The Head Of The Charles will be raced as a "global remote event" in 2020 due to the challenges of running large events during the COVID-19 pandemic, regatta officials announced today.
"The Head Of The Charles will not be held as an on-water two-day event on the Charles River this October as it has for 55 years, but instead we will run a global remote event," the regatta said in a release.
"Following a new, innovative format, in mid-October athletes will be able to compete by racing the length of the Head Of The Charles course (4702 meters) on their own body of water or on an ergometer, depending on their desired choice of format."
Global Remote Event Format
The details of the remote event are still being worked out, but a few likely features include:
- Distance will be 4702 meters; I am told we will know more soon how this exact distance was determined
- You can do the event on-water in the boat, or on the erg
- Multiple boat classes may be possible (i.e., not necessarily singles only)
- If you do the event in the boat, times will be due the Friday before the original regatta weekend
- "Participatory" and "competitive" options will be available
- There will be a live-broadcast competitive event on the regatta weekend (likely on the erg)
- Entry fees will be low
- All fees collected will be donated to charity, possibly through the new HOCR/Gold Cup Grant program announced yesterday
Decision to Run Remote Event Hinged on Several Factors
"We met with the board, the managing directors, the race committee, and health professionals, and came up with a recommendation on which the full board voted to run a global remote event," Executive Director Fred Schoch told row2k on a call that included Schoch, regatta directors Mason Cox and Priscilla Livingston, and regatta chair Blair Crawford.
"Our aim is to protect the safety of the rowing community, and we had to conclude that we won't be having a live Head of the Charles this year, but will hold a global remote event where we give people the opportunity to compete on their own body of water, or on the erg," Schoch said.
Current USRowing guidelines limit participation in regattas to athletes that live within 120-140 miles or a two-hour drive of any event and who are under 65 years old; events must be one-day events that do not require overnight stays, must limit spectators, avoid sharing common objects, and more. See the full guidelines here.
"The guidelines are very, very tight," Schoch noted, adding that a full scale regatta with sweep and team boat events was off the table some time ago.
HOCR Board chair Blair Crawford pegged the eligible scullers in the 180 to perhaps 400 scullers range, which is simultaneously a tremendously scaled back Charles and a large enough number of participants to create safety and distancing challenges.
180 scullers would put regatta participation at about one-and-one-half percent of a normal year, Crawford noted.
"If it were the only regatta out there, maybe you would get double that, and we tried to make workable an event that would be around 400 people, which was the scenario that we road-tested with the race committee," he said.
The regatta is the world’s largest two-day rowing race, regularly fielding 11,000 athletes from around the world. Competitors range from teenage youth rowers to athletes in their 90s and is seen as a must-attend race for world-class and Olympian rowers. More than 1,800 volunteers ensure that the event runs smoothly.
Partnership with Mass General
In the past few months, the regatta established a partnership with medical professionals and epidemiologists at Mass General (who are also involved with the Massachusetts governor's office looking at reopening schools, as well as the Bruins, Patriots, and several Fortune 500 companies), who developed a series of protocols and recommendations for running the regatta, including the safety of participants, possible spectators, referees and officials, and especially, Schoch noted, the large group of volunteers who are most responsible for the actual conduct of the regatta each year, as many of us have witnessed over the years. In the end, regatta officials and advisors decided that a live regatta was not realistic.
Crawford also emphasized the uncertainty presented by fluctuating levels of contagion and other measures as regards the virus. At present Massachusetts is in pretty good shape, but if that were to change, event permits could be rescinded on very short notice.
"The final, more general point we reviewed, and it is in the news and people know this, is the centrality of the reinfection rate, the infamous RT number, and how the curve looks in relation to that RT number means that it's impossible to predict what this is going to look like in October," Crawford said.
"They did scenario planning for us, and if Massachusetts R number stays under one, then the curve looks extremely manageable in terms of the caseload. If it pops over one, we get exponential growth, and for the purposes of the regatta, the likelihood of a permit being withdrawn, or of a state or Governor mandate to cancel at a late point, is not small. There's some reasonable likelihood if we went ahead, as we got into October, we could still be canceled."
"It really started to snowball; the logistics were just mountainous," Schoch noted. "Because it has to be a single day event, to have 400 cars arriving on one day would require help getting them on site, unloaded, and then staggering launch times."
