Publish date:

Psych warfare out West

At the sprints on Burnaby Lake, coxswains for Cal and Washington needled their opposing crews until matter and mind finally won over mind

It is a sport of exquisite symmetry—crew racing—and of paradox, decorum and tiny men whose job it is to yap in the faces of huge men. Sometimes, not too often, the little fellows turn on each other. That is what happened in the Western Sprints last week at Vancouver, British Columbia in the finals of the eight-man varsity shells on Burnaby Lake. The two powerhouses, California and Washington, had drawn adjoining lanes and the Huskies started badly. Marco (Meatball) Meniketti, Cal's coxswain, crowed, "That's it, we're gonna break 'em!" His men got the message, but he also meant Washington to hear. Earlier Meniketti had said, "If a race is close, I'll do anything to encourage my crew and discourage the other one."

Halfway through the race, at 1,000 meters, Cal led by two seats, and Meniketti aimed his megaphone to starboard and yelled, "We're two seats up!" and then, "We're three seats up!" At that point the Washington cox found his voice. "They're one seat up," Ted Van Bronkhorst told his men.

Honesty is no virtue halfway through a crew race, and as Washington pulled bow to bow Meniketti saw fit to lie to his troops, "They're not gaining!" As Washington moved steadily ahead, Van Bronkhorst yelled sideward, "We're moving away!" Meniketti reasured his men, "They're not moving away!"

"We're up three seats!" called Van Bronkhorst.

"They're up one seat!" replied Meniketti.

"We're up four seats!" the cry came back, and finally,' 'We're moving away!" And Washington really was. Cal finished third, behind California at Irvine.

Later Ted Van Bronkhorst said, "It's very demoralizing to hear the other guy shout 'We're moving away!'—especially if it's true!"

Cal Coach Steve Gladstone had seen it coming. His crew had won its first heat the day before, but had labored very hard for its 6:27.18 time. Washington had taken a second longer to win its heat, but hadn't worked nearly as hard. "One slight disruption of rhythm against Washington and that'll be it," Gladstone said before the race. But there were no disruptions. Cal's time was a fast 6:06.64, but Washington, five seconds faster, was a bigger crew, and on this day a better one.

Gladstone was glum, but dry. Ted Van Bronkhorst was happy, but he was also climbing out of Burnaby Lake, where, according to tradition, his teammates had flung him, and as he talked psychological warfare he was still dripping. "When you see that other crew looking over, you know they're in trouble."

"Was Cal doing that?" he was asked, and Van Bronkhorst just smiled.

A senior, Van Bronkhorst is a psychology major, which appears to be an appropriate course of study for him, and coxing has turned out to be not a bad choice for an intercollegiate sport. But even at 112 pounds and 5'4" he is not a small coxswain. Meniketti, his debating partner from Cal, is two inches shorter. And Bob Porter, the cox for Irvine, is 4'10" and weighs 84 pounds. That trio was the smallest of the best at the sprints. At the other end of the scale were Van Bronkhorst's teammates—six of the Huskie heavyweight varsity were 6'5" or over, and that did not just happen. As Van Bronkhorst puts it, "A lot of incoming freshmen get letters from our crew department—all the small guys and all the tall guys."

Washington is a very large school, so that is quite a mailing list. At Vancouver, Washington entered crews in 10 events, and took seven firsts and three seconds, a fairly typical performance for a school that has dominated Western crew for most of the past 50 years.

No U.S. university has a stronger crew program than Washington, or a more competitive one. But aside from Cal and UCLA it is the only Western school whose crew program is amply budgeted, with two full-time coaches and full travel and equipment budgets. In the East, though, there are many such crew schools, and have been for decades: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Syracuse, to name a few. And while there is little high school rowing in the West, the East has always had many prep and high schools with active programs. But the style of rowing now used by almost every major crew in the country originated in the West and came East to displace the older, more classical way of pulling an oar through the water.

In 1907 a Washington football trainer named Hiram Conibear turned to crew and taught his oarsmen to row shorter, quicker strokes. No one had ever rowed this way, and some of his disciples went East to coach—notably Tom Bolles of Harvard. The Washington style spread. About the same time George Pocock began building racing shells in Seattle. Boats built by Pocock and his brother Dick dominated racing until European-built shells (and lately domestic fiberglass-hulled boats) began to make inroads. At 83 Pocock is still active in the business, and was guest of honor at the Vancouver regatta.

For Washington's varsity eight, the victory over Cal was especially sweet. Just three weeks earlier, on the Oakland Estuary, Washington had lost to Cal for the first time in nine years. But the Huskies were rowing a borrowed boat, and there were complaints about it. At Vancouver they brought their own, and there were no complaints from anyone.

The water on Burnaby Lake was calm and free from current and there was hardly any wind. The course, only four miles from downtown, was almost too perfect to be believed. Washington Coach Dick Erickson called it "The finest racing course in the Western hemisphere." He said that it was equaled only by Munich's Olympic course and the one at Lucerne in Switzerland.

Burnaby Lake has come a long way. Crews raced on it in the '30s but a falling water level eventually choked it with water lilies and for most of the past 40 years Burnaby was more field than lake. Then in the fall of 1972 it was finally cleared, and served as the crew course for the Canada Summer Games. And this year, with the Western Sprints due to be held in the Northwest, the committee chose Burnaby, the first time the event has been held outside of the U.S.

Lily pads still fringe Burnaby's edges, and the lake resembles nothing more than a dark-water bass pond, a very small one. At its deepest it is only 14 feet; it is not even two miles long, and the open water portion cannot be more than 500 yards wide. But all these are good things. Burnaby is so narrow that last weekend when gusts of wind hit the trees on one side they blew to the other before hitting the water, and the pads smothered any chop that threatened to form. At each end of the 2,000-meter course six sets of pilings had been driven 90 feet into the muddy bottom, with cables running the length of the course connecting them underwater. All the buoys marking the lanes are on vertical lines attached to the cables. In this setup there are no horizontal lines at the surface for oars or boats to tangle with.

On the starting line at Burnaby Lake six aluminum structures rise three feet above the water, each supporting what looks like a diving board. A small boy lies on each board and holds onto the stern of the shell. Above him in an official's tower someone asks through loudspeakers, "Êtes vous prêt? Partez!" in the international racing language.

The boys' hands loosen, the starter's flag comes down and the shells are away. They move westward, toward the mountains of the Coastal Range, ten thousand feet high, snow-capped even in May. The mountains are 30 miles distant, but they all but hover over the lake's far shore.

It is an incongruous juxtaposition, the shells against the mountains. Ivy-covered bricks would seem more fitting. At the lake's far end, waiting, 1,500 people are on their feet in a grandstand built just for spectators at crew races. They stare down the lake at the boats, which at that angle seem hardly to be moving. The oars lift ever so slowly. The shells look like great torpid water bugs now. But as they move up the lake, they seem to pick up speed. Clack clack, go the coxswains' blocks against the gunwales. And the crowd begins to cheer.

Ted Van Bronkhorst is yelling, "We're starting to move! We're starting to move!" But Marco Meniketti is yelling, too, "They're not moving, they're not moving." Only one of them can be telling the truth. And last week it was Washington.