How I Almost Sank The Fleet

By Maury Henkels ’50

I sure hope the statute of limitations has run on this one. After all, It was over fifty years ago, when I was young and foolish. (Now, fifty years later, I am old and foolish.) They say that teenagers think they’re immortal. Well, this incident gave me real doubts about that.

This took place back in 1950, when I was 16. My favorite sport at the private high school I went to, was crew. This is the sport where oarsmen, facing backwards, row their long, very narrow boats (shells) in speed competition with each other. The boats have the smallest and lightest person they can find to sit in the back of the boat to steer and keep the cadence. This guy is called the coxswain (kok-sin). Hard though it may be to believe if you look at me today, I was skinny then. I even biked through the hills every day to keep my weight down.

For two years I was a varsity coxswain. But I was growing fast, and getting heavier in spite of my efforts. So I lost my coxswain job, but was rewarded with my own intramural crew. My new job was not coxswain but stroke. The stroke is the captain and rows in the stern-most position, directly facing the coxswain. I had three other oarsmen behind me.

We were good. We got our own matching crew hats, and we practiced until we could balance the shell with all four oars tilted up over the water, rather than resting on top of the water as was usual. And we won a lot. But a chance encounter gave me another idea.

You know how most children of teachers and the clergy are: So eager to prove that they’re not goody-goody that they’ll do the devil’s work whenever they can. Well, word reached me that a teacher’s son in another dorm had acquired one or more sticks of dynamite, along with fuse and blasting caps. I was fascinated, and made an appointment to meet him in his room.

The first thing he did was toss a stick of dynamite at me, which bounced off and fell harmlessly to the floor. He assured me that it required a blasting cap to set it off. In the end, I bought half a stick, a blasting cap, and 30 feet (30 seconds worth) of bright orange waterproof fuse. My plan, which was enthusiastically agreed to by my crew, was to skip lunch, get out on the river early, and row down to a long section of river appropriately called the Straightaway. The Straightaway begins at a very narrow passage between high clay banks called the Cut.

The Cut was the target. We stopped in the Cut, facing down the Straightaway, and prepared the weapon. I jammed the fuse into the blasting cap, then punched a two-inch hole down the stick with a pencil, and inserted the blasting cap and fuse assembly. I then sealed it up with adhesive tape, lit the fuse, tossed it overboard, and gave the order to ROW!

We rowed down the Straightaway so fast that I firmly believe that we could have beaten any crew in all the whole wide world. At the other end, three-quarters of a mile away. We stopped. Then we heard it. No, not the explosion. Instead we heard the varsity crews and the accompanying coaches’ launch coming down the river towards the Cut.
The 30 seconds was long since up. We waited. And waited. And waited. Then, with the varsity flotilla still one big bend of the river away from the Cut, there came a deep boom, and a surprisingly narrow but high spout of water shot into the air. Great show, but very scary.

Apparently the sound of the launch and the bend in the river masked the explosion, because, as we rowed back down the Straightaway, we passed the varsity, and my former varsity coach called over to me through his megaphone, and congratulated us on our diligence in getting out on the river to practice so early. And a great, booming voice came to me from on high, saying, “Go forth and sin no more”.

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