Book Excerpt: Ch. 22, Romanians with Bulgarian Rum-from Four Years at Four, by John Escher – Rowing Stories, Features & Interviews

All Brown crews are rough water crews.

We had just passed the jayvees when we ran into a patch of close chop. It wasn’t so much the height of these waves but the distance between them that caused the boat to ship water. We were rowing the Hunter while the jayvees were rowing the more seaworthy Stein. Another factor was the respective weight of the crews. We sat an inch or two deeper. So down we went like a freight elevator disappearing through pavement.

I will never forget the huge grin on the face of each jayvee oarsman as our boat began to wallow. We were just passing them and now they were passing us. And they just kept going up the Seekonk to The Porcupine.

Each wave meanwhile snagged on a rigger and came pouring into the center of the boat. We were going fast enough that the same wave snagged on the bow-man’s rigger and then the two-man’s rigger and right on down the line. We never stopped rowing not even when submerged which may have given somebody a useful idea for another year.

We came to a full stop with the Hunter floating an inch below the surface. Put the temperature at twenty-eight degrees. The floating oars however (solid from handle to oarlock, hollow from oarlock to blade) kept the boat stable enough that we could stand erect and tell foul jokes while Whitey and our wonderful four-year manager John Tasker aka John Taskforce carried everybody two at a time the mile to the Providence shore. When we were all there we found our crewmates drinking whiskey courtesy of friendly EMT’s in the back of a red Providence rescue wagon. We had a party as the EMT’s taxied us back to campus.

Whitey and Taskforce meanwhile went back out in the middle and got a line on the boat and oars and towed the whole constellation back to the NBC.

The next winter though 1961-2 with Vic Michalson the coach both boats went down close to the same place. With two sunken boats instead of one to contend with, the coach’s motorboat was very busy with the result that some oarsmen were left to make decisions for themselves. Phil Makanna at stroke and George Baum at 7 in the varsity, last ones left, managed to row the sunken boat to shore even though it was under water.

All Brown crews are rough water crews. Photo by Whitey

Phil Makanna: “Okay. You must have heard this one from me. So maybe it’s true. Gotta say it’s a dim, glorious movie stuck in a wizzled brain. I dunno if it’s true or a dream.

“We sank an eight in a snowstorm three or four miles south of Providence in the big bay. It was windy and water came over the sides and we went down. You were not there? If not, it must have been in 1962 by Michalson . I think we were one boat, alone. And I think I was stroking. I do remember that the coxswain (Dick Cadwgan?) and I were the last off the boat. Maybe George Baum too? Michalson took two or three guys to the dock half a mile away? The oars held the boat stable and upright. We stood on our seats and waited for the next trip. It was cold. It was snowing. Really.

“The launch took me and cox and George (?) to the side of a dock where there was a ladder. We got up the ladder and were met by some guys who were dressed in black and spoke no English. We were very weak- – they grabbed us and pushed us up a gangplank into a ratty old freighter (Bulgarian? Romanian?). They dragged us down black steel corridors, stopped at a big steel door, flung it open and shoved us into the darkness, slamming the door behind us.

“It was a boiler room. It was very warm. ALL of the crew was there singing and laughing. The Romanians had given them a bottle of Bulgarian rum. Nobody had touched that kind of stuff for months … nobody refused. We got pickled fast.

“The Providence Fire Department sent a paddy wagon for us. I think they gave us more rum and took us home.

“I guess that Michalson towed the shell back to the Narragansett BC. Thanks, Vic.”

Ed Ashley: “I remember that excursion into the Harbor well. I could not believe it when Mike instructed people to bail out and swim to the pier with those towering piles. As we all know, when you swamp, if you leave the oars in the oarlocks and at a right angle to the boat, the boat will stabilize and you float nicely, with the water line about midchest. If you are careful with the recovery, to keep the blades slicing back, you can even row with some appreciable headway . Since I did not swim much at all, as was true of the cox and another in the boat, I instructed them to sit tight, ignore the instructions to leave, and we watched the others like George scamper up the pilings. a Greek freighter tied up to the pier were taking an interest in all this, and we waited for Mike to come back with the launch, which he did. We boarded and were ferried over to the freighter where the crew had dropped a ladder. clambered up, were taken down to the boiler room and given some sludge -like Greek coffee which tasted wonderful as we warmed up by the boilers. A memorable feature of the spring trips to DC and PBC was that we got to experience nice warm spring weather at least a month earlier than it arrived in Providence. It was short sleeves and rowing trou instead of wet sweats and icicles on the riggers.

“I well remember Vic Michalson’s spring vacation workouts. High wind and big waves well as frigid air. We ate quite well at the exclusive catering restaurant that was between the Pembroke and Brown campuses. The meals were also memorable in that Vic gave us lots of high protein supplements which resulted in many of us getting violently sick until we figured out the cause.

“That same Spring Vic hated to go upstream in the Seekonk and we usually headed down the Providence River. One memorable day several of our boats got trapped down by the ship docks by high winds and large waves. We could only watch as wave after wave of cold water curled over the gunwales until we were all completely swamped. which we tied to the riggers. I well remember looking up the towering two-foot plus diameter pilings and wondering how I was going to scale them. Somehow Philby and I quickly learned how to shinny up the pilings and made it to the top and safety just as ambulances showed up on the scene. We then watched as the longshoremen hauled up our shell to the docks. I don’t have a clue as to how the boats got back to the boathouse but they made it unscathed. We then got to read about the whole incident in the Providence Journal.”

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