The Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club

You can’t buy it (which is a shame), but the Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club has been published. My copy arrived yesterday via the mail. This is a project I was honored to help draft in the late 1980s when I was fresh from publishing The Book of Rowing with Overlook Press and had just joined Boston’s Union Boat Club, the oldest rowing club in a city known for its rowing.

David Thorndike, Charlie Clapp, Cap Kane and countless UBC members contributed to the effort which took a herculean effort over a decade and half to be born. I wrote the first draft of the manuscript, picking through the club’s archives, interviewing the most venerable members, and identifying the big gaps in the historical record which needed to be filled in before the project was ready for the printer. I confess to fading out of the picture for a while, but the project was revived and finally pushed over the deadline this past year, emerging as a gorgeous “coffee table” book printed privately for the membership.

Which is a shame, as I’d stack this tome against any book in the rowing history pantheon. The photography is gorgeous, the historical archive priceless.

The project was pushed by David Thorndike in the 80s as the 150th anniversary of the club approached and its first history, published at the turn of the previous century was in desperate need of an update. The club has a unique place in the history of American rowing, coming as it did in antebellum Boston at a time when Harvard and Yale were only just beginning their rivalry on the water, now the oldest intercollegiate competition in the country. The early logs are a humorous and plucky look at sporting life before spinning classes, Crossfit and paleo diets. When men obsessed more about their uniforms than actual exercise, when rowing consisted of leisurely rows up and down the tidal Charles River and through the islands of Boston Harbor, never really racing, just touring around in the novel pursuit of leisure time.

The role of the UBC in the history of American and international rowing is deep and storied. Basically emerging as an alumni club for Harvard rowers, it sent championship crews to the Henley Royal Regatta, counted nearly a dozen Olympians among its alumni, and sits, socially, at the center of Brahmin Boston, its clubhouse standing at the foot of Beacon Hill near the Hatch concert Shell. A tour of the boathouse and clubhouse is a trip back in time to the 19th century, the walls and floors permeated with the sweat of generations after generations of politicians, lawyers, bankers, surgeons and eccentric characters from another era. The club has seen its share of challenges. The state dammed up the Charles and filled in the Embankment cutting it off from the river. The club went coed in the late 80s after years of being a men’s club. Rowing faded in popularity in the 60s and 70s as the sport went into a general decline, but today the place flourishes, alongside the sport, anchoring down the competitive rowing scene on the Charles, sending crews up river to do their best.

Erg Playlists — 2013 edition from Row2K

I’ve written before about the necessity of a good playlist to make it through a winter’s worth of erg rowing. Now that I am training for the CRASH-B sprints (Feb. 17 in Boston, registration now open until Jan 7), I back to messing around with playlists on my android phone.

Row2k — the best source of all rowing news online — has a feature on erg playlists and a poll to vote for your favorite (I voted for Rammstein’s Du Hast as it is prominent on my go-to list and is utterly teutonic sturm und drang). I also respect the Rage Against the Machine on Row2k’s list, but have to puke on Jackson Brown. Now to go compile this sucker off of Amazon and load it up for my next bout with the Wheel of Pain.

If you row and you read Row2k you owe them a contribution. Send them $60 and get an awesome t-shirt. No site matches the depth of their coverage, the completeness of their calendar, the awesomeness of the features, the relevance of their news and the usefulness of their classifieds.

Head of the Chuck

Saturday morning I’ll be rowing in the 47th Annual Head of the Charles Regatta in the Senior Master Eights as a ringer for the Northern Virginia Rowing Association. I’m in decent shape, so none of the usual pre-race terror of a myocardial infarction apply. I just need to survive 5,000 meters up the best river rowing course in the world (I’m biased) in the world’s biggest two-day rowing regatta in front of a crowd of 300,000 spectators.

I think I rowed in the HOCR for the first time in the early 1970s, when it was a one-day affair, in a Brooks School four assembled on the fly by my coach, David Swift. Since then I’ve rowed it about two dozen times — mostly in fours and eights, prep school boats, college boats, alumni boats, and once solo in the senior master singles. This is the high point of the fall rowing season for me — the Green Mountain Head was cancelled due to river conditions in Putney, VT. I put in a mediocre performance in Mystic at the Coastweeks Regatta in September. Missed the New Bedford Regatta because I boneheadedly forgot the rolling seat for my single …. but now, on the penultimate weekend of October, will wind up the on-the-water season with one big row.

