A Famous Boat Race Victory Remembered at Lunch

May 14, 2004

AT lunch the other day the talk came around to “our finest hour,” and Oscar Gutiérrez, normally almost taciturn, shouted over the babble “I shall tell you how we won the Austral for Argentina.” Oscar, from Buenos Aires, is of medium height but heavily muscled, and in superb shape for a man pushing 70.“The Austral,” he began, “is the event of the year in Buenos Aires: a boat race with crews representing 20 countries. The course extends 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) on the River Plate, with the unusual feature of a 100-meter portage midway over a low peninsular.“The catch is that only one crew at a time may cross the portage, in strict order of arrival. It might seem that the first to arrive wins the race, but the record shows the reverse, usually due to over-exertion in the first half.“BOAT races are won by careful planning and skulduggery – just as much as expertise. We started training six months early with the intention of arriving first at the portage by hook or crook, and first at the finish by stamina and will-power. Representing Argentina, the eight of us were at the peak of mental and physical perfection – we were young gods, holding the future in our hands. “It was a standing start, the Steward usurping the Cox’s normal function by shouting ‘Are you ready? Come forward! Paddle!’ firing his pistol on the ‘P’ of paddle.“The first 10 strokes at maximum rate produced no obvious leader, so our Cox edged us carefully toward our right-hand neighbor, Ecuador, until our blade tips were barely a meter apart.“The maneuver is, of course, totally illegal, but it is hard to prove intent in the frenzy of a start, and so is rarely penalized. At any rate, the prospect of blade lock is terrifying if you really believe it and, sure enough, their over-imaginative Cox believed, applied excessive rudder to steer clear, and lost half a length.“As we pulled away, we directed our wash into their path, ruining their timing, and they fell another length behind.“We moved over to our left-hand opponents, the Venezuelans, but they were made of sterner stuff and our blades were almost touching before their No. 7 caught a crab in the whirlpool left by our No. 4’s blade. With their timing totally lost, they swung off course and crashed into the Spaniards, leaving us only the Germans and the Brazilians to beat.“BY now it was too late to pull any more tricks, and sheer determination had to get us first to the low duckboards jutting out from the peninsular. We made it by half a length.“Racing shells are incredibly fragile, sometimes breaking in half if mishandled, but we unshipped our oars and plucked our shell from the water, lifting it upside-down over our heads, and wading to the portage without mishap.“Only the first arrival can afford to stroll here, regaining strength for the second half, while the rest wait at the duckboards in impotent fury.“We were three lengths ahead when the Brazilians re-launched their shell, and they never recovered. Our stroll had dispersed the lactic acid invading our abused muscles, allowing us a final spurt that put us four lengths ahead at the finish.“RESTING on our slides, a curious reaction set in; No. 2 burst into tears and immediately everyone but Stroke followed suit, weeping for our squandered strength.“It stopped as suddenly as it began, and we dragged ourselves up to the dais to be embraced by the President and awarded the halice.“I had given my all, and something more, for my country, and in my terrible exhaustion I vowed never again to step into a racing shell. So, oddly enough, my finest hour was actually just before the start, not after our triumph.”

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