Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Charles Courtney, sculler

Goran Buckhorn at Hear the Boat Sing focuses today on the controversial career of the American sculler Charles Courtney. In the late 19th century, professional rowing existed mainly for gambling and huge amounts were wagered on the results. For some reason that has never been explained, Courtney failed to make the finishing line on several occasions. In 1887 he was poisoned by a cup of iced water he drank on the night before a critical race with James Riley, and in 1879 on the morning of his challenge race with Ned Hanlan for the world championship his boat was mysteriously found sawn in half. And in 1880 in another race against Hanlan, Courtney responded to Hanlan taking an early lead by simply rowing back to the start/finish line without going round the turning post.
Why? Courtney was an innovative rowing theorist, developing a new and very successful rowing style, and took an unusually puritanical line on fitness. He never drank nor smoked himself and in his later extremely successful career as a coach insisted on his crews abstaining also. On one occasion he sacked most of a crew for eating strawberry shortcake before a regatta, going on to win with a mainly substitute crew made of sterner moral fibre.
But what really endears Charles Courtney to me is a story I found in his entry in Wikipedia:
At 12, Courtney built his first boat out of hemlock boards and two inch planks that he had found. Due to his poor workmanship he plastered yellow clay on his boat to keep it water-tight. Once on the water the clay would eventually be washed away. This did not stop him and his friends from racing the boat. They would take turns to see who row it the farthest before it sank.

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