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Column: Head Of The Charles A Great Event For Boston

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, October 21, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

This weekend, more than 9,000 athletes from the rowing community descended upon Boston to participate in the world’s largest two day rowing event: the Head of the Charles Regatta. Since its inception in 1965, the regatta has grown into a right of passage for rowers everywhere, building prestige that is only outmatched perhaps by the Royal Henley Regatta, a famous one-on-one tournament that sends clubs racing down the Thames River in London side by side.

When most people think of rowing, they think of the long eight-man boats that have been glorified as the backbone of crew programs by movies such as The Social Network that hope to give a glimpse into collegiate rowing culture. The Head of the Charles, however, is the perfect place to discover the world of rowing beyond simply the collegiate eight. Fifty-six different events are scheduled, from the notorious collegiate heavyweight eight to the single, rowed by only one athlete. There are lightweight boats, heavyweight boats, sweep boats, sculling boats, fours, eights, quads, singles, doubles, and mixed gender boats that make up a highly diversified field ranging from high school competitors to Masters (50-plus).

Boston College rowers found success this weekend, taking fifth in the women’s club eight-plus coxswain, and the women’s club four-plus. The men’s club team took 17th overall in its club eight-plus race.

A regular rowing race usually consists of five to six boats lined up side by side and making their way down a straight, still 2,000-meter course. The Head of the Charles, however, is the flagship of another type of regatta: the headrace. Usually taking place in the fall before collegiate programs begin their regular competition in the spring, head races usually take the name of the rivers that they are held on, and provide quite the contrast to the relatively short, straight courses in more conventional regattas.

The course of the Head of the Charles, for example, consists of a winding sliver of the Charles River around 5,000 meters long, taking rowers alongside Cambridge and Allston, passing prestigious boathouses such as Harvard’s Weld Boathouse and the Cambridge Boat Club, which sponsors the event.

Instead of racing side by side, each boat is separated at the start by 15 seconds and races against the clock, allowing for tense moments when crews are challenged or overtaken.

Close to 300,000 volunteers and spectators were expected to line the edges of the Charles this weekend. A walk along the banks takes you past the young, cheering on siblings and parents, and the old who have made the pilgrimage to this rowing mecca to attend the regatta for decades.

The best place from which to observe, however, is not from the banks, but from one of the six bridges that cross the course. From there, one has the clearest view upriver as crews make their way down. Particular spots of interest come at the Eliot Bridge, just next to the Cambridge Boat Club, and the Anderson Bridge, both of which lie just after bends in the river.

The usually seamless, calm, though exhausting-looking style of rowing can be interrupted at these bridges as they present extreme steering challenges for those in charge of the boat, a coxswain in sweep (single oar) rowing, and the “stroke” seat, which is the one furthest to the stern of the boat in sculling (double-oared rowing). Navigators have to work to find the most efficient line past bridge supports while maintaining their speed and avoiding eddies or other traps that bridges provide.

The regatta is a grand spectacle with most of the rowing world converging for more than just a race—it is a place at which to make reunions with old teammates, to check out the latest rowing technology at the Rowing and Fitness Expo, to socialize at the Cambridge Boat Club, and to witness the grace, fluidity, and harrowing moments that the sport of rowing provides.


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