Two of the largest fall head races of the season are on schedule for the next few weekends in Boston and Philadelphia - the Head of the Charles, and the Head of the Schuylkill. Between those two regattas, some 4,200 crews of all levels and ages will hit the water hoping for their best possible result and experience.
What gets most talked about by coaches and athletes preparing for those events are the best lines to navigate turns and bridges, how to pass, and which sections of the course are the most difficult - all the technical aspects of having a successful row.
But there is one part of head racing that sometimes does not get the attention it deserves, and if conditions are challenging enough, or proper planning is overlooked, a potentially good race can be ruined before it begins.
It's the area where crews gather and line up to row sequentially by bow number towards the start line and onto the course. In Boston that happens in the section of the Charles River called the Basin, just below the Mass Ave Bridge, which also happens to be the place where conditions can be the most difficult when the weather does not cooperate.
In Philadelphia, it's the section of the Schuylkill just above the two-thousand meter start line, and below two concreate railroad bridges known as Twin Bridges, or Twin Stones. While it is not as wide as the Basin in Boston, a stiff wind, or a fast current resulting from a heavy rain, can make the top of the Schuylkill head course a very difficult a place to muster for a race. It can also present the opposite problem from the basin: not much room to maneuver.
So, with the two regattas still far enough away, row2k took some time this week to contact race officials in both cities to go over the proper procedures for getting to the start line with the least chance for having a bad day before even getting onto the course.
Head of the Charles
With 55 years of experience, the folks who run the Head of the Charles Regatta have every part of the Charles River course - from above the start line area in front of the Boston University DeWolfe Boathouse, to the finish area below the Elliot Bridge - all mapped out and planned for, including the approach to the start chute inside the Basin.
For a review of the best way to executive the start in Boston, we asked 2019 race director Bracknell Baker to explain how the system works:
According to Baker, the moment a crew rows under the BU Railroad Bridge on the Boston side of the Charles and begins the approach to the Basin, spotters at the Dewolfe Boathouse and marshals on the water make note of which crews are arriving and check them in by bow number.
The crews entering the Basin are directed toward a set of buoys near the Mass Ave Bridge, where they begin rowing in a counter-clockwise circulation under the supervision of another group of officials, known as the river control group.
Marshals on the water then pull crews out of circulation, or even before they begin circulating if they have a low enough bow number, and direct them toward the start area. If everything goes according to plan, the first 20 crews of an event are lined up and are moving into the chute and toward the start five minutes before the race begins.
Crews behind them are then placed into sequential order and are moved toward the chute in an orderly line. That line can stretch up to the MIT Harold W. Pierce Boathouse, depending on the size of the event and the number of crews.
And to keep everyone on the water updated on what is going on, a public address system on the MIT boathouse deck broadcasts information to the crews across the water. According to Baker, the operation deals with three events simultaneously.
"There are three events in the Basin at the same time," he said. "One race is starting, one is circuiting, and one is entering the Basin." As Baker notes, "in a perfect world," all of that happens flawlessly, and crews get safely to the start in correct order and ready to race.
But a perfect world depends on wind and weather conditions in the Basin, in which case there are protocols followed that are different for different events depending on the size of the boats, but they are all designed to keep crews in more protected areas in the Basin.
For small boats, singles and doubles, that means crews are turned at the back of the start area below the large circulation buoys, and directed toward a holding area on the Cambridge shore where there is a smaller set of buoys that can be used to circulate around before being called into the start area line up.
Larger boats, fours, quads and eights, are moved toward the larger circulation area, but which has been moved closer to the start. The larger buoys are movable and, depending on conditions, the area can be reduced in size, and moved closer to more manageable, protected areas near the start. Crews are then pulled by bow number from those areas and lined up to begin the race.
Head of the Schuylkill
Unlike Boston, the venue in Philadelphia does not have a wide area like the Basin where crews can row while waiting to be called in. In past regattas, crews could run into problems maneuvering in the tight space below Twin Stones, and create logjams that had the potential to back up the entire process of moving crews to the start further down the river.