Other issues and risks involved with trying to go ahead with the regatta:
- requirements for mask-wearing, multiple hygiene stations and hand sanitization, and distancing and other protective measures on and off the water
- possible onsite testing
- the challenges of limiting spectator attendance at the regatta, which runs along public parks, streets, and under public bridges
- staggering race times
- distancing as regards boat storage
- launching and return dock procedures and protocols
Assistant regatta director Mason Cox noted that not only were race-day challenges significant, but setup for the regatta was problematic as well.
"We anticipated problems with usually simple things like putting the docks together," Cox said. "It takes too many people to put in a big dock to maintain distancing and to meet protocols. Even for the safety launches, you can't have two people on most of our launches and be properly distanced.
"In consultation with our race committee and race operations group that is about 150 people, their concerns for running an event to the standard that they're used to, having it be professional with everything running smoothly on the water, just wasn't possible in this scenario."
"We really did turn over every stone and put a lot of time into discussing a modified event," HOCR Director of Operations Priscilla Livingston said. "It was not a decision that was made hastily."
Safety concerns also go beyond simple distancing; it is easy to imagine a scenario where, on a cold, windy, or wet day on the river, very deliberate launching and return dock protocols - something along the lines of only one or two scullers on a dock at any given time - could cause a raft of other problems, including hypothermia, difficulty in responding to medical situations or emergencies, and more. Certainly at other regattas we have seen where there have been such problems, launch and return area congestion is often at least partly at fault.
Release from the Head Of The Charles
The full release from the Head Of The Charles follows:
Boston, MA. --- The Head Of The Charles Regatta Board of Directors today announced that the Head Of The Charles will not be held as an on-water two-day event on the Charles River this October as it has for 55 years, but instead will be run as a global remote event. Following a new, innovative format, in mid-October athletes will be able to compete by racing the length of the Head Of The Charles course (4702 meters) on their own body of water or on an ergometer, depending on their desired choice of format.
After evaluating a full range of options, abiding by Commonwealth of Massachusetts and USRowing guidelines, and in consultation with a team of infectious disease physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital, the board of directors and the executive team of the Regatta concluded that they would be unable to run the world class in-person regatta that the rowing community has come to expect, while keeping competitors, coaches, volunteers, spectators and vendors safe.
"Our top priority has always been to hold a regatta that is safe, fun and competitive. While we are deeply disappointed that health and safety conditions as a result of the continuation of the Covid-19 virus throughout the world prohibit us from doing that this year, our team has been hard at work to develop a global remote event to be held this October," said Fred Schoch, long-time executive director of the Head Of The Charles Regatta. "I believe we have an innovative approach that will give athletes from around the world an opportunity to take part in a competitive event, and I am excited that we will be able to also allow many first-time participants to compete as a result of this new format. We all look forward to hosting the Regatta on the Charles in 2021."
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker expressed his personal affection for the Regatta.
"As someone who has stood on the banks of the Charles off and on for 40 years, enjoying the race, I like so many other fans of the Regatta are saddened by this announcement, but can totally understand the decision," Gov. Baker said. "Covid changes many things and it is better to be safe. My very best wishes to all of the competitors and we all look forward to having the Regatta back on the Charles River next year."
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh acknowledged the iconic role that the regatta plays in Boston and around the world.
"The Covid-19 pandemic has changed many of Boston's favorite and important traditions, but it also has proven that whenever Boston is challenged, we respond with resiliency," he said. "I want to thank the board of the Head of the Charles Regatta which decided to reimagine this year's race as a remote event. As a city, and across all sectors, we are taking collective action to keep our residents safe and healthy. I look forward to welcoming back all of the competitors next year." The only other time in its history that the Head Of The Charles Regatta was not held on the Charles River was in 1996, when an historic rain and wind storm forced the cancellation of the Regatta.
The Regatta is the world's largest two-day rowing race, regularly fielding 11,000 athletes from around the world to compete in a full line-up of sculling and sweep rowing events in mid-October. The ages of competitors range from 17-year-old youth rowers to athletes in their 90s and is seen as a must-attend race for world-class and Olympian rowers. More than 1,800 volunteers ensure that the event runs smoothly.
Last year, an economic analysis of the Regatta determined that it generated more than $75 million in economic impact to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The executive team of the Regatta will announce a full line-up of events, formats and racing rules for its remote event by mid August, with registration opening on Sept. 1. The remote event will include opportunities for both on-water rowing on an athlete's own body of water, using GPS devices, or ergometer rowing machines normally used indoors.