Rowing is the oldest organized intercollegiate sport at Brown. The University Boat Club, sometimes called the Brown Navy, was organized on June 4, 1857. On September 11 of that year a new boat, built by T. Vallely of East Boston and christened the Atalanta, was greeted at the India Point Depot by the Club, “borne to the water’s edge and launched on the the waves of Narragansett Bay with enthusiastic demonstration by the assembled crowd.” The Atalanta, six-oared and 44 feet long, described as “a cumbersome lap-streak, weighing three or four hundred pounds,” made a single appearance at Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester on July 27, 1859 in a race with Harvard and Yale. The crew consisted of Adoniram Brown Judson 1859, Elnathan Judson 1859, Edward H. Sears 1862, Charles H. Perry 1859, Charles D. Cady 1861, and Pardon S. Jastram 1860. The Atalanta, which weighed 150 pounds more than the other boats, finished third, crossing the line in 24 minutes, 40 seconds, far behind Harvard’s winning time of 19 minutes, 18 seconds. Hoping for a better showing, the Brown crew had another boat, named the Brunonia and weighing 205 pounds, built by McKay of Williamsburg for the upcoming regatta in Worcester on July 24, 1860. But before that took place, the Brunonia was tried out at the Beacon Regatta in Boston on June 24 and the South Boston Regatta on June 26, on both occasions suffering from fouls by the aggressive Irish crew of the Shamrock and in the second race from damage inflicted by the Shamrock’s oars. On July 4, 1860 the Brunonia entered a five-boat race including two Yale crews in the first general regatta in Providence. This time the ill-fated Brunonia withdrew from the race with a fracture in the outrigger of the stroke-oar. The Brown crew tried to interest the winning Yale crew in staying for another race on the next day, an offer which was declined despite the spontaneous subscription of “two or three hundred dollars” to finance an impromptu race. Ever optimistic, the crew proceeded to the Worcester regatta on July 24, this time with a shell named Brown, built by Donahue of Newburgh and weighing a mere 112 pounds. At the beginning of the race a crew member broke the foot-board, and the Brown boat limped home half full of water. The decision to enter the next day’s race in the Brunonia was cancelled when the boat was found to be leaking.
Interest in crew waned until the fall of 1869, when class crews were organized to take the place of rival clubs. In 1870 the freshman crew lost two three-mile races, one to the Narragansetts on June 2, and one to Harvard on June 17, but then brought Brown her first boating victory in Worcester in an exciting race in which Brown recovered time lost by a collision with the Amherst boat which had crossed over the bow of the Brown boat and, by executing a spectacular turn, overtook Yale and Harvard to win in 19 minutes, 21 seconds, six lengths ahead of second place Yale.
At the intercollegiate regatta of July 21, 1871, held for the first time at Ingleside on the Connecticut River, the Harvard freshman crew beat the Brown freshmen, who might have lost even if it had not been necessary to alter course to avoid hitting a sight-seeing barge. The varsity did not fare any better, finishing in third place after the Amherst Agricultural College and Harvard. The 1871 crew was under the charge of John Blew, a New York oarsman, and N. R. Knight of Providence was the trainer of the freshmen.
The Rowing Association of American Colleges took over the regulation of the regatta, and at a meeting in Worcester in April 1872 set the date of the regatta and also decided that students in the scientific departments of universities were not eligible for university crews. This decision was repealed the next year. The college regatta that year was rowed in the Connecticut River near Springfield. Brown entered only a freshman crew, which finished third in a race of four crews. In 1873 class crews at Brown competed against each other, but no crew was sent to Springfield. The next year the Class of 1877 crew went to Saratoga Springs, but did not finish the race. The college boat house burned on November 8, 1874. In January 1875 Brown was admitted as a voting member of the Rowing Association of American Colleges. A new boat built by Dine and Company was acquired, and the freshmen purchased a boat from the Amherst Agricultural College Boat Club for $125.
At the race at Saratoga in 1875, Brown came in eighth after suffering “a combination of two ‘crabs’ and a broken oar.” No crew was sent to Saratoga in 1876, the boat club being in debt and preferring to spend its dues on new boats. Some of the indebtedness of the Club was defrayed by the proceeds ($216.23) of a series of “Boat Club Lectures” on art and public speaking in February and March of 1876. On November 22, 1876, a convention met at Worcester and formed a rowing association of New England colleges. Delegates were present from Dartmouth, Trinity, and Brown (Bowdoin had signified intention of joining, but had sent no delegate.) Crew was given up in 1886-87 because of the impossibility of raising enough money to support both baseball and crew, the popularity of baseball naturally prevailing.
The subject of a crew for Brown was put forward from time to time, but was not well received because of the fear that a crew might take members away from the track team and would be a financial burden as there would be no gate receipts. It was not until 1949 that rowing was revived by a group of students who had rowed at their preparatory schools and got together to purchase for $100 a shell of questionable age, rumored to have been built for Harvard about 1930, but possibly older. This was the first eight-oared shell for Brown. Earlier shells had been four- and six-oared. They bought the shell from St. Andrew’s School in Delaware, the school attended by Jim Donaldson, captain of the newly formed crew, and carried it 450 miles back to Brown on the top of an Oldsmobile. Housing was arranged at the Narragansett Boat Club and oars were donated by Harvard and Princeton. The crew found a volunteer coach, Robert O. Read, who had rowed for Princeton, and began practicing on the Seekonk River. Their first season of informal competition consisted of losses to the Yale JV by two and a half lengths, to Dartmouth by one and a half lengths, and to Amherst in the last 200 yards, after which they finished fourth in the Stewards Cup Race in the American Henley Regatta in Boston. Crew races became part of Spring Weekend, the first in 1949 held in New Haven, and after that on the Seekonk River.
