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Crew team surprised, excited for new boats

The Mills College crew team now has two brand new boats to add to its fleet of rowing equipment.

The boats, technically called “shells,” include an eight and a four, named for the number of rowers they hold, plus a coxswain.

Team members were taken by surprise when Head Coach Carrie Davis, new this fall, presented them with the shells on the first morning of practice, Sept. 21.

The crew team has been rowing in very old boats for a long time. For years, the team had three eights: the Jan Holmgren, which was was bought in 1997, the Jalperi in 1992 and the Una Destinacio in 1989. The Honorable Barbara Lee ’73 and Briones, both fours, were also bought years ago.

Dawn approaches as one V8 racing shell rows in Briones Reservoir. (Jennifer Courtney)
Dawn approaches as one V8 racing shell rows in Briones Reservoir. (Jennifer Courtney)

In the spring of 2008 the team acquired a used eight. It was named Zen, for the middle name of Wendy Franklin-Willis, who was then head coach and bought the boat to boost the competitiveness of a team that was increasing in both numbers and dedication.

Racing in old shells can hinder a crew’s final time in a sport that judges winners based on who crosses the finish line first. This is because shells loose their stiffness over time, resulting in a loss of speed in the water. When boats are stiff they resist flexing under the force exerted by rowers, so all of the rowers’ energy can go toward pushing the boat forward. Newer boats are also lighter, requiring the rowers to propel less weight through the water.

A V8 racing shell. (Jennifer Courtney)
A V8 racing shell. (Jennifer Courtney)

When varsity rowers took the new eight out on the water for the first time Sept. 30, they commented on how easily it glided through the water, how smooth it felt under their seats, and just how light it was.

“It’s like carrying a feather,” said Rebecca Waterhouse, president of the Class of 2010 and a third-year rower.

Senior Chelsea DeSouza, a four-year rower, said it was frustrating to feel held back by the team’s equipment.

“There were times where we’d be racing, against other crews, in boats that were 15 to 20 pounds heavier than theirs. We were becoming more and more competitive and we needed equipment to accommodate us and our competitive spirit. The past two years have been amazing for equipment. We now have two very lightweight eights and one incredibly fast bow-loading four,” said DeSouza. “Our boats are now the same as any of the other top rowing programs in the country and it shall be an interesting season now that we have evened out the playing field.”

The specifics: a Pocock Hypercarbon V8 racing shell and a bow-loading Standard Line K4+ racing shell, both with CoxBox wiring and speakers installed. CoxBoxes are devices that count time and display how many strokes per minutes the boat is rowing. They also hook up to microphones that help coxswains project their voices as they motivate rowers, give technical calls and make commands pertaining to the crew’s safety.

The V8 retails for $32,600 and the K4+ for $16,400. Pocock is one of the leading retailers of rowing shells in the United States.

Director of Athletics Themy Adachi would not discuss the details surrounding why the racing shells were bought at this time nor how long the purchase has been in the works, but did say purchasing the new equipment was made possible due to money the crew team has raised and the accumulated funds in the Athletics endowment accounts.

“These are indeed exciting times for Mills rowers,” said Adachi in an email.

Crew team members carrying a shell into the boat house. (Jennifer Courtney)
Crew team members carrying a shell into the boat house. (Jennifer Courtney)

Fellow senior and four-year rower Kirin Khan also said how the team is in a much better place now, then when she and DeSouza first began their Mills crew careers three years ago.

Back then, not only was the equipment old, but there wasn’t even a boathouse to store the shells in — it had been demolished due to being structurally unsound. Rowers had to tie down the boats each day after practice on the slopes surrounding Briones reservior, and often pull birds nests from in between the tracks the next morning. A new boathouse was completed in the fall of 2007.

“Given the economic climate, when many schools are cutting athletics, and especially women’s athletics, it is a feminist and radical position to support strong women, literally; the boats are the building blocks to not only a stronger, more competitive Mills crew, but stronger, more confident future graduates,” Khan said.