Imperial Head Racing- an Adventure Involving Murphy’s Law

Not so long ago in a galaxy not so far away I was a novice rowing coach. Very novice. And at age 19, very young also. The year was 1989 and I was helping Charlie Butt Jr. coach the boys fall rowing program at Potomac Boat Club. Every fall Charlie would put out the word amongst the area high school coaches and they would send their guys to train and learn a few things from the master. I guess that made me the apprentice. Mind you, this was only my third season coaching. I knew the basics of rigging and technique. I could put a boat on a trailer but didn’t know the knots for tieing it down (this was before straps became the standard). And since I was barely older than the guys I was coaching. . . well, you get the picture: I had my hands full.

So let me set the stage before I move on to our story. The fall sessions were open to any hs. rower. There were a bunch of guys from W-L, Whitman, and Yorktown that fall. Some of the guys like Steve Robinson and Doug Miller were actually my hs. teammates just two years previous. Kevin Ellis was (and still is) one of my best childhood friends, and this particular fall, as a junior, was learning to row so he’d be ready for the spring season at W-L. Each day a bunch of novice W-L guys would trek over to my house from the school and hitch a ride to the boat house. Once there I’d see who we had from the daily changing cast of characters and makeup line-ups, which Charlie would approve, and then we’d hit the water. We had a pretty strong bunch this fall and Charlie took advantage of it by creating a strong four. We went to all the usual regattas: Scullers Head of the Potomac, HOTSk, HOTC. The season was drawing to a close and it was time for the Head of the Occoquan.


PART I

OK, now for our story: As we prepared for the Occoquan, Charlie informs me that he’s going out of town and that I would be in charge of getting our whole road show down to the Occoquan and on the water. Well, that’s not too hard. . . hand out directions, tell people when they need to be there, hop in the car, bam-zoom. Wrong. I was going to have to get the boats on the trailer down at Thompson’s Boat Center (which, even though it was less than a mile downstream, I had never visited), and race in a four also since a coxswain was going to be missing. Oh, yea and some of the Whitman guys are going to be missing because of a holiday, and two guys have to take SAT’s and will drive down on their own. . . the normal routine for a junior squad. Fine, it will work out. Deep breath.

I have a Junior 8+ (Bruce Hickey, et. al.), a Jr. 2x (Adam Cummins & Chris Velo), a Novice 4+ (Kevin Ellis et. al.), and my Open 4+ (Steve, Doug, Pat Mathias, and Mike Callahan). I wake up that Friday the 3rd of November and think “Everything’s A-OK.” Charlie calls one last time to wish me luck. “Sure, no problem Charlie,” I said. “Uh, but, what about cox-boxes?” They were in Charlie’s basement where one could find a piece, part, or item from just about every rowing related thing in the universe; mostly scattered about, and well hidden. OK, no sweat, I’ll call Tom Chisnell, the W-L women’s coach, and borrow some from him. No answer. I’ve been sick so I go and take care of a doctor’s appointment, grab lunch, and then give Tom a call at the school. Can’t get him. So before practice, I head down there and find him only to learn that the cox-boxes are all at his house. I had to pick them up by 3 that afternoon because he had class. Great, I had practice.

Well, that is, if I could get to practice in the first place since I had a flat. Someone else would get the boxes from Tom. I call Kevin Ellis, who’s going to drive to the boathouse, to let him know I need a ride also. Well, it would figure that all the guys that often times trekked from school to catch rides, and their brothers, needed a ride from me. So, the only thing to do now is stuff my group, and Kevin’s group in his 72 Dodge Charger. That is, nine people crammed into this mid-size, semi muscle car.
At PBC people are filing in, except for the Whitman guys, none who show due to a Jewish holiday. Forget it, we’ll practice who we can and row the shells directly to TBC afterward to catch the trailer. Problem number two arises: the 2x is gone. We check the boat sign-out book, and the schedule of events and find out that the missing double is going to be used the same time as the Jr. Double! Argh, problem #3. Where to get a boat for these guys? We made a few calls, consulted a few people only to decide we’d figure it out later. Put off till tomorrow when you don’t know what to do!

The boat I was coxing wanted to hit the water and so did the Novice 4+ guys. So, me, today’s Mr. Safety, boats the two crews and heads out for a practice with no safety launch. Yupper-do. As the day started to wane we pulled in at TBC to be greeted by Dale Wickenheiser, a W-L alumni and area coach. In his usual, laconic, matter-a-fact way he calls out:

“Hey George, are you here for the trailer?”
“Yea”
“It left at noon. . .”

Problem #4.

