Ledyard - They travel an hour away from campus, but when members of the Yale University heavyweight crew team drive down Hurlbutt Road and onto Riverside Place, they know they're home.
As at Christmas, seasonal decorations come out to greet the team: a blue-and-white oar propped above the garage at the Franzones' home, the "Row Well Yale" sheet hung at Margo Sewall's. And always, painted on the tiny riverfront street, home to nine residences including the Bulldogs': "Go Yale Go."
The annual Harvard-Yale Regatta (or Yale-Harvard Regatta, depending on whom you talk to), which Harvard won Saturday, is a time of year the neighbors of 2 Riverside Place look forward to almost as much as the two schools' oarsmen, who have been coming for generations to train for the oldest intercollegiate athletic event in the country.
"The experience of being here is really incredible," says John Pescatore, who is in his eighth season as Yale's head coach. "There's a lot of history in these buildings, on these grounds. And I think that the kids on the team, and the coaches, we're honored to be a part of it."
Both schools have maintained training facilities in Gales Ferry for decades, since shortly after the regatta began taking place regularly on the Thames River. At Harvard University's more isolated Red Top facility on Military Highway, the team's connection there to locals is mostly through its on-site caretaker and her family, Harvard's legendary head coach Harry Parker says.
But "the Ferry," as Yale's camp is known, is wedged right in the middle of a close-knit community whose residents throw a streetwide progressive dinner every Christmas.
Like any good neighbor, residents of Riverside Place have befriended the property's caretaker, Yale's women's crew assistant coach Jamie Snider, and taken an interest in the once-yearly occupants of the two white houses with blue window trim. Though they mourn the sudden death several years ago of the Friday night cocktail parties the crew and alumni used to throw, they still take out their Yale flags at regatta time to cheer on the team.
One of Yale's most committed neighbors is 15-year-old Joey Franzone, who has grown up next door to the Ferry and has, since age 6, spent his pre-regatta days helping out in the Ferry's kitchen.
"I think it's inevitable that if you're going to live in the neighborhood, you're going to somehow be swept up in the Yale Regatta over the years," says Margo Sewall, who lives on Riverside Place. "I have no connection with Yale except that I live across the street. My father was actually a Harvard man. And he considered me a complete traitor. He gave me a hard time."
Sewall began hanging her "Row Well Yale" banner when she moved to the street 33 years ago. A free-standing napkin spells out "ed," just in case Yale wins and Sewall needs to alter the banner's wording to the victorious past tense.
"We haven't had much of a chance to put it up, because Harvard has had such a winning streak," Sewall says. "But we live and hope."
Pescatore is appreciative of the neighbors for making "allowances for the extra space that we take up." But it goes beyond that: the neighbors' support makes the already beloved Ferry an even more inviting place to retreat to.
"It's really nice that the locals kind of cheer for us," Yale junior Marcos Carzolio says. "We feel really welcome."
'You could almost walk across the river'
The regatta dates to 1852, when the two Ivy League schools battled it out over a 2-mile course on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee in answer to a Yale challenge "to test the superiority of the oarsmen of the two colleges," according to the Harvard Athletics office.
The race was moved to the Thames River in 1878 and is unique not just because of the event's longevity but because Harvard and Yale are the only schools in the country to maintain off-campus facilities that are used once a year, for one purpose.
Despite the regatta's storied history, public interest in the event has dwindled. Gone are the days of spectators by the thousands bobbing on anchored yachts to catch the race. Observation trains that once ran the course of the race are no longer, save for a brief revival in the early 2000s.
"The river was just filled with boats," Riverside Place resident Paul Billing says. "People would say you could almost walk across the river from boat to boat."
"On game day, we used to have police up here because there was no parking down here," David Elford, of Riverside Place, says. "There wasn't any room. Now, you wouldn't know there was a race on. … It's become almost a non-event. And those guys work their fannies off. And nobody comes up to watch them."
But don't tell the Harvard and Yale oarsmen that this race doesn't matter.
And not just because racing a 4-mile course is so much more grueling than the sprints' 2,000 meters (about 1.25 miles). The rivalry between the two schools is so heated and dates back so many decades that oarsmen still regard this race as the most important race of the year. A win on the Thames, they say, can define an entire rowing season.
"You come out here and you solely focus on one race," Yale senior Antonio Sirianni says. "And since there is so much tradition to that race, it's really easy to get caught up in how important it is, and how long it's been going on."
The Harvard oarsmen at Red Top, named for the red roof of the property's original training quarters, regards the race in the same light.
"Even if Yale isn't the best boat or whatever, beating them makes or breaks the season," says Matt Edstein, a Harvard sophomore. "So if you lose to them, you had a bad season, really."
