Rowing and the Social Network

I thought The Social Network was a great movie. I loved it and thought the casting, acting, writing and directing were superb. I especially thought the movie nailed the sport of rowing — as personified by the Winklevoss brothers, the 2008 Beijing Olympic oarsmen who thought they had hired Mark Zuckerberg to code their concept for a social network, only to sue him for going off on his own with their idea to launch Facebook.

I’d seen the Winklevoss’ row under assumed names at the C.R.A.S.H.-B sprints, the world indoor rowing championship, when they were still undergraduates at Harvard — probably 20o3-2005.  College rowers entered the competition under bogus names and club affiliations I think because of some NCAA/Ivy League rules against formal team competition. Whatever. They are big names in contemporary rowing, mainly because of their Olympic participation and Harvard’s position in the rowing world.

Row2K is running a great series by Dan Boyne, author and director of recreational sculling at Harvard’s Weld Boathouse. He staged the rowing scenes for the film and has a good insiders account of how he tried to make the point that the average elite rower cannot deliver a witty line penned by Aaron Sorkin while rowing full power in a race, let alone a word as they struggle to get their next gasp of oxygen.  The initial scene depicting a race in pairs (two-man shells which the Winklevii competed in at Shunyi, during the 2008 Olympic Games) is well rowed, but again, you can’t talk in a boat. Not while racing.

The Henley scene where the twins row in the Harvard eight and lose to the Dutch is very well done.

Rowing has a long history of appearing and being massacred in the movies. From the title sequence of the old George Peppard detective series Banachek, to some bizarre depictions such as Rob Lowe proving that you can perform boat repairs in the middle of a race and still win or various green screen weirdness that shows some hapless actor trying to ape a motion that takes years to perfect.

Two good lists of rowing and film are Rabbit’s Rowing in Film and Row2K’s feature.

My favorite rowing/film story was told to me by people who will go unnamed who rowed at the University of Washington in the late 197os. A director arrived seeking to film an after-school special about a rower who falls in love with his handicapped coxswain.  The director wanted to capture “the true essence” of the sport, and hired my two friends to help stage the rowing scenes, including any post-race festivities they might traditionally indulge in. My friend suggested that a local Seattle tavern be rented — a total dive — and convinced the director to film the “EMFBO” cheer — Every Man For Better Oarsmanship — when indeed the acronym stood for two utterly obscene phrases which I will not repeat here.

The director liked the noble sound of EMFBO and had big banners made to hang around the tavern. I cannot find the title of the film, but take it on good faith that it exists, somewhere.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

3 thoughts on “Rowing and the Social Network”

  1. The Henley scene was filmed during this year’s regatta during the lunch break. We had just arrived (and hadn’t read the booklet yet) and were very surprised to see a seemingly identical race (with exactly the same distance between the crews) passing the grandstand twice😉 – at a time when there wasn’t supposed to be any racing.

    They repeated it a few more times during the weekend. Anxious to see how it looks in the final movie.


  2. Dan Boyne lives on our street and is a friend of Peter’s. In addition to coaching and advising filmmakers, he has published a couple of books on rowing history. A few years ago he wrote “The Red Rose Crew” about the triumphant women’s national team in the mid-1970s. More recently he wrote “Kelly: A Father, A Son, An American Quest” about Olympic rowers Jack Kelly, senior and junior (Grace’s father & brother).


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