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The Boatman Fixeth

BU Characters: From repairing shoes to hauling shells, Russ Cone is crew’s one-man show


BU’s boatman Russ Cone measures a rigger on one of the shells. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

“Characters with character” is one concise way to describe a popular journalistic subject around here, and stories about such characters never grow stale. This week BU Today checks in with some favorites from the past academic year, seeing old friends, reminiscing about inspiring encounters.

Russ Cone’s jeans and sneakers are spattered with paint, the cuffs of his rugby shirt frayed. BU’s longtime boatman wanders the racks of shells as a team of sweaty Australian rowers eats bananas and chats after practicing on the river. It’s the week leading up to the Head of the Charles, the world’s biggest two-day regatta, and Cone is not only tending to the needs of the BU squads, but to all the crews, from Auckland to Arizona, headquartered at the DeWolfe Boathouse.

“I’m just putting out fires this week,” says Cone, who started at BU in 1990. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing next.”

Normally, Cone, who graduated from Princeton with an aeronautical engineering degree and solid rowing chops, builds racks, fixes shoes, welds riggers, tweaks megaphones, and repairs lights, engines, seats, hulls — you name it. Oh, and hauls trailers loaded with hundreds of thousand of dollars worth of boats down south for spring training. “We might take 20 shells and 3 launches on one trailer,” he says. “The eights are 55 feet long. It can be a nightmare to load. There’s definitely an art to driving.”

Cone’s boathouse shop is orderly. Saw blades and lengths of rope hang on one wall, against another is a band saw, an air compressor, a belt sander, a drill press, and welding equipment. He pulls a cone-shaped mold from atop a cabinet. “The classic thing is having a bow knocked off; it might happen once a year,” he says. “Sometimes you end up with the piece, sometimes the piece is lost or so damaged that it makes more sense to make a new bow. The idea is to do a repair and then not be able to find it.”

If there’s one member of the squad who understands the jack-of-all-trades world of the boatman, it’s the coxswain. Both have myriad responsibilities. In fact, as a cox on the men’s varsity team, Maria Escallon (SHA’10), ensures that any damaged or broken equipment gets fixed.

“This process is a bit mysterious,” Escallon says. “If something breaks, then the coxswain or coach fills out a form explaining the situation and leaves it on Russ’ workbench. Then, like magic, either later that afternoon or the next morning, whatever was broken is now fixed.”

Cone, who rowed for the U.S. National Team after college, says he loves being part of the rowing scene. And the scene, likewise, appreciates him. So much so that in 1996, the women’s team dedicated one of its shells to him. “But they ended up selling it, because they didn’t like it,” he chuckles. “I got to apply my own name and then take it off.”

Men’s varsity assistant coach David Padgett (SAR’99, SED’08) recalls the time the freshman coach offered his athletes to help Cone lift the rowing barge — a 1,000-pound, 16-seat practice vessel — from the water for winter storage. After thinking for a few seconds, Cone said no thanks, and figured out a way to use ropes and a lifting device.

“So we now say that Russ is as strong as 25 freshman rowers,” Padgett says.

During the off-season, Cone is often found painting oars and tinkering with the engines on one of the 12 coaches’ launches. Maintaining and repairing the ergs, or rowing machines, is also on his to-do list, “but they’re pretty well made,” he says.

When he’s away from the boathouse, Cone helps run Stillwater Design, a Chelsea, Mass., company he cofounded. The aptly named outfit, one of the few such firms in the world, builds, among other vessels, coaches’ launches that produce minimal or no wake. In fact, Stillwater sent three of its boats to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Thomas Bohrer, the men’s crew head coach and a two-time Olympic medalist, rowed on the same national team as Cone and considers his former mate an encyclopedia on two feet. “He’s seen the program through a lot of different phases, from the old boathouse to the new boathouse. One of these days, I want to get him out on the launch with me, to get his input. He’s watched so many rowers over the years.”

Cone still manages to find time to race. At last October’s 44th annual Head of the Charles, Cone and Bohrer competed in the same division — senior-master men’s singles (40+). Both were favored to do well. Bohrer ended up winning the event with a time of 18:34.655. Cone finished sixth at 19:21.681.

Kinda like letting your boss win at golf?

“I wish I could say that was the case,” Cone smiles, as he listens to water lapping at the edge of the dock and geese barking on the banks, “but it wasn’t.”

BU Today is interested in hearing about people around campus with singular, unusual, or just plain quirky jobs. E-mail Caleb Daniloff with suggestions for our occasional series featuring these folks.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

This story originally ran October 24, 2008.

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