It was a frigid afternoon on Sunday, which was annoying. Early morning had shown signs of the world freezing and becoming generally awful, but then the sun came out, the wind died down, and I was tricked into leaving my fleece in my room, disgusted by the possibility of having to strip off and hold the jacket for the rest of the afternoon. In classic New England fashion, the breeze made a remarkable comeback as soon as I arrived, the sun skipped out on work way before 5, and I was left shivering and waddling alongside the Charles River, day-dreaming of wool socks and heated ski masks. I had just about decided this wasn’t worth it when my friend texted me, saying she’d just arrived.
“here! we’re in the parking lot by all the boats”
I might not have known what to wear, but I did know enough about the race’s structure to realize all the boats were parked at the finish line. But they weren’t in one parking lot—that would be too simple. Each truck from each school or organization carried several boats, and it took multiple lots to pack in the trucks. Meanwhile, trying to find someone while navigating through a mass of people all going in opposite directions, and also trying to avoid getting smacked in the head with a boat being carried to or from a dock, made actually rowing the boats look like the easiest chore of the day. But that’s the Head of the Charles for you.
In one way, the lack of common familiarity with HoCR (the initialism based off its formal name, Head of the Charles Regatta) makes sense. My roommate couldn’t tell you a thing about the largest and most diverse crew event in the country. And yet, walking across or looking out over one of the five packed bridges that span the 3-mile course, you might not believe that anyone in or around Boston didn’t show up to it.
I’m not good at estimating numbers, so if you asked, I’d probably throw out a showing of anywhere between 20,000 and 20 million people. Over the course of the weekend, Wikipedia says 300,000 spectators will go, while HoCR.org says 400,000. Believe whom you will, but either way, that’s a crazy turnout for such an offbeat sport.
To give it some perspective, let’s compare it to another main Boston event where people stand on a course and cheer for people more athletic than themselves passing by: the Boston Marathon.
There are plenty of differences—none more important than the convenient location near Boston College—but the general premise of cheering alongside the race is the same. In total, about 500,000 people will cheer over the 26.1-mile distance for the 27,000 entrants. Meanwhile, 400,000 people will pack into a 3-mile stretch of river—be it over two days—to see just 11,000 rowers. Such a crowded, well-attended event, and it still flies somewhat under the radar.
I wanted to know why people showed up, so I asked some of my friends, Sarah—my UberPool companion on the way there, not the lovely Metro editor—and a few other strangers I mistakenly thought wanted to talk with me. The answers, almost invariably and rather unsurprisingly, were that they knew someone racing.
There were two exceptions to this sweeping generalization. The first was one of my friends who has a cousin that rows but just volunteered at HoCR and a sister that worked a food tent. That’s still a personal connection to the Regatta, so he’ll count toward the in-crowd. The other, however, had the reason I’d been expecting to hear more of: “it was a fun thing in Boston that was happening.”
I get that the HoCR won’t get as much recognition at BC as the Boston Marathon, simply because of its proximity, and the fact that there’s basically a whole holiday (of drinking) devoted to the latter—”Patriots’ Day,” sure, but really it’s just “Marathon Monday.”
But if you do manage to traverse the aggravatingly close distance to the Charles—under 15 minutes away by car, but the better part of an hour by T—you’ll see that it blows away BC’s “preppiness.” Patagonias, many of which are customized to be crew-specific, are everywhere. There’s an entire walk-in Brooks Brothers tent, across from a near-infinite stretch of vendors marketing top-of-the-line ergs, oars, and shells (basic crew stuff).
It’s a race that seems designed just for those in the crew world, those people who analyze which rowers are “rushing the slide” and reminisce about the worst times they “caught a crab.”
But there’s stuff for those who don’t know what a “cox” is. A pair of announcers a little before the finish line provides commentary for those who don’t know the difference between the men’s champ-eights or the men’s master eights, or that certain boats with crimson oars weren’t actually Harvard boats, they were just borrowing the equipment for the day.
You can see a boat of Wesleyan alumni rowers, which had an average age of 69. There’s mulled cider, doritos tacos in a bag, “Grilled Cheese Please.” Best of all, even while launches from the starting line are staggered and winners are judged by time, some boats will always end up passing others, and the occasional crashing of oars provides an odd thrill to an otherwise repetitive sport.
I’ve gone to HoCR the past couple years to see my own friends from high school race, and I’ll continue to go as long as they keep guilt-tripping me to show up. Really, as long as its geographically feasible, I’ll keep heading to the banks of the Charles to enjoy a nice fall afternoon in the city.
Honestly, I’ll be back there next year just for one of those clam chowder bread bowls. Just don’t let me forget my coat.
Featured Images by Graham Beck / Heights Senior Staff