Sitting in the Boston Harbor are hundreds of rowing shells filled with crews who have trained countless hours to row down the Charles River. The jumbled mess of boats eventually becomes a queue, progressing slowly at first, then building up speed as they hurtle away from the Boston skyline down the Charles: officially a part of the biggest race of the year.
There’s nowhere in the world like the Head of the Charles regatta. It’s electric. To be there knowing that Boston is filled with people who are genuinely interested in the sport of rowing. These people are affiliated with teams that row on various bodies of water, tucked into corners of the US, isolated from other rowers. Having them all in one place fosters an overwhelming sense of community.
All sorts of rowers gather there with a common goal on common ground.
They come in junior crews looking too skinny and young to even lift an oar, let alone make it through all 5k of the course. They wear extra small spandex emblazoned with the logo of their east coast prep school and travel in giggling packs of girls and awkward clusters of boys. They may not look like much, but they are the future of rowing.
They will go on to fill the university boathouses and join the bright eyed walk-ons who have no concept of what rowing is and how it will impact their lives. They stand blinking in the autumnal Boston sun with the fresh determination and the undying swagger of a college athlete. They’ll never be more fit in their lives or find teammates like the ones they sit in front of and behind: the oarsmen and women that become rabidly faithful friends.
Some of these colligates return to the Charles with the National team. The national team members arrive with less grandeur than would be expected from the best of the best. They will borrow boats from their alma mater and hop in wearing mismatched uniforms; someone wears their lucky tank, another refuses to don anything but their striped uni. It doesn’t matter for them though. Looks are second to speed.
And then there are the men and women who have been at the Head of the Charles since it began. Over the years they’ve developed arthritic knees and aching backs, but they’re as tough as the calluses that cover their hands. They scull by in singles and doubles with years of experience trailing in their wake, turning heads that in turn grant them reverence and respect.
On the river it’s not about individual athletes or the glory of crossing the finish line first. It’s about plunging into the racecourse, executing turns with precision and efficiency and pulling the last stroke, knowing that it would have been impossible to take even one more.
This is true for every race, but The Charles is accompanied by pageantry and grandeur that isn’t present in a dank, muddy tent at an average regatta. It’s a celebration of rowing. The people watching know that the ceaseless symphony of rowing is beautiful to the spectator, but agony to the athlete. They know that each oarsman had to fight tooth and nail to earn the right to sit in each and every one of the boats swooping under the bridges. They know that everyone on the water put in countless hours of laborious training in scalding heat all summer and are finally able to cash their ticket for the grueling work they’ve done.
The Head of the Charles is the Superbowl of rowing. It’s the party of the year. It’s the finish line of a long summer of thankless training.
I’m going to do everything I can to be a part of it.