According to Rich Dougert, this year's HOSR chief referee, the process has been changed in a way that they hope will eliminate any backups after just such a situation occurred last year.
One key to the plan will be better communication between the three main launch sites - Boathouse Row, Three Angels, and the city dock just below Strawberry Mansion Bridge in front of the Temple University Boathouse - with officials timing launching so crews are arriving at the right times. "We are launching from three different sites that are spread out across the venue. We are trying to launch with enough time at each location, so that as a rower, you're not kept up top too long, or you are not going to miss your race," Dougert said.
"Last year, they got loaded up at the top, and there were a lot of novice eights that weren't able to maneuver their boats and they kept getting backed up, creating more of a backup down river. Boats were being launched from each of the three locations on a per-ordained time line, and they really weren't slowed down as conditions directed," he said.
"That's why we are spending a lot of time on this, and have one individual responsible for launching on the right time lines, and communicating with controlling marshal up top so you don't get in a situation where you are sitting up top waiting for your race to be untangled and put into the chute."
Like Boston, Philadelphia will have a full contingent of on-water marshals checking in bow numbers as crews arrive in the area below Strawberry Mansion Bridge.
Crews will be placed in order, and then directed towards the start line sequentially, rowing side-by-side according to odd and even numbers. The crews are then turned at predetermined spots above the start to keep the odd-even spacing, and are then marshalled onto the course.
The start line this year has also been moved about 100 meters below the traditional 2k start line to allow for more room and less congestion.
"It's not the athletes' job to worry about what they have to do when they get up there," Dougert said. "It's the officials' job to make sure they get you up to the top, and to make sure they get you up to the top in enough time so that we don't have to hold you over."
Course maps with photos of the start area can be seen here.
What to do When Things go Wrong
Even in the best circumstances, there is always the chance that the unexpected will happen. And knowing how to react is important, officials at both venues explained.
First and simplest, anticipate a possible delay or logjam that affects your warmup plan, and consider being partially warmed up before launching, and bringing gear matching the weather in case you are forced to sit idly for a bit.
Wind and river currents can cause problems that include boats being swamped by rolling waves, and crews flipping. And the general rule to follow when a crew becomes distressed, or is in an emergency situation, is to get the attention of the safety marshals by waving and calling attention to themselves.
In both Boston and Philadelphia there will be multiple safety and emergency response launches on hand, and officials acting as spotters.
If the crew does go into the water, they need to stay with the boat and wait for assistance. Once an on-water rescue is conducted, a decision will be made about the crews' ability to continue the race, or to be brought to shore.
In Boston, there are some 13 safety crews on hand in the Basin, and help should arrive within 30 to 60 seconds, said Baker. Depending on the crew's age and experience, they can be allowed to race once the situation is corrected.
"I've been in the launch before when we responded to a flipped or swamped boat. And when we've gone over, especially with a single that has flipped, once we've gotten them in the launch, or back in their boat, the scullers say they want to race."
Baker said in the case of youth crews that have swamped or flipped, the crews are taken to the MIT boathouse where the situation is evaluated, and the crew's coach has been contacted.
"Youth crews are different, they usually want to race as well, but we want to make sure that they are in a condition to race medically, and that their coach is aware there has been an incident. We call them on the number they give us when they enter the race, tell them the situation, and ask if they are comfortable with having the crew race," Baker said.
One thing specific to Boston when wind conditions create waves making turning and rowing across the Basin circulation area difficult, is that a crew can chose not to row around the circulation buoys.
"If it is a situation of waves coming up and water coming in, or questions of how to turn, the best practice for athletes is to take your time turning. And if you don't want to circulate, tell the marshal that you want to sit and just hang out until the start of the race. And we're fine with that. We're not expecting crews to have to circulate," he said.
"It's about making sure you are very aware of what is going on around you, and if you want to chill out and not circulate, you can park over by the MIT boathouse and sit there to wait. The marshals are there for the crew's safety. They are not going to make them do something they don't want to do."