After a couple bumpy years, mostly due to bumpy weather (tho a lot of people did like that short course), The Head Of The Charles came back strong today as stunning weather, hordes of people, and fierce and "interesting" racing combined to produce one of the best HOCR Sundays in a few years.
With the US training center crews taking both the Champ eight titles, followed by the Canadian squad crews in the women's eight, and a barreling UW eight in the men's eight, it fell to the Peking University crew in the collegiate eight to provide the storyline of the day, and they took to the role with a vengeance.
Due to visa problems, the crew, which is the first mainland China crew ever to compete in the Charles, and I believe in the United States save for in Olympic and World Championship events, arrived in the country without a coxswain. Regatta director Tom Tiffany mentioned the problem in passing while preparing for the regatta downriver at MIT on Thursday; specifically, they needed an experienced coxswain who also spoke Mandarin Chinese. Amy Sun, an MIT coxswain and regatta volunteer who was born in Taiwan, happened to be at the boathouse, and on short order was enlisted for the job.
To make a long story quick enough to read at a computer screen, the crew was having a very good race when they bumped the Beaver Boat Club crew near the Weeks Bridge.
"It was just a normal tap," Sun said after the race. "These happen all the time, and I didn't think anything of it and we kept racing. They were having a great row."
Over the next mile, however, it became apparent that there was a problem, and by the Eliot turn, it was a big problem. As the crew came around the turn, the bow section, which had apparently been broken about a foot from the bowball, bent sideways, leaving a gaping hole in the bow, which quickly filled with water. As the crew reached Eliot Bridge, the bow submerged almost completely, and directly under the bridge, the boat quickly and completely swamped and sank, right in the middle of the primary racing arch.
The crew bailed over the side of the boat, and while a rescue launch drove to them to toss lifejackets to the crew members, Sun turned to look back up the course to see crews coming toward the arch. Sun realized coxswains would probably not be able to see the swamped boat, and stood up in the coxswain's seat, a beacon to oncoming crews. (A savvy Columbia coxswain saw the problem and swung wide to go under the right arch on the bridge; clearly that coxswain has learned a few things on the Harlem, and maybe even on the ride from 116th to Baker Field; give him the keys, please.)
"At first I wanted the other crews to know the shell was there, and I was wearing yellow, so I knew they would see me," she said. "Once people started to figure it out, tho, I wasn't sure I wanted to be the only person in the water swimming when the next crew came, so I stayed where I was." I suppose the captain always stays with the ship; eventually the traffic decreased, a launch came near, and Sun bailed.
Sun explained the reaction of her crew; first they were very concerned about the boat; then about the fact that one of the oars was missing; then that their hosts would be upset. When they were assured that they were blameless, only then did they ask about their time. Although their split times are not available, unofficial splits put them very near if not at the front of the field; "I knew they were having a great row."
As for Sun, her take on the experience is philosophical. "It made for a very 'interesting' Head Of The Charles, and hopefully a very unusual one. The only thing I'm bummed about is that they were having such a great row!"
row2k was near the bridge and captured much of the event on camera; of course they'll post in the galleries when I catch up with all the photo processing. And of course, it's already on YouTube; although row2k currently has a policy not to link to YouTube - just way too much stuff to link to in the long run in addition to copyright issues - this is cause for an exception: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2GWXwePvK0
Sun went from regatta volunteer to having her name on the AP in just about 48 hours; now people are asking the upbeat and energetic coxswain if she is going to put in her name for the Olympic coxswain search reality television show now being put together in China. "I had heard a little about it; it sounds fun, who knows?"
Amy explained to me many of the differences in terminology that coxswain and crew had to overcome in 24 hours time; I hope to write some of these up on row2k in the coming days.
On to the rest of the racing, row2k style.
In the longish lull before the Champ 8, the wind dropped out, the sun blinked on here and there, and the water was nearly perfect; conditions couldn't have been much better for a good run down the course.
The US men's eight returned to the winners circle after eating the Eliot St. Bridge two years ago, and taking a pass last year. The crew won from way back in the pack after starting with bow number 29. "Two years ago I crashed into the bridge, so now it's nice to be back, not crashing into bridges and winning," men's coxswain Marcus McElhenney said.
