Enjoying the Head of the Charles

October 18, 2011
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Do your weekend plans include joining the 300,000 spectators who will line the riverbanks for the Head of the Charles Regatta? It is fun to watch the athletes in action and enjoy the colorful aspects of the event. Here’s a bit of information about the race and the sport of rowing.

History

Crew or competitive rowing has been a part of the Charles River scene since 1844 when members of Harvard’s class of ‘46 purchased an 8-oared boat and organized the first Harvard Boat Club. On the Boston side of the river, the Union Boat Club was founded in 1841. Collegiate women joined the action when Wellesley College organized a rowing program in 1875.

The Regatta

The Head of the Charles Regatta, first held in 1965, is now the world’s largest two-day rowing event. The competitors you see passing on the river are not racing one another side-by-side. In a “head” race, each boat is timed and the fastest time wins.

The starting line is opposite Boston University’s DeWolfe Boathouse. The finish line is 3.2 miles up river by Herter Park. This is also where boats launch for the race. Once on the water, the crews row along the Boston shore and circle in a waiting area, just west of the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, until they’re called to begin their race.

The racers compete for prizes in many categories. Boats are grouped by the number of rowers onboard- singles, doubles, fours, and eights. All eights include a coxswain who doesn’t row but is responsible for steering and giving race commands. Some fours also have this additional crew member. There are divisions for men, women, and mixed crews, and for collegiates, masters, youth, and other special groupings.

Nine thousand rowers will have to learn the ins-and-outs of the course and the rules that make this race a model for safety and sportsmanship. The large number of boats on the river, six bridges, and the curving course make completing this race, without incident or penalty, challenging. Penalties for infractions, like going off course or interfering with another boat, are added to a crew’s time and can hurt a winning effort.

Beyond the Race Itself

This October happening has a festival atmosphere with a Rowing and Fitness Expo and a carnival of food vendors.

Reunions along the river are a race tradition. Organizers call “The Reunion Village” a place for, “clubs, schools, alumni groups, parents, boosters and ‘Friends’ to connect and enjoy themselves.” Elsewhere along the river, you’ll see tents erected and blankets spread as people gather informally to enjoy the race, the season, and old friends.

This will also be a weekend of volunteerism and charitable giving. More than 1500 volunteers assist with the race. And, since 1998, the event’s charity program has raised more than $800,000.

At the the Head of the Charles Regatta’s official website (www.hocr.org) you can learn more about the history of the race and the sport of rowing.

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