Skip to navigation Skip to content Skip to footer

Yale-Harvard Regatta is 160 Years Old Friday

The 1952 Yale-Harvard Regatta program commemorates the 100th anniversary of the event, the first intercollegiate competition in America.
The 1952 Yale-Harvard Regatta program commemorates the 100th anniversary of the event, the first intercollegiate competition in America.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – On August 3, 1852, three crews from Harvard and Yale met on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee to race against each other for the first time.  In this two-mile (3 km) contest, Harvard's Oneida prevailed over Yale's Shawmut by about two lengths, with Yale's Undine finishing third. The prize for first place was a pair of black walnut, silver inscribed trophy oars.  General Franklin Pierce, who would later become the 14th President of the United States, was in attendance.

Since that day in 1852, the Yale-Harvard Regatta has been contested an additional 146 times in various locations in the northeast, becoming an annual event in 1864.  Sports Illustrated has called this the most venerable rivalry in all of college sports, and as the oldest collegiate athletic event in the country, the Yale-Harvard Regatta is indeed the cornerstone of intercollegiate athletic competition in the United States.

This competition was the first test for the Yale University Boat Club, which was established on May 24, 1843, when a group of Yale students purchased a small rowing shell called the Whitehall.  Harvard would found its boat club the following year.

The second matchup between the two schools was three years later in July 1855 on the waters of the Connecticut River in Springfield, Mass.  The third and fourth matchups were in 1859 and 1860, and Yale would win for the first time by a margin of 42 seconds in 1864 when the two schools raced over three miles on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Mass., where the Eastern Sprints are held today.

The first race in New London, Conn., was in 1878, where the Regatta is still held today over four miles of the Thames River.

Since 1859 the two varsity crews from each school have been competing for the Sexton Cup, but eventually other events were added.  First a three-mile junior varsity race was established for the F. Valentine Chappell Trophy, then a two-mile freshman race for the New London Cup.  Finally another two-mile race with boats made up of rowers from the third varsity and second freshman was put in place, a race for the James P. Snider Cup that usually kicks off the Regatta weekend on Friday afternoon.

The overall regatta champion of the Yale-Harvard Regatta receives the Hoyt C. Pease and Robert Chappell, Jr. Trophy, but the real prize is for the winner of the varsity race, who earns the right to paint their school colors on the rock near the finish line.

In its 160-year history the race has been a dual between the two schools save for one year.  In 1897 Cornell also took part in the race, held that year on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.  The Big Red finished first that year but Yale finished ahead of Harvard so the Bulldogs are credited with the win in the Yale-Harvard Regatta.

While the first Yale-Harvard Regatta was an unprecedented athletic event in the U.S. at its time, the format of the Regatta can trace its roots to England.  23 years before the Oneida, Shawmut and Undine lined up next to each other, crews from Oxford and Cambridge raced against each other in the first Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in 1829.  That race became an annual event in 1856, and sure enough the Boat Race pits eight-oared crews from Oxford and Cambridge against each other over four miles of the Thames River in London, England.

In terms of athletic competition between Harvard and Yale, the Regatta predates both the first official Yale-Harvard baseball game (1868) and the first Yale-Harvard football game (1875).  As far as collegiate rowing competitions in the United States, the Yale-Harvard Regatta was the main event for a few decades.  In 1872 a collection of rowers in Philadelphia formed the College Boat Club of the University of Pennsylvania, around the same time rowing was getting off the ground at Princeton and Columbia.  The three schools met for the first time in 1879 to race for the Childs Cup, which they still race for today.  In 1894 the Intercollegiate Rowing Association was established with Columbia, Cornell and Penn as the initial member schools, and its first annual regatta was held the following year.  Collegiate boat racing took hold on the West Coast only after the turn of the century, for in 1903 the University of Washington established a rowing program to compete against Cal in a dual race.

The Yale-Harvard Regatta finds its anniversary in the midst of the 2012 London Olympics, and twice the winning Yale crew in New London has gone on to be the winning eight in the Olympic games later that year.  On June 20, 1924, Yale rowed to a 12-second victory over Harvard on the Thames River, then less than one month later on July 17 rowed to a 15-second victory over Canada to win a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics, capping off an undefeated season.  Yale won the U.S. Olympic Trials in the eight again leading up to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.  This time the games took place in November, and Yale took home gold in the middle of a five-year streak of Yale-Harvard victories for the Bulldogs between 1954 and 1958.  Yale is the only Ivy League school to have its eight win an Olympic gold medal.

The Yale-Harvard Regatta has had some notable historical figures and big names take part in the four-mile endeavor over the years.  The 1924 Yale crew alone featured captain James Stillman Rockefeller '24 in four-seat, whose great uncle was oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller.  In front of Rockefeller in seven-seat was Benjamin Spock '25, the future doctor whose book, "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" was the second-best selling book after the Bible for more than 50 years in the late 20th century.  Also in the crew was two-seat Frederick Sheffield '24, part of the Sheffield family that was a huge benefactor to science at Yale and for whom Yale's largest lecture hall, Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, is named after in part.

Ever since Franklin Pierce attended that first race between Harvard and Yale, the race has continued to be something of a presidential affair.  President Theodore Roosevelt was in attendance for the 50th Anniversary Regatta and saw a 13-second Yale victory.  In 1908, then-Secretary of War William Howard Taft '78 and his wife made a stop while campaigning for president to stand on the banks of the Thames and take in the races.  In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., the son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, rowed against Yale in the Harvard junior varsity crew.

For over a century the Yale heavyweight crew team has called Gales Ferry its home in the weeks leading up to the race.  The varsity quarters, boathouse and coaches' house are all owned and operated by Yale heavyweight crew.  The varsity quarters date back to the late 18th century when they were originally a private residence, while the boathouse was designed by James Gamble Rogers, the architect who designed much of Yale's New Haven campus.  The training compound at one point also included a clubhouse where former Yale oarsmen could drop in at any point during the year and enjoy a "delightful river resort with every club convenience."

Historically a large majority of the races between Harvard and Yale have been held in June, at the very end of the rowing season after both the Eastern Sprints and IRA National Championships.  Three years ago, the regatta was moved in between the two, held now in May the week before the IRA's.

Today both teams do not experience the Yale-Harvard Regatta as those first crews in 1852 did.  The May weather on the Thames is not quite the same as the August weather on Lake Winnipesaukee.  Gone are the observation trains that followed the race from the shore, as are the grandstands erected to cater to crowds of thousands.  The boats are different as are the oars, seats and racing kit.  But as a showdown between two storied institutions – who were the original rival schools – the Regatta remains the same.

Report filed by Yale Sports Publicity