The Broken Pair
July 16, 2018
"We didn’t intend to start a rowing program. We simply were two high school rowers who had landed at a college with no crew team—and one sunny afternoon early in our sophomore year found ourselves with too much time on our hands, a pocket full of money and an itch to row again.
I had met Packy Briggs on my third day of school at Middlebury. We had rowed against each other once or twice in high school. His floppy New Wave haircut (something that was considered fashionable in the late 80s) was memorable. Packy had rowed for three years at Cincinnati Country Day.
On the other hand, I was a public school kid from Wisconsin, and had started rowing my final few weeks of senior year for a scrappy club in Madison; they drew kids from the four high schools in town, and needed an eighth for their boat. Nordic skiing was my primary sport, but the snow was long melted.
Rowing didn’t start well for me. Although small, the Mendota Rowing Club fielded strong boats, picking up extra coaching by shadowing the University of Wisconsin crews who, at the time, were racking up a number of national championships. But on my first race—against Loyola Academy, six weeks after first sitting in a boat—I caught two boat wrenching crabs, and the team lost their first race in three years. I was humiliated, and on the ride home from Chicago vowed to never row again.
I don’t remember deciding to stick with the sport, but in the following months redoubled my training, rowing in the mornings with the junior program and jumping into the college boats when given a chance. Although rowing rarely has stand-out individuals who single-handedly can win a race for an eight, it can have the guy who loses the race with a boat-stopping crab. I did not want to be that guy again.
By July, we traveled to Indianapolis for the 1987 Junior Nationals and, to my amazement, our four took silver, and a few days later I rowed bow in the eight that won gold. It was an ecstatic feeling. I still remember the weightlessness as we pushed a boat length into first place at the 1500 meter mark; it was the first time I had really felt the swing in a boat. I was hooked.
Even so, I also had already committed to a college—and one that did not have a rowing team. It seemed as if rowing would just be some whim for my last year of high school.
But my love from rowing was determined not to fade away. During our freshman year, I reminisced about rowing with Packy and a few other students I learned had rowed in high school. On my first hike at Lake Dunmore, I remember feeling jumpy and anxious, wanting to find a boat to be out on the water.
When we returned for our sophomore fall term, on a whim, I called several boathouses in Boston asking if they had a boat to sell me (mind you, this is still a decade before the internet, let alone online classifieds like Craig’s List or Row2k). At the Harvard boathouse, the phone was answered by a gravelly voiced Harry Parker, a longtime and some would say legendary coach.
“Sure,” he grumbled, “I have an old Pocock pair just gathering dust in the rafters.” Then, with no sense of obvious humor, he added, “as long as you promise never to beat us, I’ll sell it to you.”
Packy and I drove to the bank and I pulled out $500, money from selling my motorcycle a few weeks earlier. (At the end of freshman spring term, I had purchased my first motorcycle from a graduating senior, even though I didn’t know how to drive it—and a week later, after practicing a few drives around the student parking lots, and then up and down the mountain pass, had driven, to my parents’ horror, 1200 miles in one sitting from Vermont to Wisconsin. My parents immediately demanded that I sell the motorcycle.)
We arrived at the Harvard boathouse as a swarm of Harvard crews were scuttling up the docks from their late afternoon practice. Harry Parker met us on the dock, and pointed to a pair stashed in the rafters—and probably had been since the Kennedy administration.
As a couple Harvard rowers climbed ladders to pull out the boat, we realized that Packy’s GTI only had a small bike rack—and we didn’t have any straps to secure the boat. The rowers lent us two lengths of thin rope and we tied the boat to the roof rack; even so, at each corner and turn, the would skid from side to side, and for three hours as we snaked back up I-89 and across the mountain pass, I held the boat secure through the open sunroof.
At first, we tried to row on Otter Creek, carrying the boat from the dorms—where we were storing the boat on a couple logs on the lawn—and launching just below the Middlebury Falls, where the rapids stop bumbling and the river finally slackens. It is a beautiful stretch of river, but narrow and short.
We soon explored other options, and began launching our pair from the sandy shores of the public beach at Lake Dunmore. After a row, we would split a six-pack (the drinking age only had recently changed from 18 to 21 in Vermont, and half of our class was grandfathered in), and declare it a Middlebury crew party. We were the founders, the varsity team and the co-captains.
Soon though, rowing a pair did not have the robust company that an eight or even a four offers, and at mid-term break I called the Boston boathouses again; a coach at MIT offered what he described as a far-past-prime wooden eight; warped so that port and starboard could never be set. It was what I could (almost) afford—and I drove down the next weekend, and wrote a check on the spot. He promised to have a couple rowers deliver the boat in the next week or so.
But truthful, I didn’t have the $1200 in my account. I drove back to Vermont the following day, tracked down a pawn shop in Rutland and sold my Apple II computer, a high school graduation gift from my parents. And, with some leftover funds, I bought a set of eight oars from the Dartmouth coach, which we painted the blades with cow spots (truly, these were the only aluminum oars I have ever seen in my rowing career, and I remember the tingling electricity one afternoon when we rowed as a thunderstorm gathered on the horizon, and our stroke’s hair began standing on end; we soon found another set of “real,” fiberglass oars).
A few days after the boat arrived from MIT, I taped up a few posters around campus—at the dining halls, at the mail room (there was no Facebook to announce events!)—and invited students to join the new Middlebury crew team. About two dozen people showed up—some who rowed in high school; others just intrigued—and a woman who owned a cabin at Lake Dunmore saw one of the posters and called me to offer use of her lawn that abutted the North Cove. There was no dock, but we could wade our boat knee-deep into the water there.
Over the next few weeks, before the first snow fell in early November, we drove each afternoon to the lake and taught anyone interested how to row. We had no coach, and without any trained coxswains, I would shout instructions from the bow. They were spastic, but fun, rows.
When the first frost arrived—and it was too cold to wander barefoot into the lake—we walked the boats nearly a mile to a nearby barn, and stashed them for the winter. It wasn’t the most grand beginning to a crew program, but we could claim about 20 students as members of the team—more than enough to fill up two full eights of rowers—and it was a start to something bigger." - Phil Busse '92
There are very few times where words cannot describe an impact of a person's actions and legacy they create. We will forever be in debt to Phil and our founding class.