Metro, Boston

54th Head of the Charles Regatta, Boston’s Defining Social Substrate

There are only a handful of places around the world that have their athletic fandom culture rooted firmly in one sport. Canada rules the rink, Italy fields the strongest starting XI, and the United States has an equal foothold on the baseball diamond, basketball hardwood, and football gridiron. Even at the more granular level of cities, there are some sports that provide a valuable social and cultural substrate both for those who compete as well as those who spectate. For the city of Boston, rowing might arguably be a sport that delivers on this promise through each passing season.

Every October, the Head of the Charles Regatta draws people from far and wide to battle for Charles River supremacy and interact with a community that shares their zeal for a sport with origins dating back to the ancient Roman funeral races, 13th-century Venetian canal regattas, and the first professional competitions on London’s River Thames.

Now in its 54th year, the Head of the Charles Regatta remains the largest two-day race in the world and one of the two premiere rowing-season events of the year alongside the Royal Henley Regatta in the U.K. The Charles River provides an iconic three-mile-long racecourse that snakes through the city from the Boston University Bridge to Allston. The riverbanks are accessible by foot and offer spectators inspiring views of the city skyline and competitors as they whizz silently by except for the shouts bursting from coxswains leading each crew on their way toward the finish.

With the majority of activities centered around Elliot Bridge just a stone’s throw away from the campus of Harvard University, the atmosphere at the Head of the Charles Regatta was a pleasant mix of collegiate competitiveness and family fun. There were over 800 schools, universities, and organizations in attendance alongside the hundreds of vendors showcasing all that a rower’s heart could desire, such as technical apparel, high-tech erg machines, and personalized nutrition options. The storied tradition of the regatta meant that many in attendance have seen the race grow through the years.

In addition to NCAA rowing teams from universities around the country, there were alumni boats holding onto their competitive spirit in eight-man, four-man, double, and single sculls. The races began early in the morning on Saturday, and each was within 15 seconds of the other, giving spectators ample opportunity to experience the thrill of full-effort sprints down the course’s straightaways. Boston College’s very own rowing teams competed in the Women’s Championship Fours, Men’s Collegiate Eights, and Men’s Collegiate Fours, placing 14th, 11th, 11th, respectively.

The main walkways were sandwiched by an endless lot of trailers carrying rowing boats, each with a unique design and shape intended to shave off precious seconds in the heat of competition. Athletes were seen stretching and hydrating in anticipation of their race start, as well as carrying the crew’s boat on their shoulders after completing their race.

There’s a special kind of interaction between spectator and competitor that often does not emerge from other sports. For visitors at the Head of the Charles Regatta, the event is undeniably a shared experience where conventional sports boundaries are torn down. You could be cheering on a team of rowers from the Naval Academy and moments later find yourself standing next to them as they refuel with apples and granola packets.

This shared experience is why the regatta is not only for those directly involved in the sport. There were carnival slides, apple pie vendors, and interactive games for visitors of all ages. Particularly with its prime location along the river, the two-day event was perfect for families to leisurely stroll along that riverbank under a canopy of trees in chromatic transition from fall to winter. There were ample food and beverage options available for the hungry and thirsty crowds. The Boston Burger Company and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse dished out bountiful plates of American comfort food, while Night Shift Brewing poured out local IPAs all through the day.

The Head of the Charles Regatta holds its allure every year since it first blessed the Charles River in 1965. Rowing has become a sport practiced by athletes of all backgrounds and gender associations, and many rowing organizations such as the Gay + Lesbian Rowing Federation and ROW (Recovery On Water) define the progressive attitude that the sport has taken on. Herein lies the true beauty of the Head of the Charles Regatta: it is truly for everyone.

Featured Images by Keith Carroll / Heights Editor

October 21, 2018