In the second informal season, with Durand Echeverria as coach and Harlan Bartlett ’51 as captain, the crew was authorized in April 1950 to row under the name, “The Brown University Rowing Association, an Informal Organization of Brown Undergraduates.” The University was not at this time able to give financial support to a varsity crew, but recognition of the informal crew made it possible to enter intercollegiate competition. The first intercollegiate race on the Seekonk since the 1870s was a victory for the Brown crew, which beat Clark University by four lengths and joyfully threw coxswain Ralph Gerstle into the river. In the next race, hosted by Brown for the newly established Atalanta cup, Dartmouth was the winner. There followed a loss to Yale’s third varsity, and participation in the first Bradley Regatta on the Connecticut River. The next year, with Robert Read as coach and Dave Curry as captain, the crew gained experience, if not victories. Echeverria coached again in 1952. Success came in the 1953 season with joint coaching by Echeverria, Read, and Bartlett, as the crew defeated Dartmouth, gaining its first Ivy League win and the Atlantic Cup.
Gordon “Whitey” Helander coached from 1958 to 1961 while he was a student at Rhode Island School of Design. His crews won the Dad Vail Regatta in 1959, 1960 and 1961. After an undefeated season the 1960 crew took part in the IRA regatta on Lake Onondaga at Syracuse without the presence of Helander, who was serving his annual Marine Corps military service. The crew, with a borrowed coach, Marine 1st Lt. Davis Pratt from the Naval Academy, finished fourth behind California, Navy, and Washington. Pratt was still in charge when the crew entered the Olympic trials on Lake Onondaga and, after a third place finish in the first heat, lost out in the second. This crew, with its volunteer and borrowed coaches, which had been called “The Orphans of the Seekonk” in the sports pages, had a new name, “The Cinderella Crew.” In 1961, when the crew had a 5-1 record, a fifth place in the Eastern Sprints at Worcester and a seventh in the IRA, rowing became recognized as an intercollegiate sport supported by the University. In August 1961 Victor H. Michalson came from coaching at Syracuse to become Brown’s first full-time crew coach. In 1962 Brown became a regular member of the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges, and the next year won the Eastern Sprints at Worcester. The first Brown crew to row in the Henley Royal Regatta lost to a strong British crew, the London Tideway Scullers by one and one-half lengths on June 30, 1966, and was removed from competition after its first race. The 1970 freshman crew won an IRA championship, and Brown won the Ivy League title in 1972. In 1973 the varsity eight finished second in the IRA national championships on Onondaga Lake.
The 1979 crew won the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta on Lake Onondaga. Steve Gladstone succeeded Michalson as coach in 1982. Brown won the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship in 1983, 1986, and 1987. In 1984 Brown capped its undefeated regular season by winning the the Eastern Sprints and setting a course record while defeating the University of Bristol, Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College, the University of Washington, and Princeton to win the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at the Henley Regatta. The 1985 heavyweight crew, after an unbeaten regular season, lost in the Eastern Sprints and the IRA. In 1987 the Brown crew won both the Eastern Sprints and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship, and narrowly (by 46 one-hundredths of a second) missed winning the Cincinnati Regatta. The 1988 crew came in second in the IRA’s and third in the national championship on Lake Harsha in Ohio. The 1993 crew had a perfect season. The eight-man crew made up of Igor Boraska ’94 (an accomplished Croatian rower), Paul DiGiacomo ’93, David Filippone ’95, Gus Koven ’93, Jamie Koven ’95, Xeno Muller ’95 (who rowed for Switzerland in the 1992 Olympics), Tony Padula ’93, Chris Sahs ’94 (who rowed for the United States in the 1992 Olympics) and Brian Madden ’93, coxswain, won the Eastern Sprints, the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships, and the national heavyweight eight championship. They capped off the perfect season on July 4 by winning the Ladies’ Plate at the Royal Henley Regatta.
Women’s crew began in the spring of 1974. Twenty-two women participated in the first trial season under the direction of Peter Amram ’65 and Lynda Calkins. In the only meet of 1974 the crew outrowed Assumption College, Holy Cross, and Clark University on Lake Quinsigamond. Shells were borrowed from the men’s crew until November of 1976, when the first shell for the use of the women was acquired and named for Bessie Rudd, former director of physical education at Pembroke. The second shell obtained in 1978 was named for Judy and Paul Maddock ’33, and a launch acquired the same year was named for Marjorie and Stan Smith ’21. In 1979 the third shell was dedicated to the Smiths. Amram gave up his duties as part-time coach in 1979, and Gavin Viano was appointed as head coach. Two women crew members, Kathryn Reith ’78 and Betts Howes ’77 rowed in national competition in 1976 for the College Boat Club of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1983-84 Phoebe Plimpton coached her first novice boat to an undefeated dual season and a third place at the Eastern Sprints. The next year the novices won a silver and a bronze medal, while John Murphy’s first varsity team came in third to win Brown’s first women’s varsity crew medal in the Easterns. The women’s varsity won its first Eastern Collegiate Rowing Association Championship in 1988 with a record time of 6:23.2 on the 1,950-meter course on Lake Waramaug in Connecticut. The 1990 women’s crew won its first Eastern Women’s Rowing Team Championship. In 1991 women’s crew boats finished first in the Head of the Ohio Regatta, second (but first collegiate) in the Head of the Connecticut, and tenth in the Head of the Charles. Coach John Murphy’s eight-year record from 1985 to 1992 was 30-26.