RC salvaged from the dump. It looked like someone had hit it over and over again with a sledgehammer. There were dents all over it.
We rowed three days a week during the school year: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings. Our normal practice took us out to open water, by the guard tower at San Quentin. We’d turn around and go up the creek to the Bon Air bridge, sometimes farther. The creek was pretty well dredged during those years and you could row another hundred yards past the bridge toward College of Marin. Then we’d turn around and row back to the Bon Air Sailing Club (at the little cove just up the creek from today’s boathouse). At that point, we’d either turn back up the creek if we were training for a race or, if not, go through the highway bridges out to San Quentin and back in to the dock.
We were merciless with our coxswains. When it came time to navigate the highway’s concrete bridge piers you could see the adrenalin-induced alertness in the coxswain’s face. Sometimes you’d see fear. It was always tricky going through there, with the tides and currents. If we were tired from the row, we’d weigh enough and the bow pair would pull us through while the stern pair leveled the boat. But when we were feeling rowdy we’d pull through there without breaking our pace with the coxswain steering by the seat of his pants and throwing epithets at the crew. It was our way of terrifying the little guys and it’s a wonder why we never crashed a boat doing this suicide run (we came close). To their credit, by the time we were a seasoned crew our coxswains could take a crew through the bridge pilings at full speed and line up for a sprint under the railroad bridge out to open water. They really were great. Spencer, Emberley, Kimmelman and Kumata. They took so much shit from us. And they dished back, too.
It was such a brotherhood – a family with 20 brothers and all the personality dynamics. First of all, you weren’t part of the family until you’d been tossed into the slough. As a new guy, you knew it was coming. If you’d been to a few practices and had been made part of the team, that’s when you stopped standing too close to the edge of the dock. That’s when you’d be suspect of your teammates when they whispered things as they came down the gangway.
Then it would happen. Three guys would grab a struggling crew mate and give him the heave-ho into Corte Madera Creek. We all knew it wasn’t really “water” that we were landing in. The “water” was merely the thin veneer that covered the muddy, mucky, putrid goo that contained industrial and human waste accumulated since the 1880s. That made the whole ritual even more exciting.
Sometimes it was a full charge of the bulls that put someone in the water (along with half the pushers); other times it was the finesse of a well-timed nudge. Then there were the tribal sacrifices where a couple of teams together would grab a rower in the boathouse and carry him, writhing and kicking like a bronco, down the gangway and onto the dock. The tribal sacrifices usually culminated with a three swing warm-up prior to the release. READY…. SET…. GO! and the brother would fly off the dock. Coxswains really caught some air.
The major difference between the way our teams were structured versus today was that we didn’t have seat racing. You were put in a team and, for the most part, those were the guys you rowed with all season. With a few exceptions, I rowed in a boat with the same guys for three years.
I don’t remember everybody on the first crews. When I joined in 1971, I believe the Varsity lightweight crew was: Woody Buckner, Steve Barbour, Jon Broderick, Max Agajan. John Vallee and Pete Horton were also part of the team, but I don’t remember whether they were lightweights or heavyweights.
1972 Varsity Lightweight Crew ; Kimmelman (cox), Norstad, Duff, Hanzel, Gray.
I’m also not sure about the original Varsity heavyweights. The Varsity heavyweights I remember were: Tom Tierney, Eric Hayman, Mick Richcreek, Jim Phelps.
1972 Varsity Heavyweights: Bill Duff, Emberley (cox), Tierney, Hayman, Richcreek, Phelps, John Degenhardt, Max Agajan, Eric Gray.
Eric Norstad stroked the lightweights starting in 1972, when the JVs moved-up to Varsity.
The original heavyweight Junior Varsity was: Phil Blakeley, Peter Schmid, Andre Benier, Walter Kopp.
Our coxswains were: Bill Emberley, John Spencer, David Kimmelman, Dennis Kumata.
There were other rowers who rotated in and out of the crews. Jim Carbone was one of the regulars in the early days and became part of the second generation of junior varsity lightweights, along with Brennan Agajan.
Every fall, Mr. Cumming would recruit at Redwood and he’d get about 10 guys to try-out. Redwood must’ve had 800 boys in the school, back then, yet we could only get 10 – maybe 15 – guys to try-out. It didn’t matter to us rowers; more guys on the team would just crowd-up the boathouse. We didn’t have enough boats to handle a larger team, anyway.
