If you wanted to experience a little secondhand bliss Saturday afternoon, the place to be was on the banks of the Schuylkill just above the Columbia Railroad Bridge, at the finish of the Dad Vail Regatta.

Every 10 minutes, more arrived. Pumped fists, water splashed on teammates, coxswains thrown in the Schuylkill. That one Temple freshman drinking from the Schuylkill. (A teammate on land pointed out that was a really bad idea.)

There were those girls from Northern California ("basically Oregon") dancing barefoot down the sidewalk by Kelly Drive in a driving rainstorm.

In that moment just after 3 o'clock, they had to qualify as the happiest five people in the city: the varsity four plus coxswain from Humboldt State University, in Arcata, Calif. They'd borrowed a boat from St. Joseph's, and came from the back of the pack after catching two crabs in the first half of the race. The first crab - rowing parlance for an oar's getting stuck in the water - stopped the boat dead by the Strawberry Mansion Bridge.

Right after getting past the finish-line buoys, Humboldt stroke Katie Lamke looked to her left and looked again. Four boats had finished within 21/2 seconds. Lamke didn't celebrate since she had no clue where they'd finished.

"I still don't know - where'd we finish?" Lamke asked after she climbed on the dock. This was a good 15 minutes after the race. Before they could reach the medal dock, the storm hit, turning the Schuylkill into raging water.

"We'd take second, we'd take third - anything right now," said Catherine Trimingham, born in Nagano, Japan, before moving to Sacramento, Calif.

Girls from Virginia Tech, another boat in the race, came over.

"Have you rowed in this kind of stuff before?" a Humboldt girl asked.

"Not like this," a Virginia Tech girl said.

"You don't know if you're going to lose, get struck by lightning," said Virginia Tech sophomore Meghan Burns. "As soon as we got done the race, the weather just exploded."

The flashes had been off in the distance, but gaining momentum. The regatta was suspended for almost three hours. Virginia Tech's boat was underneath the railroad bridge just past the finish line when the gale began. One girl's hat was quickly sacrificed to the storm.

"In the tunnel, you sat there and had to put your hands over your head and brace because you saw, like, the leaves coming at you," said Taylor Vashro of Virginia Tech.

An onlooker showed the official results on a phone. Virginia Tech had beaten Nova Southeastern for the third-place medal by 0.129 of a second.

"Way to make it dramatic. It's the most dramatic race I've ever been in," Burns had said before even seeing the time.

First place went to Humboldt State, by 0.733 of a second over Middlebury College.

The girls huddled around the phone looking at the result, which confirmed the Division II school's first Dad Vail title.

"Oh my God. AAAAAH," someone yelled.

"We made some great strides with them - we've got one senior," assistant coach Patrick Hyland said after he caught up to the girls who were huddled in a souvenir tent as the rain kept coming down.

For an elation comparison, imagine NCAA tournament buzzer-beaters. But then factor in how, before the finish line, all the rowers competing here had hit a pain wall, after they'd built up lactic acid and then rowed past their ability to clear it.

Realize that for some of them, four years of ups and downs, pain and early wake-ups, end here at the Schuylkill. For some, getting to the grand final is the big moment, like for Maureen White of Fordham, back on her home course.

"Probably the best moment I've had at Fordham," said the senior from Merion Mercy Academy, who stroked Fordham into the grand final, passing St. Joe's late in the morning semifinal to get there. "Amazing."

Jacksonville University freshman coxswain Stephen McDonald, a Monsignor Bonner graduate, tried to act as if he had some local knowledge when his teammates prepared to toss him in the Schuylkill after winning the freshman eight.

"We can't do it," McDonald said before they did it, quickly.

The girls from Humboldt knew the river had turned too crazy for a coxswain toss. They just had one piece of business left to take care of when the rain let up. That borrowed boat, still at the medals dock.

"We've got to get the boat back," one of them said.

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus