Dan Boyne’s Rowing Tale

Rowing Tales 2018 cover

Dan Boyne, a resident of Boston, Massachusetts in the U.S., has served for many years as Harvard University’s Director of Recreational Rowing. He is also the author of Essential Sculling (The Lyons Press), Kelly: A Father, a Son, an American Quest (Mystic), and The Red Rose Crew: A True Story of Women, Winning and the Water (Hyperion/Lyons). Dan has also written articles for The Atlantic Monthly, Harvard Magazine, Double Take, Wooden Boat, and Gray’s Sporting Journal, among others.

He, too, recalls Harry Parker in his Rowing Tale 2018 [link to buy book].

Rowing With Harry

I got the call in late September, when all the crews had already been out training on the Charles River for several weeks.

“Dan, it’s Harry,” the caller said, dispensing with the normal pleasantries.

The dark timber of the voice, bordering on a growl, was unmistakable. It was Harry Parker, the Harvard men’s heavyweight coach.

“Yes, Harry,” I replied, immediately bracing myself. Usually when Parker called it only meant one thing — you’d done something wrong, and he was going to let you know about it.

“I’m calling because my son David can’t row with me in the Head of the Charles this year, and I thought you might be interested in taking his place.”

I paused for a moment, caught off guard. Wait, I thought. Parker was asking me to row with him? 

Rowing Tales 2018 cover
Cover art by Annabel Eyres

“You and David are about the same weight,” he added, sensing my confusion.

“Right,” I said. “Well, I haven’t been training much this fall…”

“You have three weeks, so that should be plenty,” he said. “Think about it,” he added. Then he abruptly hung up.

Great, I thought. Now I’m in for it.

I busied myself with a boat repair I’d been tending to, sanding down the rough edges of a gunnel, while I considered my options. There was no good way to say “no” to Parker; then again, there was no good way to say “yes”. If we did poorly, I was going to feel lousy about letting him down; then again, if we did well, there wouldn’t be any real kudos, for success with Parker was pretty much expected. In short, it was a no-win situation for me. But of course I called him back the next day and agreed to do it.

“Great,” he said. “I have a double at Newell that we can use.”

“Okay. Do you want to practice at all?” I asked.

“Sure, we can go over the course a few times,” he said.

And so the deal was done. We’d be competing in the championship doubles event in a few weeks’ time. No problem.

I was curious, of course, to be in a boat with Mr. Parker, even though at age 54 he was a few decades past his competitive heyday. It was difficult to coach and compete at the same time, so Parker had opted out of rowing his single for a while and teamed up with his son. By moving into the double, the pressure for him to perform well in the Head of the Charles was reduced, although not necessarily for the person who had to partner with him.

I was 29 at the time, and I considered anyone over 50 “over the hill”. I knew that Parker had never really gotten out of shape, however, for I’d seen him running in the fall triathlon with his varsity squads. While his hairline may have receded, his muscular body was still quite fit. And so, not wanting to embarrass either my new sculling partner or myself, I started running a few stadium flights and getting out on the river in a single every day. Then, when the first week of October rolled around, I walked over the bridge to Newell Boathouse during my lunch break and Harry and I had our first practice together.

After we put the double into the water there was no discussion about the seating plan — Harry just dropped into the stroke-seat without saying a word. I breathed a sigh of relief and set myself up in the bow. There, at least, he wouldn’t be able to critique my rowing, and as a former 7-seat I prided myself at being extremely adept at following and adjusting to whoever was put in front of me.

But as we shoved off and took our first few full-length strokes at pressure, I soon faced a challenge unlike any I had faced before. Not only was Parker’s stroke unique in its construction — quick and powerful — it was also not entirely predictable, much like the man himself. I shortened up my reach and made do, compressing my normally long delivery into a quick attack.

When you pattern yourself on someone else, rowing-wise or otherwise, there are often unforeseen consequences. Everyone is guilty of imitation to some degree, for we are all hungry to copy others who inspire us. On a long-term basis, however, unbridled emulation is seldom a good idea. Not only does it prove an impossible task in the short run, but it also begins to compromise your own style. In this way it eventually becomes a double-edged sword. In my six-year tenure at Harvard, I’d seen many of Parker’s assistant coaches get sucked into the gravitational pull of his strong personality only to be spit out the other side, dazed and confused; for the myth and the man were two separate things.

Coach Parker certainly produced superlative winning crews, but off the water Harry could be as elusive and testy as a tiger. As such, I’d always found it best to keep my distance, even when I worked part-time for his boatman. But now I was sitting right behind him.

After we’d done a few minutes of firm paddling, he suggested, “Let’s do some 20s.” Strangely enough, I was already winded.

“Sure thing,” I said.

We rowed over the Head of the Charles course, stopping occasionally while my senior rowing partner pointed out some of the important landmarks for me to use while I was steering. Our ideal course was more toward the middle of the river than I had imagined, and we forsook the inside corner at a few key turns. After we’d made it to Northeastern, we turned around and paddled home, and by the end of the row I’d more-or-less gotten the hang of his abbreviated stroke.

“That was just fine,” he said. “But the boat is a little hard on the turns.”

After we put the double away, he instructed his boatman at the time, Charlie Smith, to saw off some of the fin so that it would steer around the turns better. Other than that, we were good to go. We had one more practice row together, and that was it. I don’t think Harry actually liked being in a boat with anyone. You can tell by the way someone rows if they care how easy it is to follow them, and he really didn’t give a damn.

When the day of the race finally rolled around, there was a typical head wind coming down most the course, which meant that the finish times would be markedly slow. Parker and I strode out of the Newell bays, carrying our double past a gauntlet of Harvard alumni oarsmen who looked at me with a wry curiosity that felt like combination of envy and pity.

“Good luck,” one alumnus named Greg Stone said, grinning.

Suddenly I wasn’t sure if I should feel honored or more like a sacrificial lamb.

I’d heard about Parker’s super-competitive, cutthroat nature, but I’d never really experienced it first-hand. I’d seen things around the boathouse, of course, like the time he’d reduced one of his insubordinate varsity oarsmen to a quivering mass of jelly, his angry voice booming through the bays like bursts of thunder. But I’d never personally been the recipient of his wrath.

We shoved off from the dock without ceremony, and quickly merged into the parade of boats heading downstream. As we paddled along, several other doubles were on their way to the starting line, and they hailed us warmly. Most everyone, it seemed, treated Parker with the reverence due to a rowing deity, and for the day I basked in the afterglow. At the Riverside Boathouse, a couple of senior master scullers from that club actually stopped rowing to let us pass.

“Hello, Harry!” one of them shouted.

Harry nodded, as if to give them his blessing.

Once we’d rowed out of earshot, however, Harry turned around and said:

“See those guys? We’ll pass them before the first mile marker.”

I had to stifle my laughter when I suddenly realized that Parker wasn’t joking around.

Then it was time to race.

We approached the starting line at full tilt, ignoring the starter’s instructions to build slowly into it. I matched my strokes to Parker’s as best I could, even though our rhythm felt a bit rushed and the stroke length restricted. Still, I could feel our boat moving along at decent clip. After one minute, no one had moved on us. Another minute passed, and sure enough, just before we got to Riverside, we began to overtake the two friendly guys who’d said ‘hi’ to us during our warm up. As we went by, they actually started cheering us on. That was weird, I thought. They wanted us to pass them.

At Weeks Bridge, however, our luck ran out when a slower double right in front of us refused to move over.

“Port pressure,” I said.

“Why?” Parker barked back at me.

“Boat in front of us,” I gasped. “They won’t move.”

“Run into them!” Parker shouted.

We charged ahead, briefly clashing blades with the other double.

Our adversaries looked at us, surprised and bewildered, as the angry man in the back of our boat glowered at them. When Harry was unhappy his face seemed to lengthen and turn to granite, like some sort of ancient gargoyle.

“YIELD!” Parker shouted.

By now I was already spent, but there was still over a mile to go. Fortunately, crowds of Harvard oarsmen and alumni cheered us on from Anderson Bridge and then from Newell as we chugged by. My legs and lungs were riddled with pain, and for the last two minutes of the race I resorted to counting off sets of 10 to myself, like a prisoner marking off the final days of his confinement.

When we finally finished, I felt that awful feeling in my arms and legs and lungs, like I’d swallowed poison and it was now running through my veins.

“Good job!” Harry said, turning around and patting my foot as I gasped for breath.

He was jubilant as we rowed back to Newell, bantering with other boats and teasing them as they went by. Back at Newell, Greg Stone asked me how it went.

“It was an interesting experience,” I said. “But I’m not sure I’ll repeat it.”

He smiled and nodded.

It was, in fact, the first and last time I rowed with Mr. Parker. A few days later his wife, Kathy Keeler, revealed to me that when the race results were posted Harry became less enthusiastic about our performance. Despite passing two or three boats and not getting passed, we finished 29th out of 44 boats, not all that much better than his previous year’s outing with his son. Harry eventually went back to his single, competing in the Head for several more years, doing well in the senior master and grand master events before taking on his long battle with myelodyspastic syndrome, a rare blood disease, which eventually took his life when he was 77.

A few years after his passing, I was out on the river with a group of master scullers who had taken up the sport of rowing in the latter half of their lives. Among the group was a guy who had been quite successful in the business world and was not shy about broadcasting his various achievements to others. Somehow, as we rowed along, the topic of Harvard and Harry Parker came up.

“Yeah, I beat Harry Parker once, during his last Head of the Charles,” the guy said, bragging to his waterborne cronies.

I looked at him quietly, not saying a word, until he finally added:

“Of course, that was when he was dealing with cancer.”

I shook my head and rowed away, wondering what Parker would have done.

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