According to Northeastern coach John Pojednic, the Charles River isn't the safest place to be these days.
The river is choked with boats. Wakes are everywhere. And for the past three seasons, there has been one great white shark of a shell chewing up the others and leaving the Charles littered with kindling: Harvard's heavyweight boat.
''What they've done is set a higher standard for our sport. And that's a great thing," Pojednic said.
Harvard, the two-time defending national champion, will launch into Worcester's Lake Quinsigamond tomorrow as the top-ranked boat in the Eastern Sprints, which the Crimson have won the last two years. This season, Harvard has earned each of its six wins by open water. The Crimson, who will compete in a morning heat with Brown, Dartmouth, Rutgers, and Columbia, most likely en route to a slot in the six-boat grand final, haven't lost in dual competition since 2001. The Harvard lightweights are also the top seed tomorrow.
''It's not a secret," Harvard coach Harry Parker said of his team's recent domination. ''We've been lucky to have some very capable and highly motivated people. Maybe we've gotten a few more of them the last few years than in other years."
It's a formula that has the Northeasterns and Navys and Princetons asking just how the boys from Cambridge have pulled ahead. To Pojednic, there are two possibilities: Harvard attracts the top recruits because of its tradition, or the Crimson are simply rowing better than everybody else. Pojednic believes the latter.
''It's more of an excuse, I think," Pojednic said of Harvard's recruiting advantage as the explanation of its success. ''We have to face reality: They've just raised the bar and taken it to a higher level. They've said, 'We're going to try and do this better than everybody else.' They're working very hard down there and they're very good at this sport."
Two weeks ago, Pojednic's crew learned just how good Harvard can be. On April 30, Harvard crossed the finish line in 5 minutes 42.8 seconds and claimed its eighth straight Smith Cup win, posting a 2-length, seven-second win over the Huskies. The boats started the race even, but the aggressive Harvard shell attacked in its sweet spot between 500 and 1,500 meters, taking advantage of its strength and stamina to cruise to the open-water win.
The sight was similar to the victories the Crimson recorded in the past two years as national champs. Last season, the Crimson won in the grand final of the Eastern Sprints with a time of 5:42.85, edging Princeton by nearly 2 lengths. At the grand final of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta, Harvard defended its 2003 national title with an open-water win over Washington. Then, after slamming archrival Yale to close out its season, Harvard went to Switzerland as the United States's second boat in the World Cup and bested Great Britain and France before finishing sixth in the six-boat final.
When asked to compare this year's boat with the previous season's crew, Parker said, ''We'll have to wait a little while before we start that game. So far, they're doing very well. They don't say much. They don't tip their hands. They go out there and row hard."
The biggest difference is experience; 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound Aaron Holzapfel and 6-6, 208-pound Malcolm Howard, both seniors, are the only holdovers from the 2004 boat. Parker, however, couldn't think of better oarsmen to carry on the tradition cemented by Harvard's previous crews. Neither Holzapfel nor Howard has lost at the Eastern Sprints, winning in 2002 as oarsmen on the freshman boat.
''They've been our mainstays now for three seasons," Parker said. ''They have a lot to do with our success. It's hard to exaggerate. People respect them a great deal. They recognize not just how strong they are but how committed they are. When they see what Aaron and Malcolm are doing, they're more inclined to follow suit.
Tomorrow, Parker expects Northeastern and Princeton, teams his club has beaten this season, to be Harvard's toughest competition. He credited both for their aggressive approach, a tactic the Crimson have seemed to trademark during their latest run of glory. It's a strategy that's given Harvard's competitors a good look at the back of its boat -- and not much else.
''At Northeastern we've chosen to go after them," Pojednic said. ''You can say, 'We can't catch them, they're too fast,' or you can say, 'What are they doing and what are we going to do about it?' The second is the approach we're trying to take. Whether we're able to catch them this year or next year depends on how hard we work."