Published June 10. 2013 4:00AM Updated June 10. 2013 2:43PM
They come from as near as up the street and as far as across the Atlantic, all to congregate on a rock.
The traditional viewing spot for the Harvard-Yale Regatta sits atop a steep embankment overlooking the Thames River, just before the finish line - down the narrow slope of Lower Bartlett Road, a grassy walk across a couple of backyards and over the train tracks - and brings together Bulldog fans from far and wide (and the occasional Harvard interloper) every year to root for their team.
Here on the sidelines of the 148th regatta, the crowd is a mix of locals and Yalies, proud parents and alumni, siblings and friends, seasoned rowers and underclassmen who have just finished their earlier junior varsity races. Most of the crowd looks as if they've walked straight out of the pages of a J. Crew catalog; others are more casual, jeans and baseball caps and T-shirts. But a running theme of blue connects them all, even the complete strangers, who acquaint under the auspices of their common cause.
The rock is a spray-painted slab of competing red and blue, thick layers of color duking it out for dominance. The small stretch of riverside brush is dotted with other rocks along the ground, most covered in some pattern of the same rivaling color scheme. The winner is supposed to have the last brush stroke, but in a rivalry as storied as Harvard and Yale's, pride has often trumped tradition.
Charles and Dunwreath Swanson flew up from Atlanta to watch their daughter, Campbell, a rising senior, cox for the freshman boat. This is only their second year at the regatta, but they've fast befriended other crew families, who, in the minutes leading up to the race, are happily greeting friends old and new.
Their group widens; a few other parents walk up to say hello ("It's like 'Christmas wreath,' but without the 'Christmas,'" Dunwreath offers as introduction).
"We're diehards, right?" says Karen Morgan.
Morgan wears a blue Yale T-shirt and a name tag printed with a photo of her son, Jon Morgan, captain of the heavyweight team. Her older son, Peter, she boasts, rowed in the last Yale boat to win, in 2007.
Morgan has been coming to watch from the rock for eight years now - a 24-hour trip in all from Johannesburg, South Africa, between the 18-hour flight and the drive up from John F. Kennedy Airport.
She and her husband often stay to watch some other International Rowing Association races. They're making a two-week trip of it this time, staying with their niece in Milford.
"It's such a historic race," she says - just a few years younger than the famed Oxford-Cambridge race she says many South Africans enthusiastically follow back home.
Frank and Debbie Sistare had a shorter trip than Morgan. They live about a quarter-mile away, just up the hill on Lower Bartlett Road.
Frank grew up in Montville, Debbie on the same street where they live now. Both have been coming to watch from the rock for 60 years, joking about rubbing elbows with the rich and famous.
"It's a historical event that happens right in our backyard," he says, "It's like living next to Giants Stadium."
Some things have changed, they say. The spectator crowds, once thousands strong, have dwindled over the years; she used to root for Harvard, swayed by some handsome young rowers.
But on Sunday, in Bulldog blue, their allegiance is shared - to the rowers they consider their hometown team, the underdogs they love and cross their fingers for, mostly in vain: Harvard has held fast to the finish line for six years now, and holds the series lead.
It goes along with being Yankees fan, he says, and hating the Red Sox: They'd simply never root for a Boston team.
Pat Eldridge and his sister, Lannon, grew up in Pawcatuck. He lives in Colorado Springs now, she in Boston, but they're home for the weekend for a family visit, and to continue their childhood tradition on the rock. Lannon has brought along her boyfriend, Ryan Foley, for his inaugural regatta viewing.
Their parents used to watch the race in the 1950s and '60s, they say; now Pat is continuing the tradition with his young son. Freckled and in a red T-shirt, he says his dad threatened not to feed him for a week if he didn't come down to the rock.
"It was a joke," Pat says, reassuring.
Down off the rock and closer to the water, spectators are lounging on lawn chairs and blankets, standing out on rocky outcroppings with room for just a couple pairs of feet, a few camped out on a small pier.
Several clutch handheld radios, the play-by-play coming in over static as the boats make their way closer: "…now three quarters of a mile gone in this race…" "…Harvard is just about one length ahead…" "…this is a key stretch…"
At a quarter to 11, the mood shifts. Nearly four miles down the river, the race has begun. Those who were relaxing on higher ground begin to make their way down to the water's edge.
"It's show time, right?" one says.
At 5 after, the binoculars go up; everyone stands a bit straighter, anxiously craning their necks. The crowd erupts into cheers at 11:09 a.m. as the boats come into view. Harvard glides past first, ahead by a long shot, and the shouts turn frantic.
"Harvard, stop! Harvard, stop!" one calls out.
Less than a minute later, they're out of sight. The race is over; Harvard has won.
The crowd slowly begins to dissipate. Some embrace; all seem to collectively shrug off the loss.
One man in a "Yale Brother" shirt turns to his friend. At least the anxiety is over, he says.
"Next year in Jerusalem," he says.