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If You Head to the Charles

If You Head to the Charles

Photo by Scott Woolwine.

On October 20 and 21 thousands of rowers will propel hundreds of boats upstream in 55 races to compete in the 48th annual Head of the Charles Regatta. The event attracts elite rowers and crews from around the world to compete in the largest race of its kind.

When the weather is good, more than a quarter million spectators gather along the banks and on the six bridges that span the 3-mile course. If you’ve never pulled an oar and find yourself down by the riverside, you can amaze your friends if you know a little about what is going on.

So, what is going on?

In separate events, single rowers and crews of two, four, and eight compete with rowers of similar age, gender, and skill. The boats they row are either sculls, in which each rower pulls two oars, or sweeps, in which each rower pulls a single oar. Sweeps are steered by a coxswain, who faces in the direction the boat is heading but can be seated at either end. The coxswain does not row.

This regatta is a “head” race because rowers race against a clock; the winner isn’t known until all boats in a given race cross the finish line. Races begin at 8.a.m. each day, and run continuously until 5 p.m.

Even though it is a head race, the fastest boats do race against each other somewhat. The number on the bow of each boat indicates the crew’s time at last year’s regatta or at another national race. The fastest boats have the lowest numbers and cross the starting line first. You are most likely to see the race develop in the “powerhouse stretch,” the wide, three-quarter-mile straightaway that begins after the first turn at Magazine Beach. Boats build up speed and often pass each other here, passing also the 1-mile marker between River Street and Western Avenue.

Once boats go under the Western Avenue Bridge, they begin to jockey for a good position as they row under the Weeks Footbridge.

The bridges

Each of the six bridges along the course is supported by three arches. The best route for the rowers is the center arch. The arch closest to Cambridge is out of bounds for both the BU and the Anderson Bridges. The Cambridge-side arches of the Weeks and the Eliot bridges are available, but passing through them takes longer.

Just beyond the Anderson Bridge, boats pass the 2-mile marker, where “the big curve” begins. This is the half-mile bend in the river that ends at the Eliot Bridge. The shortest route hugs the orange buoys near the middle of the river, and all boats will be jockeying to row as close to them as possible.

At the Eliot Bridge, the race has about half a mile—and one more turn—left to go.

Penalties happen

The numbers on the boats can give you an idea of how the race is shaping up. For example, if the No. 6 boat is ahead of the No. 3 boat, it’s a safe bet that No. 6 is faster. Even so, the No. 3 boat might have a better race time if No. 6 earns penalties.

Penalties add seconds to the race time, and rowers can earn them in four ways: interfering with other boats, being bad sports, endangering safety, or going off course. Throughout the race, oars will clash and boats may collide. When it occurs, the race umpires evaluate whether such contact could have been avoided and, unless one boat noticeably slows another, no penalty is assessed.

Oar-to-oar contact is frequent in head racing, but skilled rowers avoid it because it slows them down. For the larger boats, particularly the eights, avoiding contact while maintaining competitive speeds when passing is a unique challenge of the course. Skilled coxswains are as important to the race as strong rowers. Mark Hochman, long-time HOCR umpire and competitor recalls, “When they’re good, it can be astonishing. I once saw four eights begin their sprint toward the finish under Eliot at the same time. Their oars didn’t touch, not even once. It was impossible. But it happened.”

Most penalties are assessed either when a boat goes off course or for interference. Most opportunities to interfere occur when one boat overtakes another. The faster boat can pass the slower one on either side, but it has to make its move when it has enough room to do it safely. When the faster boat has pulled to within one length and the rower or coxswain has hollered “Yield,” the slower boat must give way as soon as possible. Either boat could earn a penalty if it does not manage the pass without substantially slowing the other boat or if it causes an unsafe condition. The first interference penalty adds 60 seconds to the race time; a second adds 120 seconds; a third disqualifies the boat.

Besides passing through the out-of-bounds arches under the BU and Anderson bridges, boats can go off course if their hulls pass outside the buoys that mark the length of the course and the “buffer” lane that separates the racing and travel lanes. The oars can reach cross those buoys without penalty, but any buoy that an oar pushes under water can pop up on the wrong side of the hull. The bridge penalties add 60 seconds; buoy penalties are less severe: 10 seconds per buoy.

The ballet in the travel lane

The intense activity in the racing lane contrasts with the logistical choreography in the travel lane on the Boston side.

Boats launch from the boathouses along the river between the Union Boat Club in Boston and Community Rowing in Newton. Visiting crews of fours and eights can arrange to put in at one of these boathouses or at the FALS (finish area launching site), roughly one-quarter mile upstream from the finish line on the Boston side. Visiting singles and doubles launch at Magazine Beach; race marshals shepherd all the boats to the travel lane without disrupting races underway. When they enter the travel lane, boats head downstream to the marshalling area, the wide part of the Charles basin between the Harvard Bridge and the BU boathouse.

The need to keep moving provides few opportunities to row or maneuver as quickly as the race will demand. To warm up en route, rowers can use the section between the Anderson and Weeks bridges and the powerhouse stretch if they can do so without interfering with other boats. If no opportunity is available, they can pull a counterclockwise lap or two around the circular “track” in the marshalling area in the basin that is marked by yellow pyramidal buoys.

Ready to race

While new arrivals warm up, boats in the next race prepare to enter the “start chute” by forming even- and odd-numbered lines in the queuing area. Five minutes before their race begins, the first 10 boats fall into a single line as they enter the start chute. The starter, at the Boston University boathouse, communicates over a loudspeaker to control the speed at which this happens so that boats cross the starting line at 15-second intervals. When the last boat has started its race, the next race is ready to start.

For the crews of two, four, and eight, rowing is the ultimate team sport. They must move as one in the same rhythm with the same strength, and often beyond the point of exhaustion. Charlie Hamlin knows what it takes. He'll be leading Team Attager (regatta spelled backward) in the 50+ eights to what he hopes will be its seventh straight win. "From singles to eights, the competition is intense, physically and strategically. The time for the fastest boats will be only a few seconds apart after rowing for more than 16 minutes in the eights and longer in the smaller boats. One bad stroke, one corner misjudged, one buoy fouled, too many training sessions missed last winter and you are among the also-rans. But it's great fun. The thrill of the race, the camaraderie, and the thousands along the banks makes the Head of the Charles the race of the year to win."

Head to the Charles this weekend. You are part of the regatta, too.

For a view from the river, this 25-minute video introduces coxswains to the course.