Harvard-Yale Regatta 163rd Anniversary

Photo courtesy of Thomas Weil
Photo courtesy of Thomas Weil

     There are many chapters in the history of the great Harvard-Yale rivalry. The first was written in the summer of 1852—on the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee in Center Harbor, N.H.—when crews from the two schools met in a two-mile race. As is the case with its football counterpart known as "The Game," the Harvard-Yale crew race is a season unto itself, as victory will make any campaign a success, while defeat can spoil an otherwise spectacular spring. Sports Illustrated has called this the most venerable rivalry in all of college sports, and Yankee Magazine wrote a cover story on the race. We're now into the third century of this race; let's take the time to review some of the grand moments of the past 163 years.

     Boat clubs at Harvard and Yale had existed since the early 1840s, but races against outside competition was rare. That all changed when Yale issued a challenge to Harvard "to test the superiority of the oarsmen of the two colleges." Thus the oldest intercollegiate athletic event was born.

     On August 3, 1852—in a two-mile race on the calm waters of Lake Winnipesaukee—Harvard and Yale battled like never before. Yale was represented by two boats, the Shawmut and the Undine, while Harvard rowed in the Oneida. Harvard won the inaugural race by about four lengths, earning a pair of black walnut oars as its prize. It seems that people right away knew this was going to be the start of something big, for among the distinguished observers was General Franklin Pierce, the Democratic Party nominee and native of nearby Hillsborough, who would be elected president later that year.

     No further races were held between the schools until July 1855, when Yale issued another challenge. In a contest held on the Connecticut River in Springfield, Mass., Harvard made it two straight victories, winning by one minute and 38 seconds. Harvard and Yale met again in 1859 and 1860, but it wasn't until 1864 that the Regatta became an annual event. Yale gained its first series win that year, taking the three-miler on Worcester's Lake Quinsigamond by 42 seconds.

     In 1876, the series' first four-mile race was held as the crews met on the Connecticut River. Yale won the contest, which was the first since the inaugural one to use eight‑oared shells, by 29 seconds.

     The Regatta came to New London in 1878 and, with rare exception, has been held in the town originally known as Nameaug ("good fishing place") ever since. Yale arrived 12 days prior to the June 28 race, settling in at Gales Ferry and taking quarters at a two-story house owned by Latham Brown. Harvard set up camp five days later, moving into a house owned by Charles Stoddard, about a mile south of Yale.

     In anticipation of the race, a huge grandstand — seating approximately 3,000 fans — was erected. A crowd of 25,000 showed up. Harvard led the entire way and took victory with its time of 20:44.75, an American record. One casualty on the day was the press boat, which struck a tugboat midway through the race and missed the ending.

     The Regatta wasn't held in 1896 because of a breakdown in relations between the two schools, but the rivalry  was renewed in 1897 with a three-boat race in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., that included Cornell.

     President Theodore Roosevelt was in attendance for the 50th anniversary Regatta and saw a 13-second Yale victory. This came during a dominant streak for the Elis, who were in the midst of winning 17 races in 19 years.

     The 1911 race marked the first appearance of an airplane on the Regatta course. The flier was H.W. Atwood, a noted aviator who set a record time for a flight from Boston to New London. By today's standards, his travel time would barely qualify him for the breakdown lane on I-95, as he completed the 135-mile flight in two hours, 12 minutes. Harvard won the race easily, as Yale's stroke was taken from the shell at the three-mile mark.

     Just three years later came the closest race in Regatta lore. Yale won by an official count of one-fifth second—the smallest fraction measured on stopwatches of the time—but the true margin was even closer. The 1914 Regatta also marked the inaugural junior varsity eight-oared race, replacing the varsity substitute fours.

     Then, in 1925, a crowd estimated at 100,000 along the shoreline and two packed observation trains of 32 cars witnessed history as, for the first time, a crew trailing by open water at the mile mark came back to win. Yale roared back from its deficit to gain victory with a record-breaking upstream clocking of 20:26.

     In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Harvard alumnus, was among the spectators. His son, Franklin, Jr., was a member of the Crimson's junior varsity that year. Roosevelt didn't do much cheering, as Yale swept the day's races and set a downstream record with a time of 19:51.8. With Roosevelt in attendance again the following year, Yale scored a second straight victory.

     But in 1936, Harvard initiated a 10-year winning streak that was the longest in the rivalry at that time. And the 1938 season marked an unprecedented triumph by the Crimson, as Harvard earned its first quadruple sweep since the combination race was added in 1920.

     The Regatta was not held from 1943-45 because of World War II, and the 1946 race, the shortest in history, was held on the Charles River. When the crews reappeared in New London the following spring, they saw the new highway bridge that had been completed above the Thames. But the result was the same: Harvard won the race by six seconds.

     In 1952, the schools went to New London in June then ventured to Lake Winnipesaukee in August to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Regatta. The race followed the original script, with Harvard winning by 2.7 seconds.

     Yale won five races in a row starting in 1954, culminating with a 13-second upstream victory. That win pulled the Elis within 48-46 in the all-time series.

     Since that year, however, Harvard has seized the upper hand. The Crimson won 21 of the next 22 races—including 18 in a row to start Harry Parker's coaching tenure. The only Eli breakthrough came in 1962, one year before Parker's arrival. The 1963 combination race set the tone, as one of the great comebacks in Regatta history occurred when the Crimson—after trailing by as much as three lengths—burst through Yale in the final strokes to win by a half-length. The varsity had an easier time the next day, winning by 28 seconds. Harvard's final win in that 18-year run saw the Crimson establish a course record that still stands, with a time of 18:22.4 in its two-length victory.

     The Elis bounced back to win four straight between 1981 and 1984, starting with an 11-second upstream win. But Harvard answered with an 11-year Regatta streak that ran from 1985 until 1995. In the 1995 contest, both crews smashed the upstream record. Harvard's winning time of 18:41.9 and Yale's clocking of 18:45.5 both bettered the previous standard. Yale returned to the winner's circle in 1996 and again in 1999 in downstream races, victories sandwiched around a pair of Harvard sweeps.

     The Crimson had swept the Regatta four of the previous six seasons and won seven straight varsity races entering the 2007 regatta. Yale, which closed the gap against the Crimson at Sprints, won the second varsity eight and then pulled ahead in the final strokes to defeat Harvard in the varsity eight. Harvard got revenge with a sweep in 2008 and has followed with six more in the seven years since. The Crimson's latest run of success has left Yale without just four varsity wins in the last 31 Regattas.