NEW LONDON, Conn. — It has been seven years since Yale’s heavyweight crew has collected a crimson jersey, which coach Steve Gladstone deems long enough. So even though his Bulldogs are having their best season since they last defeated archrival Harvard by a whisker in 2007, Gladstone is making a bold move for Saturday’s 149th 4-mile duel on the Thames River, installing at stroke a former lightweight who hasn’t yet rowed in a varsity race.
“The way I view it, there’s not much risk,” says Gladstone, who’s plugging in sophomore Peter Tortora, who was in the third varsity at last month’s Eastern Sprints, and moving German strongboy Hubert Trzybinski back to the 5-seat. “If we went with the IRA lineup [from last weekend’s national championships] I think Harvard would have a significant advantage.”
Harvard, which has lost the nation’s oldest intercollegiate sporting event only once since 1999 and only three times since 1984, has enjoyed that advantage for more than a half-century, ever since coach Harry Parker, who died shortly after last year’s triumph, took over in 1963.
That doesn’t figure to change Saturday. The Crimson, who retained their Sprint title while the top-seeded Bulldogs came in sixth, have beaten 36 regular-season rivals in a row. “It’s been a season that has been a remarkable run,” says coach Charley Butt, Harvard’s former lightweight mentor who’s making his debut in The Boat Race.
While the Crimson, who won last year’s race by nearly 24 seconds, are favored to close out a fourth consecutive unbeaten dual-race campaign, it won’t be easy. Yale, which also is undefeated in head-to-head competition and which made the IRA final for the first time in eight years, outweighs Harvard by a dozen pounds per man and has two 6-foot-8-inch redwoods in Trzybinski and fellow sophomore David DeVries. “We have a lot of big guys in the boat and a lot of power,” says captain Zach Johnson. “There’s a lot of surge in the boat.”
The Crimson have only one man — 5-man Vincent Breet — who tips the scales at more than 200 pounds but they’re tenacious racers with terrific technique. “Harvard’s boat is really slick,” says Gladstone. Which is why he opted for Tortora as his metronome instead of the burlier Trzybinski, who’s better suited to the engine room.
“Peter offers the boat a little more comfortable rhythm and for the 4-miler that’s essential,” says Gladstone, who’s coaching his fourth one. “You can’t bang it down the course.”
The Bulldogs need to be able to go the distance in a race that is more than three times longer than the standard 2,000-meter format. “The 4-miler is a particularly daunting distance,” says Butt. “You can’t see the finish line.” So losing contact, as Yale did after the first mile last year, usually is fatal. “When you get dropped like that, it’s a slog,” says Johnson.
If Yale can hang in, as it did seven years ago when it nipped the Harvard in the closest race (a half-second) since 1914, it figures to have a chance against a Crimson boat that while unbeaten has not been as dominant as some of its predecessors. Hoping to dethrone defending champion Washington at the IRAs, Harvard came in a well-beaten fifth, its lowest placement in five years.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted but we had a fantastic effort, so we’re going to regroup and give it another go,” says Butt, whose men are gunning for a seventh consecutive sweep of the varsity, JV, and freshman/3V races. “We’re going to be ready to go this Saturday.” This time their New Haven rivals plan to stay with them all the way. “I’m hopeful we’ll have a real race,” Gladstone says.