The UW V8 was two places back at bow 31, and seemed to enjoy having the PTC clear the way a bit, and placed second 17 seconds back; Yale was close behind in third. Meanwhile, in the front of the procession, defending champs Princeton battled with Cambridge the whole way; Cambridge caught Princeton by around the two-mile mark, the crews raced side-by-side for some time, then Princeton pushed back out almost exactly the same distance they had conceded early. By the finish line; the two crews finished 0.263 seconds apart, with Cambridge getting the (slight) nod ('s as good as a wink to a blind bat…).
In the women's eight, the Princeton Training Center repeated from their spot at the head of the river - the crew is the US women's eight by any other name; this crew was the 2006 World Championship boat minus Caryn Davies and Brett Sickler, who rowed the 2x and 1x respectively; Portia Johnson and Erin Cafaro from the bronze medal US four got the call. Right behind, then Canada caught Princeton on the Eliot turn to reverse last year's 2-3 order, with Virginia just behind followed by Yale, then a pretty good gap to most of the rest of the field.
The quad events, which seemed potentially destined to a fundraiser sideshow status, has instead developed into a real boat race in just one year, and seems to me a great addition to the weekend.
I know you can't compare times from one part of the day to another, but Carlos Zezza's 21:05 finish time in the senior vet 70+ men's category would have placed 18th in the master's single.
Speaking of senior vets, women's bronze medalist Barbara Johnson was joined in this year's HOCR by her granddaughter, Julia Reeve, who placed 15th in the Club Singles competition. Any other grandparent/grandchild participants?
Closest 1-2 margin of the day, in the light men's four: Ottawa Rowing Club 16:46.840 Undine Barge 16:47.450 0.06%
Next up was Univ. of British Columbia to London Training Center in the women's champ four: that sounds like a grudge match, whew.
Ten of the day: a Destroy 10 in the light women's four. The coxswain didn't announce it would be a Destroy 10, but seemed inspired when the counting started: "1 - Destroy! 2 - Destroy! 3 - Destroy! 4 - Destroy! 5 - Destroy!..." etc. etc - whew.
Dirty river, clean mouths: I would say that the "no abusive language" rule made a difference in the comport of many on the water. When asked to explain the rule, I gave my impression thusly: you can F, you can say F me, but you can't say F you, or You F for that matter. Expletive-deleted commentary aside, I heard very few pointed F-bombs during the weekend, save for a couple heavy batches, both from crews in the same program that shall remain nameless for row2k's purposes, but who hail from a city that hosts a big regatta next weekend, where old habits seemed to die hard. The officials caught a few as well; I believe a German crew was assessed the penalty near Eliot.
Speaking of putting a sock in it: one of the food vendors near the finish line had music playing - the first sixteen bars of a Christmas song, over and over and over and over. No bridge, no middle eight, no final resolution to the tonic. Not sure how long I would last working near that…
Takes direction well: the starting area always has some degree of chaos, but this was just barely the case when the Youth Women's doubles lined up above the starting gate: exactly as instructed, the doubles divided themselves tidily into two rows, and the start proceeded almost as if by script; you don't see that in every event.
The only sticky spot in the regatta these days appears to be the Saturday night practice period; too many crews vying for too little dock space in a short stretch of time forced several crews to opt not to row on Saturday afternoon. Given that at least three that I know of had pretty decent rows on Sunday, maybe it is advised; and it is possible that practice is limited even further in the future. All that said, the HOCR folks seem to be able to move a lot of people around in a limited space pretty well; you don't see any of the on-water pileups/two-hour postrace waits in wet gear that have plagued some other large regattas.
Champ four coxing positive reinforcement: "This is the best rowing I have ever seen from you, this is perfect rowing, perfect rowing!" Ah, the benefits of bow-coxed boats…
Overheard on the banks at the finish line, Cambridge side, during the light eight: "I rowed one year at MIT, and I rowed in this race, in 1969. That was back when they let really bad boats into the regatta."
Given that the majority of entries are selected by random lottery, they still do let really bad boats into the regatta; but of course the level of rowing in general is higher these days.
As the Chinese curse goes (although it is unlikely that it is Chinese in origin), may you live in interesting times; it was an interesting and at times glorious Sunday on the Charles, at the very least. As promised, I'll be updating this feature with new info where noted; otherwise, we hope you enjoyed row2k's coverage of the 42nd running of the Head Of The Charles Regatta; see you again next year.