Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston

Oct 19, 2009
Outside Magazine

DSCN1159 Nearly 9,000 rowers descended on Boston this past weekend for the largest crewrace in the world, the annual Head of the Charles Regatta. The three-mileupstream race is considered to be one of the highlights of the fall rowingseason, with almost 300,000 spectators lining the banks of the Charles Riverduring good weather years, according to the race organizers. Crew is a rowingsport featuring long, slender boats that can hold one, two, four, or eightpeople rowing in unison. Some fours and all eights also include a coxswain(pronounced COX-un) who calls out commands and directs the boat.

Like many expensive sports, crew has a reputation as a whitecollar, elitist sport. But under the matching spandex onesies, crew is a lotlike NASCAR: lots of fast moving vehicles on a predetermined course, and,though no one likes to admit it, everyone’s kind of hoping for a collision.Three years on, the rowers from the University of Maryland in Baltimore County laugh about a nasty collision at the Head of the Charles that ended withan entire eight-man team abandoning their boat as it sank and swimming forshore in the dirty brown water. The bestplace for watching crashes? The John W. Weeks Footbridge, smack in the middleof the Harvard campus. A right-angle turn in the river and a bridge with threenarrow arches makes it the deadliest spot on the course. 

Above: The Harvard Men's Team passes the Riverside Boat Club during a practice. See photos of the race and practices the week before after the break.

"There’s always something happening at this bridge," saidAnnette Forster, a US Rowing Association umpire stationed at the Weeksfootbridge who has rowed in Head of the Charles for many years previously. "Sometimes it even gets a little too hairy." I positioned myself at the bridgefor a few hours on Saturday, but missed the closest call when I wasinterviewing the Turkey Hill free ice cream samples woman ("Yes, I DO need totry all the flavors—I’m a JOURNALIST. It’s called objectivity."). The shrillobscenities traded between the coxswains on the opposing teams, according tothe UMBC team, were among the best to ever grace the Charles River.

Rowers, like cyclists and freestyle skiers, are a breed ofathlete comfortable flaunting the spandex. "We learn to embrace the spandex--it’spart of the sport," said Bryan Stuckey, a senior at UMBC. Luckily, his collegeinvested in the two-piece spandex outfits rather than the traditional onesie.Thank God, the team agrees. "This way, we don’t need to get naked in theportapotties," Stuckey adds.

Forgive me if my characterizations of crew are a littleharsh. I harbor a lot of bitterness, since I was told, when I went out for crewmy freshman year, that I didn’t meet the height minimum of 5'4" (I can,however, easily hit the five-foot mark on a bad hair day). When I tell thisstory to the guys at UMBC, they convince me that there is no such thing as a "height minimum" in crew, and there were probably other reasons that they didn’twant me on the team. Ouch.

I like to think that Mother Nature helped in my revenge onSunday by dumping the season’s first serious snowfall on the poor rowers forthe last two hours of competition. Quarter-sized snowflakes poured down on thechampionship bracket, with the hardiest teams from Europe forgoing any type of warmer clothing, baring their sleeveless spandex onesiesfor the world to see.

As a tour guide on boats on the Charles River this fall(right, like being a journalist pays all the bills), I’ve watched rowers arrivefrom around the world, including the much heralded "Great Eight," world andOlympic champions from around the world rowing together with nifty little flagdecals on their boat. Some of the eight-person boats can reach speeds of 12 mphduring this race, so they leave our 8 mph tour boat in the dust. In the sprintraces, which happen during the spring season, boats can reach up to 20 mph.

The Great Eight, whose official team name is the TidewayScullers, lived up to the hoopla by finishing a full 12 seconds ahead of UCBerkley, a huge margin for any crew race and ridiculous considering the nearwhite-out and generally miserable weather conditions on Sunday. On the womens’side, the Amsterdam Student Rowing Nereus won the championship eights by an astounding 20 second margin. Williams College(Mens) and Grand Valley State University Michigan(Womens) won the Collegiate Eights.

Photos of the Race and practice runs the week before. On-the-water photos of practices taken aboard the Henry Longfellow of the Charles Riverboat Company

Melanie Lidman is a freelance journalist and former internat Outside. She once invented a magazine with her friend entitled "SpandexWorld."

Did you know? Charles River and Crew Fun Facts:
* The Charles River was named after King Charles I of England. It's original name to the Shawmut Native Americans, was "Quinobequian" which means "The Meandering River."
* The Charles River starts 26 miles away in Hopkintown, MA (also the start of the Boston marathon) but it twists and turns so much that the river is actually 80 miles long
* There are two types of crew: sculling, when each person has two oars, and sweeping, when each person has one oar
* Each rowing club or university has a unique design on their oar blades

Fun facts courtesy of Charles Riverboat Company.

Filed To: Adventure, Sailing

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!