The Head of the Charles--rowing's answer to the question "What if we threw a party and everyone came?"--is as equal parts college homecoming, class reunion, family get-together, and--oh, right--regatta. It is hard to stroll the banks without running into, well, everyone you've ever known in this sport. When you catch the Charles on a beautiful, sunny weekend such as 2011 brought, the Charles comes pretty close to being the perfect regatta (and homecoming, etc.).
One of the other unique things about the Head of the Charles as a sporting event is that nearly everyone you meet is, in all likelihood, actually participating out on the water. From Regatta Director Fred Schoch--who sealed up another medal in his uber-Senior-Masters eight from Team Attager--to more than a few collegiate coaches tucked away in the club and masters eights, the Charles is about having a seat of your own, and getting your share of strokes in.
What you do in that seat is, of course, why folks make the pilgrimage to these banks, so on to the racing:
#1 All the Way
Starting number one has some decided advantages in any head race, but a clean run at these bends and bridges is a special plus, so no surprise here that quite a few defending champs were able to use the pole position to keep the pretenders at bay. Peter McGowan in the 50+ Men's Singles opened the racing this morning: first man across both the start and the finish on the weekend, he held onto his title in the Grand-Masters Men's Singles.
Other number ones who took full advantage at the front of the line included James McGaffigan of Riverside (40+ single), Team Attager (Men's 50+ eights), Northeastern's youngish old boys (Alumni Eights), Don Rowing Club (Club Women's Fours), and perhaps most notably, Gevvie Stone in the Champ Women's single.
Stone's win, her third, was no sure thing, even with the CBC's sculler's impressive home river skills and her run this summer at Worlds as the USA's top sculler. Lurking in the behind her, in what Stone called a "tough field," were two scullers whose 2011 included hardware: New Zealand's Emma Twigg (Worlds bronze) and Margot Shumway (Pan Am gold). Stone, however, rowed her #1 bow with aplomb, even ducking to the Cambridge arches in the powerhouse stretch to scoot out of the current and extend her lead.
"Bow number one, you have the advantage of having the whole course open in front of you, and steering where you want to," Stone said afterwards. "Being from Boston, I know the course, and I also know the river and the current."
Streaking on the Charles
In the Men's Champ Double, Graves brothers Tom and Peter matched Stone's three wins, taking the Head of the Charles title for the third consecutive year. The Graves brothers represented the US in the open double at Worlds this year, and took their win by a good margin over two of the local hopefuls for next year's USA light double, Harvard's Andrew Campbell and Austin Meyer.
Three straight, while impressive, was not the best streak kicking here on Saturday, as two crews made it five in a row. Cambridge BC's Theresa Zarzecny-Bell and Saiya Remmier continued their run atop the Women's Masters Doubles, despite the stiff challenge in the offing from former National Teamers Linda Muri and Lindsey Burns Barbier. On the men's side, the 1980 Rowing Club stretched what was "just" a reunion row entry five years ago into a full-on strangle hold in the Senior-Master's Men's fours. The only change at the top end of that event was Riverside Boat Club ceding their spot at number two to the Rocky Mountain Rowing Club.
New in Town?
Streaks and favorites aside, Saturday saw more than its share of new faces on the big HOCR medal stage, as well. A few of the new winners were of the "finally broke through" variety, and others were just the sort of surprised but gleeful winners that any massively subscribed event full of twists, turns, and unknown crews is bound to produce.
On the inevitable side, the experience and staying power of world-class scullers Lisa Schlenker, in the 40+ Single, and CB Sands-Bohrer, in the 50+ Single, put their respective age groups on notice that it might be a long decade. Sands-Bohrer was actually racing for the second time in her new age group, but this year she had the run she needed to catch three-time winner Margarita Zecca.
"We had pretty much a head to head race the whole way," Sands-Bohrer said of last year's champ, Zecca. "She's a really good competitor to race against races even splits, she kind of races like I do. I knew that even if I got a few seconds on her in the first mile, I was pretty sure she wasn't going to fold."
Blasts from (Back in) the Pack
Charles Saturday was not without its few genuine upsets, of course: like Potomac Boat Club shutting down the Minnesota Boat Club's bid for five straight in the Master's Women's Fours and the Charles River RA winning out in the Master's Men's four, from bow #13, over Palm Beach.
To be fair, the Charles River outfit was no ordinary crew: fully four 1996 Olympians, including Cornell alum Tom Murray, will make for a pretty fast boat, even when they start in traffic back in the pack.
Tricky start positions were no problem for Pan Am LW1x champ Jenn Goldsack, who hopped back into her double with partner Jenne Daley, and was passing the boat ahead before the first bridge. Compared to the single, Goldsack laughed that it was "like 'hair on fire' in the double [with the way] the boat was moving."
World Champion Mahe Drysdale found some traffic to reckon with in the Champ Single himself, but made his way ably through what he called the "very respectful" field to reclaim his Head of the Charles title. Starting 8th, Drysdale made it as far up as bow number two before he ran out of course and he won handily, despite taking the Week's turn a bit wide on his way by one sculler.
"It was a pretty good race today," Drysdale said. "Overall, I'm very happy to win again. It's been a long time 'between drinks' and so it is a great way to start our tour."
Two time defending champ Mike Sivigny had a good view of Drysdale blazing though the field, but felt he rowed the "straightest lines" he could. "I saw Mahe moving up through the pack," he said. "I'm just happy I rowed the best piece the best I could, and it felt great." Though sporting about missing out on the chance to win a third title, Sivigny did promise to be back next year to go after the headship again.
College Crews: Hard on Every Stroke
Washington University in St. Louis might have seemed like a surprise winner in the Collegiate Four, but not if you remember the spring this crew enjoyed this year, with wins at both Vails and ACRAs. Coach Rudy Ryback knows a thing or two about the Charles from his days in Riverside stripes, and that was enough to keep the crew's undefeated year on track.
Fellow ACRA member Virginia took the Men's Collegiate Four, and the Club Eights went to college squads as well: Brown took the men's race with what senior Colby Richardson called "probably one of the most fun races I've had at the Head of the Charles." For the women, Tennessee's Lady Vols emerged from what is becoming a tough race amongst the deep DI women's rowing programs.
Tennessee sophomore Liz Dickson described the race in glowing terms: "When we got the opportunity to go, we took that. There was nothing that we could have changed, and there was not one stroke that we could have taken any harder."
Seems like that is pretty much the experience most folks were looking for here in Boston. Lots more Charles to come, of course, and plenty of hard strokes left to take on Sunday.
Notes from the Banks
Folks arriving from points west on I-90 were treated to a pretty cool video billboard featuring rowing photos on one of the buildings over looking the highway. Rowing hitting the big-time…pretty cool (unless, of course, you were eyeing the billboard from a traffic stand-still and didn't appreciate the reminder that you were missing out on water time.)
These Alumni Eights may be a relatively new event, but already we can see a full-fledged cottage industry of "email me your erg score" tryouts and spiffy racing shirts making the alumni entries legit enterprises. row2k talked to one Olympic Champion who was glad to have made his school's eight, given that his gold is going on a whole three years old, and one recent World Champ had to settle for a seat in the "JV" alumni eight when he could not make the optional "selection" camp . . . whoa, that is some serious stepping up.
Hard strokes aside, the Charles is still very much a coxswains race and despite clinics and videos to bring younger coxswains up to speed, row2k has to agree with how one old Harvard hand described steering this race: "It's maniacal." row2k has been chatting with coxswains all up and down the banks this year--check back later this week to find out how the drivers see the race course.