NEW LONDON, Conn. — Time doesn’t stand still at Red Top, obviously. But it’s not for lack of trying.
“Timeless” might be a better way to describe the place, which for one week each year serves as home to the men’s rowing teams of Harvard. The Crimson coaches, coxswains, and oarsmen eat here, sleep here, train here, and bond here, all for a singular purpose: to beat Yale in the annual Boat Race, which will be held Sunday morning for the 150th time, as always on the Thames River.
The Bulldogs have a similar camp-style arrangement, less than a mile down the road — past Harvard Terrace, veering onto Maple Corners Road before one reaches the Cows & Cones ice creamery, or the Gales Ferry Cemetery.
Bustling, this neighborhood is not. Bucolic? Perhaps. Idyllic? Most certainly.
Following a long line of oarsmen who came through these doors before and have their pictures on the walls, the same traditions were carried out at Red Top this past week.
Board games, cards, and table tennis are the leisure activities of choice, because they’re just about the only leisure activities available. Coaches — no alarms — wake the athletes every morning (varsity coach Charley Butt gives each door a double knock and says simply, “Feet on the floor”). Practice sessions are held twice a day, skits on Wednesday. Diplomas are handed out after Sunday’s race for the graduating seniors, since they missed commencement in Cambridge. They’ve brought caps and gowns.
Races are won and lost over the course of a season, lineup changes are made, but for Harvard, Red Top remains the one constant, a getaway that will become very difficult for those finishing up their careers to let go of. Same as it ever was.
“Talking with rowers of generations past, and for them to share the exact same experience that I’ve had, it was something pretty special to have that connection,” said Harvard senior James Medway, wrapping up his fourth trip to Red Top. “The emotions that they felt and they shared were the exact same emotions that I’ve felt.”
Another tradition will follow at Red Top on Sunday, after the 4-mile race is complete. That’s when the current Crimson crew will take a minute to scribble on the inside doors of the closets tucked in the tiny bedrooms that are packed neatly into the two-story living quarters.
By doing so, they’ll join the scores of students who, whether it was 1929 or 2009, grabbed a pencil and recorded Harvard rowing history. Name, year, role, result, with enough space left for a short comment, if they were inspired. Many were.
“Seeing those names scrawled out, these are people you hear about, like the legends of our team, that’s them physically writing in there as an undergraduate 30, 40, 70 years ago,” said senior Max Meyer-Bosse, this year’s Harvard captain, who added “Feed it” to his credit line a year ago.
“When you wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night, you see that right in your own bedroom. A lot of guys have been here, come through here, had their own experiences here.
“You really are part of something that’s a lot bigger than yourself. You’re here just to leave the program hopefully in a better place than you found it in, and do your best to advance it.”
Up for grabs
A loss to Yale Sunday would make for a sour end to Harvard’s season. It’s something no current Crimson rower has ever experienced, with 2007 being the last time the Bulldogs crossed the line first. Since then, the country’s oldest collegiate sporting event — the first Boat Race was held on Lake Winnipesaukee in 1852 — has been dominated by Harvard, which means the rock across the Thames has remained painted crimson, with a large block “H” bathed in black.
It’s visible from Red Top, a constant reminder of what’s at stake.
This year, however, the possibility of that rock receiving a fresh coat of blue isn’t so far-fetched. It was Yale, not Harvard, winning the Eastern Sprints three weeks ago in Worcester, the Bulldogs’ first title there in 33 years. But then it was Harvard, not Yale, advancing to the grand final of the IRA National Championships a week ago in New Jersey. The Crimson went on to finish fifth, but that was better than Yale, whose victory in the petite final was of little consolation.
Each team has gotten the better of the other this season, but only Yale has a trophy. Does that make Harvard the underdog on Sunday?
“Do we consider ourselves the underdog? That’s a good question,” Butt said. “Strictly in terms of the Eastern Championships, yes, sure, you could make that assumption. But I think they feel like if they go out and row well, that they have a very good opportunity to show how fast they are.
