The Great Eights, sculling’s galactic all-stars, saw no need to defend their crowns, having proven their supremacy over their one-oared counterparts.
The Europeans who’d turned up for last year’s command performance at the 50th edition of America’s Fall Rowing Festival felt no reason for a reprise.
And US Rowing’s top people already are in pre-Olympic camps on the road to Rio.
So Sunday’s championship eights events at the Head of the Charles Regatta were a throwback to the 1965 original, when it was all about clubs and colleges and most of those colleges were enrobed in ivy. And while the victors’ names were familiar, they were novelties atop the winner’s podium. Yale, which first took to the water in 1843, claimed its first men’s title, while California did the same on the women’s side.
“We expected to put down a race that we could be really proud of and we weren’t too worried about the result,” Yale stroke Nate Goodman said after his burly seatmates outmuscled Cal’s men by less than .7 seconds in 14:18.97, the fastest time on the 3-mile course in four years, as Harvard placed third ahead of three-time titlist Washington and Boston University.
It was the fourth major trophy of the year for Yale, which collected its first Eastern Sprints title since 1982, beat the Crimson in their 4-miler for the first time since 2007, and won the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at Henley for the first time since 1980.
“Obviously we’re very proud of it, but it’s over now,” said Goodman. “We have to keep looking forward.”
While the Head is the unofficial beginning of a new season the Bulldogs had a half-dozen of the same oarsmen in the boat, including Goodman and the mammoth engine room of Ollie Wynne-Griffith (6 feet 6 inches, 205 pounds), Hubert Trzybinski (6-8, 210), and Paul Jacquot (6-8, 215). That was the same blue-shirted bunch that motored away from Washington’s national champions by more than 2 lengths in the Henley final and nobody in Sunday’s field figured to overpower them over 3 miles into the wind.
US Rowing, still smarting from the eight’s failure to qualify for the Olympics at this summer’s world championships, kept its top contenders in camp and sent a developmental boat that once again interfered with Washington (as it did three years ago) and ended up 25th after being deducted a minute’s penalty. Washington, which won here in 2008, 2010, and 2012, was rebuilding from scratch. And Harvard, the 2011 victor that was last year’s top collegiate finisher, returned only three men who’d raced the Bulldogs in New London in June.
Still Yale, starting in the No. 7 spot in the single-file upstream procession, had to work for this one. The Bulldogs were down to Cal by a second at the Weld Boathouse approaching 2 miles and led by less than two-thirds of a second at the Eliot Bridge before the homestretch. But when cox Chris Carothers called for a final vroom, there was plenty under the hood.
Cal’s women, whose appearance here was greeted like that of a rare comet, were the mystery guests.
They arrived Friday just before the practice course was closed and barely got a lap in. Since they had no recent track record here, the Bears, last seen in 2002, started last in the 32-boat field.
“We just wanted to make the best of our starting position, take a competitive course, and just focus on ourselves the whole way down, which is what we do 5K or 2K,” said cox Hannah Christopher, whose boat dunked Brown by a whopping 24.72 seconds in 15:58.626, with former champions Virginia and Princeton third and fourth.
What helped was that Christopher had coxed here as a high school senior for Oakland Strokes in the youth eights, so she knew how to hang a turn and how to slip past rivals along the buoy line to shorten the trip.
“It was really crucial that we were able to pass on the inside,” said Christopher. “That’s a huge factor in our win.”
At the Riverside checkpoint, Cal already had a seven-second bulge over Princeton. By Weld, it was 18 seconds. At the Cambridge Boat Club, it was 23. But it wasn’t until the Bears had docked that they learned the result.
“My stroke seat’s dad ran up and said, ‘You guys won,’ ” Christopher said. “Then our coach yelled and we just jumped out of the boat and started rejoicing.”
Had the US world champions not scratched last week, Cal likely would have had to settle for the college trophy. The one it most wants, the NCAA championship hardware, it lost by less than a half-second to Ohio State last spring. Since the Buckeyes weren’t here, the Bears were reluctant to consider this victory an omen for next season.
“It’s still a huge long push to NCAAs,” said Christopher. “Whether you win Head of the Charles or you don’t, anything can happen at NCAAs. We’re happy, but we get home and we get back to work. That’s what we do.”