Roddy L’Estrange: Vinny craving light at the end of the tunnel

Like the rowing heroes of The Boys in the Boat, Angie now facing her biggest battle


All was still on the Montlake Cut, the most famous stretch of rowing water in Seattle, when Vinny Fitzpatrick arrived at dawn on Monday morning.

His body clock was still in synch with Dublin and he’d lain awake for a couple of hours before making the pilgrimage to this special place. For it was here, 80 years previously, where a crew of kids from nearby Washington University, learned their craft and ruled the world. Vinny knew this because he had read all about The Boys In The Boat on the flight from Dublin.

Angie had been sedated and slept most of the way, stirring briefly for the connection in Chicago’s O’Hare. She had missed three meals, not that they went astray for Vinny could grub for Ireland.

As his wife rested in preparation for her cancer treatment, Vinny had been gripped by a riveting story of hope and glory on the water, by every dip of the blade, every surge of the springy cedar prow.

The names of the eight-man crew, and their cox, tripped off his tongue: Moch, Hume, Rantz, Hunt, McMillin, White, Adam, Day and Morris.

Eight giants who leaned on the diminutive Moch for steering and instructions. When Moch said jump, they cried “how high?”

These working class West Coast coolers rowed a mind-numbing 469,000 strokes of oar for just 28 miles of career racing, and blazed a trail like no others in their pliable shell.

As serious rowers, they did more before 8.0am than most people did for the rest of the day.

Snatched gold

For four years, 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1937, the homespun Huskies were huge, peaking in the Berlin Olympics where, in the tightest finish of all, they snatched gold under Hitler’s ’tache.

“And to think it all started here,” thought Vinny, as he stared out across Lake Washington. Vinny’s own experience of rowing had been with the Dollymount Sea Scouts as a burly teenager.

Every other Saturday in summer, he rowed from one side of the Blue Lagoon to the other, against fellow Dublin troops, before a reward of macaroons and pop.

Vinny was no Sean Drea and his hefty bulk would cause the craft to dip perilously low in the water. On choppy mornings, it often meant a soaking but he enjoyed the splash-dash of it all.

The final day of February in the north-west of America was mild, flecked by rain and light of wind. The lake was like a millpond.

“It’s a perfect morning for rowing,” thought Vinny.

At that, he heard steps behind him. Turning, he saw a phalanx of young men, and women, walking in silence towards the slipway. They were tall, lean and clad in purple shirts emblazoned with a large white “W”.

In their midst, eight men held aloft a boat of mature vintage, of red and yellow woodwork.

“It couldn’t be, could it?” thought Vinny as the vessel was placed tenderly in the water.

On the bow, Vinny spied the name, Husky Clipper – it was the same boat, lovingly crafted by George Pocock, which flowed to Olympic glory on the Langer See. In rowing terms, the boat was royalty. “By Jiminy,” he said.

Soon, a second boat arrived, a shiny fibre-glass shell, with “WU” on its side and a Latin inscription Lux Sit. She was borne high by her crew, all female.

Vinny was intrigued. “What’s going on?” he whispered to a fellow rubber-necker, a spindly bespectacled chap.

“It’s the Montlake Paddle, don’t you know? A fun race every four years on February 29 between the sophomores of WU, boys and girls.

“It’s over 2,000 metres, the Olympic distance, and finishes at the Conibear Shellhouse. It’s all about pride and bragging rights. Boy, do the winners brag.”

Growing throng

As the teams rowed out to a point in Union Bay from where they would race to the shoreline, Vinny thought of Ratty in The Wind In The Willows who said, “there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats”.

Only this messing was half-serious as the Husky Clipper, in her ninth decade, had a reputation to uphold.

Vinny followed the growing throng up the slipway, past the Husky Stadium, to the shell house, now ringed by students of WU. He found a vantage point on a bluff overlooking the sound.

“This beats Oxford and Cambridge larking about on the Thames any day of the week,” he thought.

The race lasted seven minutes and was tight until the final 200 metres when the boys found a little extra and the Husky Clipper, defiant to the end, drew clear to win by half a length – the old girl had never lost it.

As the roars subsided, a megaphone was thrust into the hand of the losing stroke, a tiny waif who congratulated the winning team and then did a curious thing.

Happy couple

“Considering the day that’s in it, I’d like to ask for the hand of marriage of Joe Williams, to become my lawfully wedded husband.”

From the stern of the Husky Clipper, Joe Williams, for it must have been he, stood up. He was 6ft 6in, all smiles, and Vinny spied him mouthing the words “I do”, in reply.

As the happy couple embraced before plunging into the chill water, cheers rang out, just as they did 80 years back when The Boys In The Boat were in their prime.

Vinny sat on his vantage point for a wee while, waiting for the students to disperse and return to campus.

The morning’s event had stirred in him an inner glow.

He thought of Angie, about to embark on a fight where she would need to strain every sinew, and be positive from the first pull to the last.

He thought too of the College motto he’d seen earlier, Lux Sit and blessed himself. “Please God,” he said. “Let there be light.”

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