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Wet, Wild Adventures of Northwestern Crew


First rule of road trips — count heads.

On the way to the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia in May 2005, Peter Eck ran to the rest stop when the bus driver stopped for an early morning break in eastern Ohio. When Eck returned to the parking lot a few minutes later, the bus was gone.

No one on the bus had realized he was missing.

“I got back in my seat and closed my eyes. Five minutes down the road, my cell phone rang,” says Tiffany Wilson, then the crew race chair responsible for lodging and transportation. “It was Peter Eck.

“‘Hey Tiff, where are you?’

“‘On the bus, Peter. Where are you?’

“‘I’m at Hardees. I had to get a milkshake.’”

Wilson, a Medill School of Journalism junior from Cincinnati, advised the driver that they had to turn the bus around. Then Eck, a Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science junior from Lake Bluff, Ill., called back and said he was going to hitch a ride with a truck driver and meet the team at the next exit.

Fearing for Eck’s safety, Wilson nervously watched as semi after semi zoomed past.

“Finally the truck pulled up, and Peter hopped on out, happy as can be,” Wilson says. “He threw a wave back to the driver and jumped on the bus to a round of applause.”

It’s unlikely Eck will be abandoned again. He and Wilson are co-presidents of the crew team for 2006–07.

For years the crew team practiced on the Chicago River near Navy Pier. Sarah Bender Elk (McC98) remembers scraping goose feces from the dock before practice every morning.

Once, while experimenting with a double, “a team member and I got too confident and flipped the boat by accident,” says Elk. “The police came and fined the team for not having life jackets in the launch and advised us to go get tetanus shots.

“It was gross. I had a rash for about three days.”

She’s not the only one who suffered from direct contact with Chicago River water. When the team practiced on Bubbly Creek, the old south fork of the Chicago River, then-freshman Erhan Altinoglu (McC04) wanted to impress his teammates. As they were bailing water out of a boat, he decided he’d show off by drinking the water out of the coach’s shoe.

He vomited for a week afterward.

Brian Boardman (J98) is lucky to be alive after his boat swamped during a spring break trip to Augusta, Ga., where the team practiced on the Savannah River despite a dangerously fast current and high water level.

Conditions grew progressively worse. “There were white caps everywhere. It was like the end of the world,” Boardman remembers. Eventually the boat swamped, and the water was “breathtakingly cold.”

The eight rowers and coxswain flipped the boat over, undid the oars, abandoned the boat and swam to shore.

After shivering uncontrollably on the shore, the coach and the three skinniest rowers decided to venture back to the landing on the launch, a motor boat with an open deck. With one big wave the launch also swamped in the middle of the river.

The coach and rowers kicked to shore and huddled under a fleece jacket awaiting assistance. Meanwhile, the five rowers and coxswain left down river saw the empty life vests wash by.

Eventually a rescue pontoon picked up the shivering rowers.

When the team finally found the shell that they had abandoned, it had traveled all the way down the river, almost to the ocean.

It’s memories such as these that stand out for Derrick Grava (WCAS84), the crew team founder, who helped the team celebrate its 25th anniversary when Northwestern hosted its first-ever regatta on the North Shore Channel in early October 2005. Before the race the team christened the Marjorie Catherine and the Derrick & Joan Grava, the latter named for Derrick and his wife, Joan Kraft Grava (C82), who met while on the crew team in 1981. (Both boats were later destroyed in an accident in March.)

“Long after graduation, when you are up with a sick child at 2 a.m. or have to catch an early morning flight after a late-night business meeting, you will remember your days on crew,” Grava told the current crop of rowers at the dedication. “You will recall the obstacles you overcame, and you will know that you have the stamina and determination to persevere.”

The Gravas sponsored the boat in honor of their 20th wedding anniversary. “Some people go on a trip, some people get jewelry. We decided the nicest thing to do for each other was this,” says Derrick. (It seems crew sparks romantic relationships. Other crew couples include Nicole Beaulieu Boardman [SESP99] and Brian Boardman [J98], Ann Gahl Bruinsma [WCAS98] and Douwe Bruinsma [WCAS99], Jason Elk [WCAS97] and Sarah Bender Elk [MCC98] and Jenn Bonzagni Marshall [WCAS97] and Charlie Marshall [McC98].)

Derrick says he is proud of how far the team has come since its meager beginnings.

“We had eager participants, but nowhere close to the funding we needed,” he remembers. “I remember going to Waterloo, Iowa, and sleeping on the floor of a gym and rowing with borrowed equipment. It’s not something you forget easily.”

— S.H.