From Rowing News

Come Monday gears get shifted to prepare for the indoor rowing season. A new erg is on its way to my New York City office, I’m down to fighting weight, now it’s just a matter of meters and suffering.

Countdown to Agony

In 48 hours, at 9:40 a.m., I’ll be sitting on ergometer #19 on the floor of Boston University’s Agganis Arena, staring at a small square LCD screen flashing the words: “Sit Ready” “Attention” “ROW.”  While I dread it, I have to ask: how awesome is it to participate in the world championships of anything? Even if it is the world championships of indoor rowing? Sunday is the 30th anniversary of the event, which started in Harvard’s Newell Boathouse in the grim winter following the cancellation of the 1980 Olympics (thanks to Jimmy Carter’s Cold War displeasure with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan).  What was a humorous way to kill the tedium of winter training among a few elite Cambridge rowers has now turned into a major affair involving a couple thousand competitors and 10,000 spectators.

Then I’ll be off and puffing for the next six and a half minutes until I pull the handle about 200 times and manage to spin the flywheel at a rate faster than the other 80 or so heavyweight men in their early 50s sitting on identical machines next to me. The results won’t be pretty. The experience will definitely be ugly, and those six-and-a-half interminable minutes will likely be the worst six-and-a-half minutes I experience in 2011.

Or they may be the  best. In the end ergometer racing proves the cliche of the man who hits his head against a wall because it feels so good when he stops.

I’m tapering now with one light,  last row today on the deck in the springlike sunshine, a pyramid of ten, twenty, and thirty strokes at my race pace, then a rare day off tomorrow before Sunday’s moment of truth.  Hydrating, carbohydrate loading, stretching, fretting over my warm-up and race plan, always anxious about whether to set a pace and goal that is within or hopelessly out of reach. Whatever happens, the event provides the venue and the inspiration to dig a little deeper and try a little harder than I would alone, in the shadows of my garage, racing myself against the clock.

Here’s a virtual replay of the finals in my event last year (I didn’t participate).


On the water for a scull around Grand Island — taking advantage of still winds, calm waters, and decent temperatures (28 f). So I launched in barefeet, taking note of the slushy water in the shallows, climbed aboard, and started sculling, staying a short distance from the beach in the event of an unplanned capsizing.


Ran into a pancake of ice the size of a basketball court, slid through it, thinking “the hull on this boat is 1/16″ of carbon fiber”, then broke through and continued on my way.

Last row of 2008? Few days to go, we shall see.

Fall regattas

Hope springs eternal and so I filed my application to scull in this fall’s Head of the Charles Regatta. Having turned 50 in May, this would be my first year in the elder statesman category of Grand Master, but first i need to have my application accepted as it is a tough ticket to get into the Head unless one competes and finishes within 5% of the winning sculler’s time. My last time racing the HOCR was in 2003 — my first time as a sculler — and I performed horribly, coming in third from last with a terrible time and twenty seconds in penalties. The low light of that October morning was hitting the Weeks Footbridge in front of the Harvard Business School and being urged to capsize by drunken frat boys there for the WASP equivalent of NASCAR crashes.

Thats the bridge I am about to hit in the background ...
That's the bridge I am about to hit in the background ...

Whatever, I rowed my first Head of the Charles in the early 70s when I was rowing in prep school, kept doing it through college, and a couple of other times in my college alumni boat. I’ve done the Head when no one but a couple hundred rowers were participating, and I’ve done it as a parent watching my daughter row it for my alma mater.

But, application acceptance or not, I did file my forms for the Green Mountain Head, which according to my good friend Charlie Clapp (silver medal, US Men’s 8, 1984), is the best of the fall regattas because it is so darn pretty, has no spectators, and the prizes are a bag of apples, a block of Vermont cheddar, or a jug of maple syrup. I’ve rowed only one GMH and thought it a most wonderful experience.

So — all this time in the garage gym working off the excess poundage now has an immediate goal. Don’t hit the Week’s Footbridge and try to do better than 2003.