So Doug Miller and I walk around TBC scratching our heads a bit. There was no help here so we headed back to PBC. There we met up with Mark Coleson who was coaching a Jr. Women’s pair and fished for ideas. Zilch. In the summer of ’87 we threw a 2+ and a 4+ on the top of Mark’s 12 person passenger van and hauled it to Indianapolis for Nationals. No luck this time as the van wasn’t available. To add to the situation I was going to have to make a last minute coxswain change for the Novice 4+ because their coxswain made landing on an empty dock look like coxing the Charles. I was certain that they’d beach themselves on the 1st straightaway of the race.

What to do? If we couldn’t come up with a way to get the four down there, then maybe we could borrow one. We went ahead and de-rigged the boats. That done, we hopped in cars and headed for home with less answers than before we started.


PART II

The mind of an in-inexperienced coach comes up with some pretty wild things when it is desperate, but committed. How about throwing the 4 on top of the my friend Paul’s Ford Taurus station wagon? If it worked on a van. . . No. Paul informed me that the racks wouldn’t take it and his dad would certainly not approve. Maybe dinner would help. As I was sitting around Kevin Ellis called and said his parents needed directions to the Occoquan. Just before I left Charlie called to check if things were going OK. Charlie groaned when I told him the story thus far. He gave me a phone number to call so maybe we could borrow a boat, then wished me luck. Uh, yea.

I bopped around the corner and told my tale of woe to Mr. Ellis. Now, Mr. Ellis loves a challenge and I could see the gears turning. He quizzed me on boat dimension and weights then told me not to worry. The roof racks for his car were sturdy enough, the problem was that only about 40 inches of the four would be supported with the rest of the boat waving in the wind. More brainstorming and the next thing I know we are building a wooden frame, 12′ long, that will sit on top of the racks and support the boat. The boat will be strapped to the frame. Yea baby! We’re in business. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we still haven’t been able to get hold of Tom for the Cox-Boxes.

I hop in my car, tire now fixed, and drive over to Steve’s to get the box of rope for tying the boat down. By the time I get back, Tom has materialized and my parents have gone to fetch the cox-box’s for me.

Time to get the boat. Frame ready, cast of characters in the cars, off to the boathouse. I said, off to the boat house! Beep, wrong answer contestant number 1! Turn the key on the big old 70’s era Chrysler Imperial and nothing. It had been running an hour before. Mr. Ellis goes back to work. Out comes the tools, battery charger, portable kerosene heater. At 11:30 pm the car is running again and we are off the boat house. Paul, Kevin, Mr. Ellis and I deposit the boat and oars on the car; riggers in the Taurus wagon. Paul rigs the ropes and ties everything to the frame. Boathouse locked Paul in his car and the rest of us in the “carrier” we are ready to boogie. Power, Ignition, uhmmm. . . ignition? Damn!

OK, so the car won’t start again. We untie the support line that runs from the bow to the front bumper and Mr. Ellis starts back to work. I scrounge some wire from the boathouse renovation to try and jump things with no luck. This was getting ridiculous. Try after try, the car would not start. We were getting ready to call it quits and put the boat back when, poof, the car started. It’s 1:00 am and we are finally motoring towards the Occoquan. As we lumbered down Water Street under the Whitehurst Freeway it dawns on me the 4 on top of this car belongs to PBC, not W-L. And, no one at the club knows I’m taking it, and certainly not how. I realize, with a certainty only the desperate can know, that if anything happens to this shell I am a dead man, and lady luck is not riding shotgun tonight.

If I ever meet Lady luck face to face. . . pow, right in the kisser! Down Rock Creek Pkwy, across Memorial Bridge, going past the Pentagon on the way to I-395. From the back seat I realize that the lights on the dash aren’t lit. Strange. . . and the car is running extremely smooth, not to mention we’re slowing down. We pull over, and do the whole rope and hood thing again. No luck. Mr. Ellis goes with Paul in the wagon back to the house while Kevin and I guard the car. Now, can I tell you that this just so happens to be the coldest night of the year so far? Upper 30’s. When they finally get back I’m in another world mentally. They swap a few parts and still no luck. The only hope to is to get Kevin’s brother to use his old Cadillac to tow the car back to the house so it can be worked on. Off they go again. At 3:00am they get back with the Caddy. 3:30am, no power steering or breaks on this boat (no pun intended) we start the towed trek home. Moving at a whopping 30mph we motor through the dead streets of Arlington. Things are going smoothly. Paul is acting as the defense and keeps driving ahead to trip red lights back to green so we only end up having to stop once. Last turn of the trip to take us to the house. Rich in the Caddy takes the turn, up a little incline, a little too wide, and then swings back in front of us. . . into the path of a big car with no breaks and boat on top. Time slowed to a crawl as we watched the bow ball race towards the back windshield of the Caddy. I remember everyone in the car hold their breath and making sounds like “nngngngngngng. . . ahhh. . . ooh, phew.” Missed it by that [] much. It’s now 4:30am.