We were a tight-knit group, on and off the water. The first crews came together because friends brought their friends. Buckner and Barbour and Horton all palled-around. Hanzel, Norstad, Schmid, Carbone and I had our group too. I can’t help but feel that, as important as our win record was, one of the things that got crew noticed at Redwood was the friendship and camaraderie we displayed.
Twice a week, a caravan of odd-ball cars would roll out of the Redwood front parking lot, headed for practice. Hanzel had an old VW Bus, John Spencer had a Morris Minor and I had a big, beater Suburban salvaged from a construction crew. Those three cars ferried the entire crew team everywhere.
We formed an axis of mischief and partying, anchored by David Hanzel’s house and the boathouse. David’s mom, Lola, was our unofficial team mom. She and her ACLU women’s club tie-dyed our first racing shirts. Each shirt had our seat number batiked on the back – it was the 70s in what was then referred to as “mellow Marin”. David’s house became our club house. If we weren’t rowing, the Hanzel house was where you’d find us.
Back then, there was no “parent involvement” in their children’s activities. Our parents might come down to the boathouse a couple times a year. Same thing with races – a smattering of parents, that’s all. I don’t think it was disinterest, on their part – the parents were big supporters of the team – it just wasn’t part of their world. That gave us freedom to make the crew team “our world”. And so we had our parent-free hangouts at the boathouse and the Hanzel’s and started inviting our friends to come enjoy the fun – like kids in the tree fort playing Pirate.
We all had keys to the garage door lock on the boathouse and that meant that not all excursions in a boat were authorized practices. Girlfriends coxswained. There were sunny afternoon rows over to Loch Lomond in a four, nighttime excursions and, when Corte Madera Creek would flood in the winter, we’d take wherries for a row on Hwy. 101. There was usually some prohibited libation passed around for these adventures.
Mr. Cumming had to have known the mischief we’d make when he wasn’t around because he saw what we did when he was around. He wasn’t negligent, though. He trusted us to do the right thing. And we did. It was a different time. People didn’t sue. Kids were encouraged to have adventures.
When I think of the way Mr. Cumming indulged us, I think it was maybe an extension of what he experienced as a young man. Countless books and films have described the English teen sport experience (whether running or soccer or quiddich), where a good game was followed-up by a good beer (or butter beer – ha!). This was another part of the “grand tradition” of rowing and I don’t think it seemed risky or irresponsible to RC. To be honest, most of our parents knew what was happening and didn’t object either.
As we won more races, we became more self-confident, we rowed harder and we started throwing wonderful parties that got a reputation at school as the “crew jock” parties. “Crew jocks are the best jocks” we used to say. Our girlfriends and buddies would come to the races on the slough. The whole area behind the Bon Air shopping center was an open field. Our school mates drove their cars out to the shore of Corte Madera Creek to watch.
There was a bumpy dirt road that ran along the creek where the bike path is now. You’d be in the boat, coming around the final turn onto the 500 meter straightaway. The coxswain would be yelling at you to take it up for a power ten and banging the knockers of the rudder against the gunwales as loud as he could. Suddenly, you’d hear honking horns and see a car (probably yours because someone stole your keys from the boathouse) laden with screaming kids and weaving because everyone, including the driver, was watching the race and not the road. That juggernaut would pace you along the last sprint to the finish.
Races were nothing like they are today. As compared to the well-organized, refereed gatherings now, with logoed merchandise stands, food tents and first aid centers, our races were more like street racing – a ragtag group would assemble, boats would come out of a dilapidated shed and rivals would face-off. If you had a uniform, your team was an exception. The courses were narrow, so it was usually only two teams racing at a time. And the teams weren’t very big; a regatta was four races, max. End of story
Generally, we raced 1,500 meters in fours. My first race was at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, beside Highway 880. That was a 1,200 meter course – because you ran out of race course at 1,201 meters.
I guess the International Rowing Committee was following Olympic rules; we used to use the French start:
“Etes-vous prêt? Partez.”
You ready? Geddouddaheah. No one spoke French very well, least of all
Mr. Cumming. In his Scottish brogue, the start became “Etes-vous pray? Party!” That suited us much better, anyway.
I don’t remember many specific races. They are a blur of screaming, hoarse coxswains, verbal bravado, Eric Norstad’s back, Hanzel’s jokes, the rhythmic click of the oarlocks and a collapse at the end. I don’t remember all the teams we raced against – just Oakland Tech (whose rowers were the size of football linemen), Salesian, St. Joseph’s and our arch rival (and crew dynasty in those days) Berkeley High School. In our early races, we’d win by no more than a boat length. But Redwood kept improving. Soon, our leads increased – open water, two boat lengths, three boat lengths! We used to launch our coxswains at the end of every winning race. With our win record, our coxswains spent as much time in the water as on it. The only close one, that first season, was beating Berkeley High. The Berkeley High races became blood matches thereafter.
