For the folks who live in Boston, the banners being hug on poles and bridges along the Charles River and the slow parade of trailers packed with rowing shells being parked in staging areas on Soldiers Field Road and Memorial Drive that begin arriving as early as Wednesday, announce the arrival of another Head of the Charles Regatta.
That can mean a coming weekend of fun, or a major headache that sends locals scurrying to find places to hide and ways to get out of the city. The closures of Memorial Drive, and the hundreds of thousands of rowing fans from around the world that make the Boston pilgrimage every October, make getting in around Boston and Cambridge Saturday and Sunday a challenge.
And it's always made more complicated when the Boston Red Sox are in the MLB playoffs, which they are this year. Depending on how long the ALCS series between Houston and Boston goes, the Sox and the Astros could be playing both days, and the size of the crowds moving through the two cities toward Fenway Park and Kenmore Square will be daunting and boisterous.
It's a two Fall Classics that make can Boston a unique place to be - or something to avoid, depending on individual levels of patience and preparation.
So, for those in the rowing community who are heading to Boston, it is going to be helpful to have a plan. Knowing where to park, where to walk, where the best places to watch the regatta are, and the best places to avoid and above all - being prepared can make or break a Head of the Charles experience.
The crowds can be daunting regatta weekend
Veterans of the largest fall regatta know most of this stuff. But for those who don't, like parents, first time competitors, extended family and friends of rowers who are planning on cheering their chews on, row2k has these suggestions of ways to make the most of the 54th Head of the Charles Regatta.
This is the 54th edition of the event and every possible mistake has already been made. There is a ton of information available in the local newspapers and news channels and, most especially, by the HOCR organizers.
All possible manner of information on getting to the site, parking, practice, racing, and navigating the weekend can be found on the Head of the Charles website located here. The local newspapers and television stations usually have Head of the Charles information and, given the baseball playoffs and the impact that could have, it will be important to look for it.
This is Boston. Drivers here already have a reputation - recognized as valid by even most Bostonians - that puts most local motorists into one of two categories; hard to get along with, and dangerous. It is guaranteed that road closures on Memorial Drive will make the already nuts traffic all around the venue even nuttier. Tensions will mount and fenders will be bent, or worse!
Unless there is no alternative (hint, you have a boat on your roof) plan on not driving in. Boston's public transit system has key locations that can make both parking and getting in and out of the venue easy and relatively hassle free.
There several large parking garages in and around Boston and some of them have overnight parking. The Alewife Brook Parkway station in Cambridge is one of those and has easy access to the subways with key locations around the venue. And, there are also locations far enough outside the city that can make the trip in and out headache free. For a complete list of stations and parking garages, go here.
More on Parking:
(See above first, but if you insist.) This is one of Boston's largest fall events and it is all being squeezed into a tight area surrounded by heavily populated Cambridge and Boston neighborhoods, where parking is a daily nightmare.
So, if you are new to this, here is the first big tip. Don't. Forget trying to find a, convenient parking spot. It can be done, usually for people getting to the regatta very, very early, or the determined drivers willing to circle and circle, (causing traffic jams, and risking missing an event completely or - worse - being rewarded with a large parking ticket or towing fee.)
There are several paid parking areas and garages and planning which one to park in can mean an easy arrival and departure. Information on some can be found on the regatta site here.
Once You Have Arrived
For most of the 2,308 crews planning on making the 3-mile run between the start line in front of BU's DeWolfe Boathouse and the finish line in front of the large grass fields and parking areas on Soldiers Field Road. Soliders Field Road is where most crews will launch form and return to, and how athletes get back and forth to the staging area for racing will be (most likely - hopefully) pre-determined by their coaches and team managers.
Athletes rigging boats
But, again, all relevant information is available and provided by the regatta, and should be examined. It can all be found on the competitor section on regatta website.
Spectators: Respect the Event. If you are planning to attend the regatta with a crew or athlete, the same information made available to the athletes and coaches is also essential reading. So is having a look at the regatta spectator section.
Launching areas are tightly controlled and very busy and getting in the way can cause real problems for crews, officials and volunteers. So, give them all wide berth. There are plenty of places and opportunities for photos (selfies) during the weekend, but launch areas are not among them. Keep in mind the amount of time and training the athletes and organizers put into preparing for the race and be careful not to mess anything up. Problems can, do, and will happen. But try not to be part of the reason.
