Jack Carlson on how blazers defined sport of rowing
Jack Carlson was 12 when he first stepped into a boat as coxswain at Buckingham Browne & Nichols, and the Weston native said the job was a perfect fit for both his stature and mind-set.
“I was a small person and bossy,” said Carlson, now 27, who has represented the United States at the World Rowing Championships in 2011 and 2014.
Last year, he won the three major international rowing regattas: the Henley Royal, the Royal Canadian Henley, and the Head of the Charles. Carlson returns to the Head of the Charles this weekend for the annual fall competition, and to promote his natty new book, “Rowing Blazers.”
The 250-page glossy looks at the classic preppy garment that has defined a sport as well as a fashion genre. Carlson, who is working on his PhD in archeology at Oxford University, spoke from across the pond recently about how the sport is best played on the water and off.
Q. Who lit the fire in you with rowing?
A. I went to Buckingham Browne & Nichols, which is right on the Charles River. I started playing baseball, but my math teacher, who doubled as the rowing coach, suggested I give rowing a try. It seemed like a great thing to try out. The role of the coxswain is different from anybody else in sports. You’re not doing the physical activity, but you have to be really in touch with the technical aspects of the sport and you have to be the tactical and strategic mind of the crew.
Q. I imagine there is a lot of tradition tied into rowing for a school like BB&N. True?
A. BB&N was Browne & Nichols (an all-boys school) in the early 20th century. It was very dominant in rowing, the first American high school to win at Henley (Royal Regatta in England). BN won in 1929 so my first experience racing at Henley was the 75th anniversary of their win in 2004 with BB&N. Then and now, Henley is where blazers have their biggest association.
Q. Were you prepared for Henley — in a fashion sense, I mean?
A. I knew they had this blazer tradition. When you row at Henley, in Netherlands, in Europe, all the clubs have blazers. I said, “We have to get blazers made up.” So we went to The Andover Shop in Harvard Square, and we got our blazers made up in the same design as 1929. We thought, wow these are so cool. They were navy blazers with white contrast binding and a badge.
Q. How did you measure up?
A. We got there and they were the most conservative blazers there. I was fascinated. We got knocked out in the first round so we had plenty of time to check out these blazers. I would sit down next to someone, learning all these stories and traditions behind them, and I thought someone should write a book about this.
Q. The photographs in “Rowing Blazers” are beautiful and strangely fascinating to me — someone who doesn’t know much about rowing. How did you go about choosing imagery?
A. I started working on it in 2010. I wanted the stories to be interesting, and, of course, I wanted the images to be captivating, not just stocky men in the jackets. I reached out to (fashion photographer) F.E. Castleberry. He did a lot of work with Ralph Lauren’s Rugby. I shot him an e-mail. He wrote back, “Let’s do it.” By the fall of 2010, we had arranged a big road trip in the US to go to all the different schools. He was principal photographer. Everyone’s authentic and wearing their own clothes, but it’s styled a little bit.
Q. So many of the images in the book are actual rowers wearing their own blazers. What’s up with the Amsterdam club Okeanos and their ratty striped jackets?
A. In the Netherlands, no one actually owns their own blazers. They’re passed down. When they retire, they give it to a new guy who joins the club. Some blazers are 80 to 100 years old, and they don’t fit properly. You can have a coxswain who inherits a blazer from a 6-foot, 5-inch rower. They have a tradition that they can’t wash the blazer unless the current wearer wins the varsity — the Dutch national championship. That’s very difficult, very rare. These blazers haven’t been washed in decades. They’ve been soaked in generations of beer and sweat and river water and tears.
They also fight wearing their blazers. After a regatta, they grab each other by the jacket lapels and try and wrestle each other to the ground or into the water. It’s semi-organized fighting. Often the blazers get shredded and torn. One guy showed up to a photo shoot with half a blazer. He said, ‘The other half is on the bottom of a river somewhere torn up during a fight.’ ”
Q. How do New England schools and rowing clubs stack up?
A. It’s the home of all this kind of stuff. I really like the tradition at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. Every student is part of one of two rowing clubs, Halcyon (red blazer with white piping) and Shattuck (blue with white piping). Regardless of whether you row, you get assigned to one of these clubs. Historically, St. Paul’s is a powerhouse. They didn’t bother coming to the New England Rowing Championships. They’d have Halcyon and Shattuck row against each other. They still have no unified school blazer.
Q. And what about those outside the private school walls and Ivy League halls? Is there a larger audience that even cares about this preppy navy jacket?
A. The blue blazer you have hanging in your closet has origins in rowing. It was originally made to be worn in a boat on Oxford and Cambridge. Even the word “blazer” refers to the blazing red jackets worn (in 1825) by the Lady Margaret Boat Club. It does have a greater relevance.