Strong winds from the southeast colliding with the Housatonic's northwest to southeast current, plus temperatures in the low 40's, combined to create conditions that head coach Mike Zimmer, a veteran of more than 20 years on Yale's home course, said were "absolutely the worst I've ever seen here. Nothing even comes close!"
Yet poor conditions are a trademark of spring rowing in the northeast. "It's part of the sport," Zimmer noted. "It's how you handle it … today, Yale and Penn handled it, Columbia didn't."
The Blackwell Cup series has been dominated by Yale since its inception in 1927. Columbia broke through to capture the cup in 2008 and 2009, only to lose last year's race to the Bulldogs by a scant four-seat margin. The Lions were intent on getting it back in 2011.
It became apparent early that this might not be the year. Although starting "last" in the staggered start, Yale quickly moved to the lead. Penn also began well, but Columbia was able to hold the Quakers off, and gained a slight lead.
Fighting through wind-whipped spray, whitecap-flecked waters, and actual waves — "Very quickly, it became apparent we could not handle the water well," Zimmer said — the Lions nevertheless were able to hold off Penn for the first 1000 meters, halfway through the course.
At that juncture, though, "we reached a point where we couldn't keep the boat going," as the coach recalled. Yale and Penn did a much better job of handling the conditions, moving steadily away from the Lions. Yale won the race in 6:22.9, with Penn second in 6:35.4 and Columbia trailing in 6:47.3.
The second varsity race, Zimmer said, "was similar but worse." Seemingly struggling with the conditions more than their opponents, the Lions took on so much water, "they were basically swamped by 750 meters," he said. "I was afraid they could not finish the race."
Columbia finished, but "the boat was awash at the end. We had to pull the kids out, and empty the boat before we could get it out."
The freshman race was not held, after a Penn shell swamped in the lightweight freshman race, and officials called the regatta off.
Following the races, the coach was cold, wet, and highly disappointed. His rowers, he was convinced, should have handled the conditions better. Much better.
"This was not representative of what we can do," he said. "No one is able to practice regularly in conditions like these, but have to handle them. You control your blades well, you watch your blade heights. You don't panic, and you brace yourself for a long, hard race. You keep your composure."
The Lions, clearly displeased with their performance on the Housatonic, may have a chance to redeem themselves as early as next Saturday when they row Syracuse and Boston University on the Orangemen's infamous Onondaga Lake course. The giant lake is known for the volatile wind conditions that often arise there, including wind-tossed whitecaps and waves. In fact, the men's rowing national championship, the I.R.A. Regatta, was moved from Onondaga due to its quickly-changing weather.
"We may have another day of challenging conditions," Zimmer noted. "But challenging conditions are part of the sport. How do crews deal with them? How do they respond?"
There will be two cups at stake when the Lions meet the Terriers and Orangemen — the Doc Lusins Trophy for the victor between Columbia and B.U., and the Conlan Cup for the winner of the B.U.-Syracuse confrontation.
The Blackwell Cup (heavyweights)
Columbia, Yale, Penn
April 16, 2011
Housatonic River, Derby, Conn.
1. Yale, 6:22.9
2. Penn, 6:35.4
3. Columbia, 6:47.3
Second Varsity Eights
1. Yale, 6:41.0
2. Penn, 7:16.1
3. Columbia, 7:56.1
Today's Boatings vs. Penn, Yale:
Janelle Geddes, cox; Mike Donohue, stroke; Sebastian Kirwan, 7; Ian Winthrop, 6; Sam Collins, 5; Greg Hawxhurst, 4; Noah Whitehead, 3; Charles Wu, 2; Mike Rawlings, bow
Second Varsity Eight
Andrew Lake, cox; Ryan Jones, stroke; Matt Celano, 7; Phillip Fletcher, 6; Kyle Schmidt, 5; Tom Olivera, 4; Erik Schiferle, 3; Alexander Simmonds, 2; Christopher Austin, bow
Seungki Lee, cox; Clemens Auersperg, stroke; Matt Lonski, 7; Connor Jones, 6; Ben Coombs, 5; Daniel Kolbe, 4; John Clapp, 3; Nick Sinchak, 2; Brent Laurint, bow