Someone has to stay with the boat so no one messes with it right? That’s me, sleeping in the car tonight. Not that I slept much bundled against the cold. I watched some stupid cat for a half hour . . . At 6:15, sun rising, I said the hell with it. Let have this damn boat. I could care less. Sleep. . . dead to the world until 8. Juice, shower, cox-boxes, gear and we’re back to work. Finally At 10am the problem has been identified and fixed. We are off, finally, to the races.


PART III

Time is running out to get there for the Novice 4’s race. Imagine for yourself the look of other drivers as they went by this scene on I-395. 40+ feet of boat on top of tired, brown Imperial. Our theme song was the one from MacGuyver or Indiana Jones, you pick. The boat bounced a bit but things held fine all the way. Sandy Run park was packed but you could bet they let us drive all the way down to the trailer area. There would have been some real violence had someone said no. The guys rushed over when they saw us pull up and got the boat down and rigged, but there was 5 minutes till the start of the Novice 4 race and they weren’t going to make it. Here is the novice coach again, because I didn’t realize they could still launch and race, but just with a 60 second penalty. Now people are telling me that Doug and Steve, who had also raced the Novice 1x event, weren’t all that thrilled to race the Open 4+. Top that with missing people and the PBC Lwt. Men coming off the water saying that there were using the 8, the one our Jr. 8 was going to use, again. Oh, yea, I need to register too.

The Lwt. Men gave in, grudgingly, and let the us use the boat since their other race was last minute. So the 8 got off, just in time with all it’s rowers. Considering what we went through to get the four down there Steve and Doug were a go to race. We are carrying the Open 4+ to launch, short one missing member, and filling in with a near novice. As we are about to drop the shell in the water, my missing rower arrives. We are off.

After all this, our warm-up was great. This crew was ready to rock. Now, everyone except me was still in high school. A senior, two juniors, and a sophomore. We would be racing colleges and clubs from up and down the east coast, including Navy. Despite having already raced, I knew Doug and Steve would give 110%. We got to the line just in time, lined up in the chute right behind Mary Washington College (MWC). Everyone starts to go when for no apparent reason, the officials slow us and stick a Occoquan Boat Club (OBC) crew ahead of us. We’re off again.

The first section of the course is straight with a 90 degree dogleg to port with about 750 meters down. OBC was gaining on MWC very quickly, but not as fast as we were gaining on them. MWC was weaving around then steadied. With 300 meters before the turn OBC finally passed MWC and kept going with us in hot pursuit. Solid 27-28spm we were right behind MWC. 200 meters to the turn and they start to weave again. Since we are gaining at an ever increasing rate I call out, with all the politeness I can muster, for MWC to get the hell out the way and move to starboard. They do, and I cut to the inside of the turn as tight as I can. Just as we are at the apex of the turn MWC suddenly swings into us like we’re magnetized. Luck ran out again. We were stopped dead with MWC’s bow sitting on top of our starboard blades. Screech, boom crash. As Doug told me later he watched the cox for the MWC crew turn the rudder hard and swing right into us.

Steve and Doug fought to get their blades free as the other crew just sat there staring at us, jaws dropped, catching flies. Finally, as our starboard blades pulled free and pushed back out with a resounding “thuNK” against the hull of the MWC crew, we were free and rowing again. We had lost what seemed like 20 seconds dead in the water. When we had stopped we were at a 27, when we took off again, Steve jacked us up to a 30. With a power 30 for power and swing we went on the attack trying to catch the OBC crew who had a good lead on us now.

Once we got moving it was purely a chase. Get that OBC crew, now! We gained slowly but surely. Our blades were kicking up mud on each turn as I tried to cut some distance. It was down to the last 500 meters and OBC was still about 2 lengths open. 300 meters to go, Steve gasped “sprint” and we dropped the hammer. We crossed the line at a 34. . .

People on shore said we were gaining on them like a bat out of hell as we came toward the line. It rocked, but it wasn’t enough. As the sun was setting we got the results: 4th, by a measly 8 seconds. 4th out of 34 that is. At the time I had never seen a crew go harder. There were times during the race that I’d look at Steve and thought for sure he was going to pass out. Later he said he wasn’t sure he was going to finish. These were high school “kids.” I think it says something of this crew that Steve and Mike Callahan went on to row for the National Team. Doug Miller rowed varsity for the Princeton Lwt.’s and Pat Mathias rowed varsity for Northeastern.


Epilogue

Jeez, haven’t you had enough yet? The boats made it back on the CRC trailer to TBC. After 37 sleepless hours I went home and died. To this day I have no idea how the Jr. 8, or the Jr. 2x did. This is what, at the time, you call an adventure with incredible drama. Today, it makes me cringe at how little I knew. The lesson as a coxswain: ask yourself if it’s better to take the turn or wait ten strokes so you don’t lose 10-20 seconds instead. Oh, and don’t put a boat on a Imperial.