By William Plummer
February 23, 1987 12:00 PM

In Britain’s pubs and wine bars the talk was of little else—the Yanks were at it again. It was not quite 1775, tea in the harbor and all that, but it was, declared the tabloids, an “American Rebellion” nonetheless. This time it was not the dream of Empire the Yanks were scuttling, but the 158-year-old Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race—the yearly affair that is as much a British tradition as port after dinner and scones at tea-time. Each year cheering spectators crowd the banks of the River Thames as the crews of eight oarsmen and a coxswain propel their fragile racing shells over a 4¼-mile course.

There were five Yanks on the Oxford crew, four world-class oarsmen and a cox. They came in from the colonies, enrolled as graduate students and were charged with beating Cambridge, which won last year’s race and interrupted a decade of Oxonian supremacy. The Yanks were first-rate scullers. But they were, well…Yanks. Which is to say, by British standards, a brash lot with minds of their own and little reverence for tradition. Last January, when the head coach along with the president of the Oxford University Boat Club, himself a team member, decided that one of the Americans, blond, strapping Californian, Chris Clark, would not row against Cambridge, the four remaining Yanks walked out. The controversy forced the university to turn to its reserve crew and all but swamped Oxford’s chances of winning the March 28 race.

The irony was that Clark, 27, of Newport Beach, who’d been on last year’s losing Oxford Dark Blues, had been in part responsible for the Yanks being in the City of Dreaming Spires in the first place. “I decided,” says Clark, “that if a few of my friends were interested in the Boat Race that they should come to Oxford.” By last fall four other Americans—Dan Lyons, 28, of Wayne, Pa., Chris Huntington, 26, of New York City, Chris Penny, 24, of Middletown, R.I. and Jonathan Fish, 24, of Bellmore, N.Y.—all of them recognized U.S. rowing champions, were on the team.

The trouble started last October when head coach Dan Topolski presented his training schedules. “I had a meeting with these guys,” says Topolski, 41, an amateur coach who rowed for Oxford in the late ’60s, “and told them we had a chance of making it the most exciting crew ever. They assumed that the meeting was their chance to tell me how they were going to train, that they weren’t going to go out twice a day, that they were not going to do any running, that there wasn’t going to be two outings on a Saturday.”

“He wanted us to go sprinting, for chrissake!” says Dan Lyons, a gold medal winner in the 1986 world championships. Adds Chris Clark, “He wanted us for 13 sessions a week, seven days a week. He wanted us to spend more time training on land than water!”

“It was the first suggestion that this was a tough group,” says Topolski. “I tried to accommodate to their approach to rowing, but every time they didn’t like what I was doing it was ‘Down tools.’ They walked out.”

The Yanks didn’t care for Topolski’s training, and Topolski says that Clark’s skills deteriorated due to his casual workouts. Topolski said that Clark showed up out of shape, walked out of five practice sessions and failed to appear for two training camps. Conveniently overlooked in this litany, says Clark, is the fact that he had a stress fracture in his ribs “like a dagger sticking into them” and wasn’t able to work out all summer. “I consider myself one of the most dedicated trainers in rowing. I was frustrated that I wasn’t fit, but I hadn’t trained in five months.”

Yank oarsman Chris Huntington says that Topolski and Clark are both “highly energetic, charismatic” individuals who came together “like matches and gasoline.” The explosion was inevitable. It came at the beginning of January when Topolski, abetted, say the Americans, by Boat Club President Donald MacDonald, moved Clark from his customary starboard position on the shell to the port side, which, according to Huntington, “didn’t make any sense. It’s like asking a goalkeeper to play center forward on a soccer team.” Finally, after a series of questionable maneuverings, Clark was moved out of the boat entirely, putting MacDonald, who otherwise may not have rowed against Cambridge, in his seat. At this point the whole crew, Yanks and Brits alike, cried injustice, rested their oars and threatened to boycott the Boat Race. The Brits were lured back, however, by their desire to win their Oxford Blues, the distinction of representing their university.

Meanwhile over at Cambridge, Chief Coach Alan Inns has been waxing smug. “Oxford has made its own misfortunes,” he recently told a reporter. “It’s been a bone of contention for years that they have gone out to recruit international oarsmen for their boat on the pretext of studying flimsy postgraduate courses.” According to Richard Hull, a Brit on the Oxford eight, Inns once told his crew: “If you import a load of mercenaries, you must expect to find a few pirates among them.” He seemed to be saying that Cambridge was far above such chicanery. What Inns failed to mention, however, was that someone had quietly sought to recruit two of the Yankee “pirates” for the Cambridge crew.