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Original Issue


Much is made of the ecstasy and agony of rowing, the hopeful start in a swirl of spray, the powerful beat to an ancient rhythm, a fragile shell being driven by almost a ton of men, the exhilaration and the exhaustion at the end. But too little is said of rowing's less obtrusive ingredients: the controlled grace of a single sculler as he rations his strength to 2,000 meters; the beads of water on a freshly hauled shell; the thwack of oars and the roll of seats; the smell of sun-warmed varnish on a day in April; the pungency of a dim boathouse; the deceptively effortless stride of a four with coxswain going home late on an autumn afternoon. Here and on the next pages Photographer James Drake records the scene that has fascinated him since his boyhood in Philadelphia where his family took him on drives along the Schuylkill and, he recalls, there always seemed to be a race.

Power! A triumphant oarsman flexes his biceps. Precision: a crewman pauses at the end of his backswing. Persuasion: an intent coxswain directs a four home from a trial.

"Ready all, row!" the starter calls across to the crews, and Penn's powerful oarsmen dig away from the stake boat in a frenzy of spray and partly missed strokes. But soon the boat settles into stride, propelled by rhythmical sweeps that barely ripple the water's surface. The sport is one of coordination, from the delicate launching of the shell under the watchful eye of the coxswain to the careful stacking of the blades daubed in school or club colors and (if his boat has won) to the grand climax: the launching of the little coxswain himself.

Ignominy: in their first IRA race, freshmen from Marist College of Poughkeepsie sink inexorably into the gloomy waters of Onondaga Lake as their undaunted cox barks a final order, "Abandon ship, men, I mean!"