Sitting with a gaggle of perky Penn alumni at the Herzliya Marina, I stare into my cup of coffee, wondering what will happen to the hot, sloshing liquid in my belly once I set out to sea in a flimsy sailboat.
It's a perfect day to go for a leisurely sail: letting the wind carry the boat along before gliding back to shore. But at the Penn Israel Regatta, where alumni from seven Ivy League universities (plus a dashing, shirtless MIT contingent) have gathered, it seems that overachieving continues long after those shining four years of grade grubbing, all-nighters and elitism.
As the Penn alumni begin to discuss the stomach bug wreaking havoc in Jerusalem - the particulars of which lead me to abandon my coffee - a lithe Yale alumna approaches to conspire. "We make sure Harvard doesn't win today. No matter what," she says in a low, raspy whisper. The Penn alumni nod, like henchmen accepting their latest assignment.
Despite being a recent alumna of an Ivy of my own, I still can't grasp the rivalry that these alumni are engaging in: half a world away and, for some, half a century later. The winning yacht receives champagne for their victory and, as the event's organizer Dov Hoch put it, "bragging rights for at least one more year."
Hoch seems to be tight-lipped about who he thinks will take the final prize, although he admits that "if anyone knows what they're doing mechanically, it should be these guys," pointing to the hunky table of MIT alumni sharing a cocky grin, assuming this race is a done deal. Harvard's teamwork just getting the checks in to pay for the event should indicate their prospects.
Hoch indicates the table of Penn alumni: "Penn is on a catamaran," a much larger, more dominating boat than any other group's sailboat. "It's an unfair advantage but we don't know to whom," Hoch admits with a laugh.
After 15 minutes of Yachting 101, we're off. My alma mater, Princeton, is sparsely represented with no boat of our own, so Hoch insists I join the Harvard boat - Princeton's historic arch-rival. I attempt to squirm out of having to go with them, but can't find a way to make a graceful exit and before I know it, Hoch has me in front of a table of Harvard alumni. Not just any Harvard alumni - these men and women seem to be the very definition of "old school."
"Ohhhh, Princeton," they say, each razzing me for my school affiliation.
"I told you not to put me with them," I mutter to Hoch under my breath. "I told you they'd be mean to me."
But there's no time to be a tattletale because we're already off, heading down to the dock to find our boat. Skipper Ami, our Israeli sailing expert, joins us aboard the Augustus, the oldest ship in the fleet.
The Yale alumni board the neighboring boat. Between Yachting 101 and mounting the gangplank, they have changed into Yale T-shirts with gaudy navy blue Ys covering their backs. A giant Yale flag, as ominous as a skull and cross-bones, hangs from their mast.
"Wow, you aren't too tough to identify," one of the Harvard alumni yells contentiously. Skipper Ami looks over at the Yale team, then back again at his own crew. Unfamiliar with the ways of the Ivy League, he blurts out, "Where are your T-shirts?" The Harvard team bitterly mumbles "next year," and begin to take their places on deck.
We pull out of the dock slowly, using our motor until we approach the starting line out at sea. Annette, class of '55 from Radcliffe (Harvard's sister school, now integrated), takes the wheel. She sports a T-shirt that reads "Harvard-Radcliffe: In the same boat for 100 years!" and a Harvard baseball cap.
"Annette was allowed to date Harvard men but she had to be back in her dorm by 10," Bob, Annette's husband informs me.
"He didn't see the inside of my dorm until our reunions!" says Annette gleefully.
"So what do you do when you're not sailing," Bob asks Skipper Ami.
"On land? I throw up," Ami replies with a straight face.
We pass the My Shanti, a mammoth yacht belonging to Shari Arison, owner of Bank Hapoalim. Next to it is the only slightly smaller - and still mammoth - yacht belonging to Arkadi Gaydamak.
"Oy vay, holy water!" A cascade pours down on the skipper and Michael, class of '89, as the sails are opened. It would appear that we are not off to a good start. We approach what Ami calls "what are those?" and turn off the engines. It's incredibly quiet out at sea except for Ami who tries to rile up the team, "I think we should break out the champagne already!"
The MIT boat pulls up next to ours and a middle-aged woman in khaki shorts turns around and bends over, pretending to pull down her pants and moon us with a graceful wiggle. The Harvard alumni start singing their fight song: "Fight Fiercely, Harvard."
And we're off!
It seems like we're in the lead, tacking against the wind under Ami's expert tutelage. All is well - except for my mounting seasickness - and it looks like the oldest ship in the fleet, our Augustus, might just take the prize today.
"See that boat with the three Xs on the sail?" Ami points to the Yale boat getting ever closer. "That's very bad for us. So you know what we need to do?"
"Cut them off?" Laura, a young Harvard alumna chimes in, carried away with the thrill of competition.
The Yale boat sidles up next to ours: "Hey! Take a picture of us when we're in front of you!" an alumna cries out, almost earnestly.
"Now it's only a matter of seconds to see what they will do," Ami whispers. The captain of the Yale boat taunts our skipper as they pull several boat lengths ahead of us and into the lead: "Motek, it's a photo-finish!"
And then it's done: Yale crosses the finish line just before us. Skipper Ami's words ring in the heads of the Harvard alumni, so used to being in first place: "Remember, of all the places, second is the worst."
Up ahead in the distance, we see the Yale alumni popping open a bottle of champagne, shaking it and squirting in our direction. Michael, class of '89 calls out "Yeah, but you still went to Yale!"
The Harvard alumni pop their own champagne and pass it around. Al, class of '67 and secretary-general of the Bahai Temple in Israel, takes a swig and takes the wheel.
Annette tries to make light of the loss: "Have you ever seen so many PhDs on one boat?" she asks Ami, who shakes his head.
"So we weigh more: those Yalies are lightweights," Laura says, completing Annette's quip. The whole boat laughs except Ami.
The Augustus heads back to port with our second-place crew of a surgeon, an archeologist, two bigwigs in the Bahai temple, a reform Rabbi and two musicians. Michael starts the group up on the fight song once again, and the group energy is revived:
"Fight fiercely, Harvard!
Fight, Fight, Fight!
Demonstrate to them our skill.
Albeit they possess the might,
Nonetheless we possess the will."