What to Wear and What to Bring
Deciding what to bring and how to bring it is always tricky. The crowds are enormous and, especially in some areas, just walking is difficult. Large backpacks make that even more difficult. So, pay attention to the weather forecasts. As previously mentioned, any form of meteorology is possible. During the last 54 years, the regatta course has been alerted due to wind, canceled (once) because of a storm, and featured typical cool fall weather or warm fall weather. Last year was gorgeous. In 2009, it rained one day and snowed the next, which made for nice photos, but it was not the best for hanging out with the family.
So, check the weather, and jam light layers into smallish bags in case.
Snowing on the Championship Eight race in 2009
Now for the Fun Stuff
Having gotten all the do it right or suffer the consequences information out of the way, let's talk about what makes the Head of the Charles such an awesome event for both athletes and spectators of all kinds.
The Competition and Racing:
Head racing offers opportunities for some of the largest gathering of competitors of all levels, and the Head of the Charles is the best of them. Racing runs for two days and features athletes of all levels of racing, young and old (ok, youth and veteran). The youngest competitors are in the youth events and are usually high schoolers. Masters range in age from 30 to 70 plus.
Women's youth single sculler
Open competitors can be club athletes, collegiate athletes and teams, and elite, world class athletes from around the world that always include Olympians and veteran national team athletes.
Of the youth, club and masters athletes, most have reached a level of fitness and skill and experience, that allow them to be competitive in the racing. There are definitely exceptions to that, but for most of the field, the athletes have trained and are prepared for the event.
The schedules are set so that all athletes compete only in their own levels and at times when it makes the most sense. Masters tend to go early in small boats followed by in age and competitive level as the day moves forward and the river fills with the Championship crews.
The later races of each day are reserved for the most competitive crews, the Olympians and National team crews and top youth and collegiate team boats. For every athlete racing, the Head of the Charles is a big deal, so no race is taken for granted and all are worth viewing.
Women's championship eight with a combinded elite crew racing a collegiate crew
How to Watch and What to Watch For
Most of the entire course offers excellent viewing locations for the races, on both the Boston and Cambridge sides. The Boston side is best for riding a bike to follow a specific event (just be very careful crossing at the bridge intersections. These are busy streets often occupied by distracted, race-watching drivers.) A large section of Memorial Drive is closed to traffic and is one area where spectators can set up and spend an entire day. It is also one of the three big vendor areas.
On the Boston side, across from Weld Boathouse is Reunion Village, where alumni groups rent tents and food and beverages are available for sale. There is an admission fee for adults, but admission for children under 12 is free.
The largest spectator/vendor area is staged just below the Eliot Bridge on Soldiers Field Road. This area offers views of racing through Eliot Bridge and into the last turn to the finish line. It also has most of the launch and recovery docks, and athlete and boat trailer areas. It can get really jammed, and if it is a wet weekend, the sidewalk down the middle can be a tough, shoulder banging, go.
The entire regatta can also be live-stream here.
Crowded sidewalks in the rain
HOCR veterans and rowing people know pretty much of what is coming in this section, so we're addressing the folks who really are new to this and want to get the most out of watching the racing. (And those veterans who like a chuckle at the misfortune of others.)
The regatta is a highly competitive event, and the course and the six bridges that must be safely navigated can turn even the gentlest, kind, well-meaning representatives of the rowing community into, well, snarling, swearing demons. There are penalties for cursing and they are assessed - regularly. And getting down the course and through the bridges, while trying to win and passing other boats, sometimes in packs, can make watching the regatta like watching NASCAR racing, complete with the crashes.
Race watching on Weeks Bridge
While some spectators will hope for the best for all crews and athletes, it is unrealistic to think that there are not many more waiting for the conflict and carnage of oar on oar, and boat to boat contact. There are crashes that are the stuff of legend. And given that we are in the age of video. Check a video of one of the more famous of a crew from Peking University sinking after a crash.
The most damage is done at either the Weeks Footbridge, just above Harvard's Weld Boathouse; Anderson Memorial Bridge in front of the Harvard's Newell Boathouse, and the Eliot Bridge in front the Cambridge Boat Club.
All three are narrow arches at critical points on the course and getting through them properly can mean significant time saved or lost. And so, blood boils, mistakes are made and the crowds announce the coming crashes - you will hear it, and it will be an unmistakable -"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh."
The Head of the Charles is one of the premier events in the sport and always something looked forward to by the rowing community worldwide. It offers two days of watching and mixing with athletes of all levels, youngest to oldest, beginner to Olympian and can be a highlight of the Boston fall.
Just showing up is doable, but not advised - plan ahead and be prepared for the best Head of the Charles memories.