Bragging rights: the rock
Both teams train twice daily in pursuit of glory, the Sexton Cup and the opportunity to collect the losing team's shirts. It's 20 minutes of intense rowing, about 700 strokes of the oar.
"It's very, very demanding," Harvard's coach Parker says. "So the reason people come down here is that you have to have time to train properly for it."
The race, which was all upstream this year and ended near the landmark rock at Bartlett's Cove, is actually four races: a two-mile freshman race, a three-mile second varsity (junior varsity) race and a four-mile varsity race.
The night before regatta day, oarsmen from the third varsity and second freshman boats also compete in the combination, or "combi," race.
The winner of the combi race gets to paint the rock at Bartlett's Cove in school colors. The unofficial rule dictates that the winner of the varsity race paints the rock for the last time that year, but the rule gets broken, sometimes by sneaky residents of Riverside Place who just can't bear to stare at a crimson rock from their porches all year long.
"People make a big deal of it," Harvard sophomore Pat Lapage says. "It's one of the big landmarks. It's only like 20 strokes from the finish. Along with the submarine base, it's probably the two big things that you get told about."
Harvard holds the series lead, with 91 wins to Yale's 54, and has won 10 of the last 11 varsity races. Champions of the 2009 race, Harvard oarsmen returned to Red Top this year to find that someone had embellished the Harvard "H" on the rock with slash marks and a blue paw print.
Harvard is quick to assume Yale is at fault - and equally quick to give the rock a nice, crimson touch-up - but Yale captain Lucas Spielfogel swears his team had nothing to do with the tarnishing of the rock.
"I don't want the rock to be blue unless it's full blue," he says.
Carrying on the traditions
For two teams that don't mingle much in the weeks leading up to the race, the oarsmen's days in Gales Ferry are remarkably similar.
Training sessions and race day are charged with competitive energy, but the atmosphere is otherwise like summer camp, with lots of games, traditions and a distinct lack of modern-day amenities.
"There's a timeless quality to it," Harvard senior Karl Hirt says. "As a senior, it's really a (nice) way to end the Harvard experience."
Until this year, when Red Top was outfitted with wireless Internet, Gales Ferry Library was the place to go and check e-mail. Between meals and training, Yale and Harvard crew members amuse themselves with the board game Risk, ping pong, Frisbee, puzzles. Django Ball, named for Yale sophomore Django Broer-Hellermann, is a new game the Elis invented this year.
Though croquet is not as popular as it once was, both teams still hold tournaments - if that's what you call an opportunity to "massively cheat," according to Hirt.
"No matter what happens, Harry (the coach) is going to win," he says.
"I got accused of cheating in this because I beat them so often," Parker, who has been coaching the team for 48 years, says in self-defense. "My explanation is that most of these oarsmen have had misspent youths. They haven't been properly trained in important things like croquet and horseshoes."
Cheating in croquet is absolutely expected of Harvard's Master of Protocol, or MP, the oarsmen whose yearlong appointment it is to be the keeper of team traditions.
The MP ensures no Harvard oarsman rows shirtless (it's inappropriate, this year's MP Ivan Posavec explains) or shirks his duties, especially at Red Top, where all athletes have chores.
One afternoon after practice, as the Harvard crew stands outside the boathouse sipping beef broth - the post-training drink of choice - junior David Wakulich encounters the wrath of Posavec. He has failed to clean the tables after dinner the previous night.
He must pay.
Seeking redemption, Wakulich runs down the dock and swiftly removes his shorts just before hitting the water. Redemption earned.
The random games and spontaneous traditions at camp help both pass the time and form lasting bonds. After all, Red Top and the Ferry aren't just where the crews stay and train for a race. It's where the freshmen are initiated into the varsity team and where new captains are elected.
Yale freshmen get the Freshman Manual, a "guide to life and training here in Gales Ferry," Sirianni says. There's information on where to get essentials such as toys and games (Ocean State Job Lot on Route 12) and ice cream (Cows & Cones on Military Highway) as well as stories - no, folklore - about the seniors.
Homework for the Yale freshmen includes memorizing a quote from "The Wind In the Willows" about "simply messing about in boats," etched above the doorways in the freshman quarters, and writing limericks that are read at dinnertime and recorded in books for future generations.
No making fun of family or rowing skills, but girlfriends are fair game, Yale's varsity coxswain Rebecca Burgoyne-Allen says.
The crews carry on the traditions because they understand what being in Gales Ferry is about. The race is not just a race; it's the forming of a team, and the making of history.
"A big selling point is being part of this regatta," junior Alex Mastroyannis says of being recruited to Yale. "When it's the middle of February, and it's cold and snowy out … we're thinking about this. Passing the rock, and crossing the line, and getting there first."