“I don’t think they believe that they are a slower boat. I believe they think they have a strong, competitive chance. So underdog wouldn’t be the way they would describe themselves, I don’t believe.”
And while Yale passed up the opportunity to come out and declare itself the favorite, the Bulldogs sense that there’s something different about their prospects for this year’s Boat Race.
“Yes, it is different,” said Steve Gladstone, who’s in his fifth season as Yale varsity coach but also spent time (1969-72) as an assistant at Harvard. “It’s different in this sense: Harvard’s standard is the same, but we have a stronger squad, so that puts us in a better position to be able to race them. That’s for sure.
“Certainly based on the performance of the squad, it appears — I use that word carefully — it appears that there’s a better shot. But this is not 2,000 meters. If we were racing 2,000 meters with Harvard one-on-one, there’s more information there. Over 4 miles? Who knows?”
In a sport that sometimes separates teams by hundredths of a second, the longer distance isn’t the only contributing factor that could determine Sunday’s winner. Both teams have recently broken up their boats, calling up freshmen who had spent their first college season training and racing solely with their classmates, unaware that they might get promoted to varsity and integrated with the upperclassmen.
In Harvard’s case, four freshmen were placed in the boat for the IRAs, and three of them are local: Alexander Richards (Watertown) and coxswain Cole Durbin (Newton Center) went to Belmont Hill, while Connor Harrity (Weston) prepped at BC High. The fourth freshman, Jack Kelley, is from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Such a drastic move wasn’t made lightly. And it wasn’t easy.
“Oh, it was terrible,” said Butt. “It was very hard. But we had to do it.
“There was no guarantee that it was going to work, but you could feel certain that, given the strength of the freshman class, that it was going to bring the whole level up, and it has. No question. It was necessary to compete effectively as a varsity crew.”
Yale recently called up two freshmen, and neither Butt nor Gladstone expects to make any additional changes before Sunday, giving them an early taste of what this rivalry is about.
For such a big race, there is definitely an element of the unknown. But for both teams, it’s one final chance to leave an impression. In Yale’s case, it’s to validate the progress that’s been made this season. For Harvard, it’s to restore order.
“This is a chance to make or break your season,” said Butt. “If you’ve had a difficult season and you haven’t won your share of races, this is a chance to make your mark. This is a special race, otherwise we wouldn’t be here 150 runnings later.”
Red Top hasn’t been here that long, but it’s become an end-of-season staple, a no-frills headquarters that provides the Harvard crew everything they need as they prepare for the race that means the most.
A coach’s final message
Staying at Red Top brings some much-needed rest after the Sprints and IRAs. It means walking the same path across the train tracks to the boathouse. It means being served your meals by the coxswains (by class, of course, seniors eating first). It means taking the place they’ve earned in the program, one that was steered for so many years by Harry Parker, the longtime coach who died not long after the 2013 Boat Race.
About the only new addition to Red Top is the plaque honoring Parker that was placed behind the dining hall, next to the megaphone he used for so many years, now bronzed.
Etched on the plaque are four sentences, words attributed to Parker. For the Harvard seniors, who were coached by him as sophomores, they can read the words and hear Parker’s voice. They can envision the emotion on his face as he said them, and can see the hand gestures he would use while making his point.
The plaque reads, in part: “Most important of all, we must be prepared to put the maximum effort into each stroke all the way down the course.”
Also included on the plaque is Parker’s coaching record in the Boat Race: 44-7. Another reminder that, while Red Top is a peaceful retreat steeped in time-honored tradition, there are expectations that come with staying there. That is to win.
“Coming down here for my last time really has made me appreciate this place for what it is,” said Medway. “It’s a time to enjoy each other’s company, do some hard work, and hopefully get a good result.
“It’s removed, it’s secluded . . . it really is a spot for the rowers. And that’s what makes it really special.”