It wasn’t until my second year that Berkeley High School and Redwood threw down the gauntlet for 2,000 meters, in eights, on the Estuary. Everything about that race was bigger than we’d ever experienced before. More water, nicer boats, tulip oars. Berkeley High was after revenge for the upset we’d handed them the year before. The Estuary was their home course (or their home away from home – I forget). They had eight man teams who had rowed in eights. Redwood, on the other hand, practiced on the S-curves of Corte Madera Creek and only dreamed about rowing in an eight. After cleaning every other school’s clock, that season, we knew this, our last race of the year, would be a huge challenge.
We rowed out of the old Ky Ebright boathouse for that race. Rowing out of that storied boathouse was, for me, like playing at the old Yankee Stadium must have been for a baseball player. Everything reeked of history. Silver cups and medals dating back for decades sat in display cases. Pictures of past Cal teams hung on the walls. In one case were cloisonné commemorative pins given to Cal’s 1932 Olympic eight.
We had two practices on the Estuary in the two weeks before the race. We made-up our Varsity eight by putting our Varsity heavyweight four in the power seats and splitting the Varsity lightweight four into the bow and stern pairs. In two practices we had to do more than polish our style, two teams needed to learn to row as one. Our coxswain had to learn to steer a boat with more power, mass and momentum than he’d ever touched before while yelling commands (without a microphone) to rowers another 15 feet farther away than in a four. All of this on the Estuary, with strong winds and bigger chop than we normally saw on our home slough.
Bill Emberley coxswained, Eric Norstad stroked, I was behind him in 7, Tom Tierney was in 6, Eric Hayman 5, Mike Richcreek 4, Jim Phelps 3, David Hanzel 2 and Eric Gray in bow. Richcreek, at 6’1”, was the tallest; half of us were under 155 pounds; our bow man weighed probably 140 pounds. We were up against Berkeley’s heavyweight Varsity eight.
The morning of the race was perfect spring weather – crisp and sunny, without a touch of wind. I don’t remember the other team; I just remember the certainty that this was going to be the toughest race we’d ever rowed.
We had a bad start – either a crab or a missed stroke – and quickly lost about 2/3 of a length. But we recovered quickly and set-up a steady 30 stroke/minute (I think) pace. In those days, a coxswain would call out “hut” every time the stroke’s oar bit into the water and Bill Emberley kept us focused on Norstad’s cadence. We stayed steady with Berkeley, about 2/3 of a length behind, for the first 500 meters. We weren’t closing the gap and I don’t think that was our concern. The boat was calm and we were focused on our style. Then Bill called for a power 20. He hammered the gunwales – bang-bang-bang! He screamed toward the bow. That’s when I first felt the lift and momentum of an eight running at full power. We were catching together and finishing cleanly. When the power 20 was finished, so was Berkeley’s lead.
We were bow ball to bow ball as we approached the 1,000 meter mark. For every power 10 they called, we’d match them. There was no way they were going to walk-away from us on power 10s, but we had no idea what kind of a sprint they’d have left. That was a scary thought.
As we approached the 1,500 meter mark, Bill called for the sprint. We were calm, focused and had strength left. In the strokes preceding the sprint, we picked-up 2 seats. With Bill slamming on the gunwales we got maybe a two-second jump on their sprint. We knew we could do this. We knew how to sprint.
Norstad took it up to a 36-38 stroke per minute pace. We took off. Berkeley tried to keep up with us for about 100 meters, but as the distance to the finish line decreased, it became clear that Redwood had both strength and endurance left. We pulled steadily away from Berkeley and crossed the finish line with about a third of a length of open water between us and Berkeley High.
If there was any race that might be the moment when Redwood changed from upstarts to leaders, that was probably the race. Up to that point, other teams might have called us lucky. Some used to say that we won because the heavy weight of our boats was unfair to visitors and that our twisty home course was rigged. But at this race, in 1972, on the Estuary, we were just so damn competent that people started to look at Redwood differently. By the time the next season started, our competitors looked on us as the team to beat. Even the Redwood Athletic Department acknowledged us as athletes.
For us, none of whom had ever thought about being successful at sports, the time was filled with that joyous delirium of being on top. We were rowdy and undisciplined. We raced in tie-dyed shirts. We hosted a non-stop rowing party. And we were the best damn crew team in the Bay Area. The axis of mischief ruled.