The Last Word

One glorious afternoon in fall 1965 — the start of my sophomore year — I arrived at Baker Field to find crew practice canceled. Instead of returning home I took a single shell from the boathouse and, for the first and only time, rowed through the Spuyten Duyvil, across the Hudson, into the shadows of the Palisades. The sun’s slanting rays cast a golden glow on smooth autumn waters. The boat rolled easily through the glassy wakes of freighters heading upriver. The dark air beneath the Jersey cliffs chilled the sweat.

Forty years later (after a heart attack), that singular memory inspired me to take up rowing again, albeit on a tamer lake near my home in Madison, Wis.

Last fall, planning for my 50th reunion brought up recurring memories of a classmate and crewmate, John Norton Jr. ’68, who died in 1969, just a year after our graduation. An Australian aircraft carrier sliced through the bow of his Navy destroyer, sending 73 sailors to the bottom of the South China Sea. Since Norton lived most of his short life in and around Manhattan, I decided to remember him by rowing around the island.

So, on a Sunday morning in June, while the Class of 1968 was heading to a reunion breakfast in Alfred Lerner Hall, I pushed off from Columbia’s boathouse with a younger cousin for a 33-mile row around Manhattan in single shells. I was nervous, even a bit frightened. I had never rowed longer than 12 miles and, at 73, doubted I still had the endurance. At reunion, three classmates with whom I’d rowed advised against tempting fate. A fourth warned about capricious currents at Hell Gate that once nearly overwhelmed his ocean-going sailboat.

50th Reunion

John Nachilly

But those fears evaporated as we turned into the Hudson at 6:30 a.m., exhilarated to find calm waters and a fast ebb tide. As we flew downriver, Manhattan unfurled before us, from the spires of Riverside Church and the spectacular skyscraper geometrics of Hudson Yards, to the soaring towers of the Financial District. At Midtown, that speed was needed when I found myself between a massive barge and its dock, sprinting away as a stocky tug crewman rained obscenities upon my head.

Rounding the Battery at lower Manhattan, the Hudson’s calm waters gave way to ocean swells from the Verrazano Narrows, chop from countless ferries and headwinds on the East River. Yet we still needed speed to clear a Staten Island Ferry as its engines churned for departure. Once across that busy harbor into the lee of the Brooklyn waterfront, the river rewarded every stroke with an ever-changing panorama — the sinuous Brooklyn Bridge, the sculpted Manhattan Bridge, the silvery Freedom Tower. While Manhattan soared even more majestically from so low to the water, the Brooklyn-Queens shoreline was littered with a century of concrete rubble and rotting piles.

We timed our passage through Hell Gate for the brief slack tide, but midway across my cousin shouted “whirlpool” and we strained against swirling currents. Minutes later, I was blindsided by a ferry’s wake, with waves so high they blocked my view. But with one short stroke, my old boat turned stern first into the swell and stayed true as I surfed through steep rollers that otherwise could have capsized me.

Heading up the Harlem River around 1 p.m., I remembered the succession of bridges overhead from those long-ago crew practices. Beneath the high span of Hamilton Bridge that marked our turn for a three-mile grind back to the boathouse, I decided to see if I could still do it and so relearned rowing’s shared secret: pain that penetrates every sinew. But when you reach the dock at Baker Field’s boathouse, as I did at 2:30 p.m., it suddenly stops, instantly forgotten.

As we were leaving the boathouse, a van pulled in and two young oarsmen with medals around their necks got out. “Were those gold?” I asked. “Yes,” they said, smiling — Columbia’s lightweight crew had just won the national championships by a second.

Yet rowing is more than winning. A boat, a blade, water, motion — it’s elemental, even spiritual, bonding all who share a boat, even 50 years later. I guess that’s why all of us who rowed with him still think about John Norton, fondly and sadly.