The 36th annual Head of the Charles Regatta was a chance for the Harvard and Radcliffe crews to compete against some of the best in the world.
They passed with flying colors.
"It's an honor just to be out on the water with guys like that," men's heavyweight captain Jason Craw said. "It's a really good start to the season for us."
In the Championship Eight division, the Harvard men's heavyweight team raced to a fifth-place finish in a time of 14:55.79, eight hundredths of a second behind the fourth-place crew from Wisconsin.
Harvard moved up six spots from its 11th-place finish last year and shaved 52 seconds off its time.
"It is a great improvement," Craw said. "We got beaten by just about everyone and his brother a year ago."
The U.S. National Team won the race in a time of 14:26.18 after trailing the German National Team for the first quarter of the race.
Northeastern was the fastest collegiate crew Sunday, turning in a third-place finish in a time of 14:46.23.
"Northeastern was clearly the class of the collegiate teams," Craw said. "I don't think we could have possibly beaten them today. They put together a great race and we're going to have to work really hard to beat them in the spring."
Harvard was the class of the Ivy field, however, defeating sixth-place Brown by nine seconds, and downing Yale by more than 20 seconds. Eli's men turned in a disappointing 12th-place finish.
Heading into the race, Brown and Princeton were expected to give the U.S. and German National teams a run for their money, while Yale was hoping for a top-five performance.
Brown finished only nine seconds behind the German National team a year ago, but Harvard's performance yesterday was a pleasant surprise.
Immediately following the men's race, the Radcliffe heavyweight crew rowed to a surprising fourth-place finish in the Championship Eight division, only to drop to 15th after being assessed a 20-second penalty.
A strong cross-wind and confusion at the starting line pushed the Radcliffe crew left of the first two buoys, resulting in a pair of 10-second penalties that cost the team 11 spots in the rankings.
"The wind was really pushing the boat left, and to make matters worse, the officials had us line up on the far left-hand side of the course," women's heavyweight captain Stephanie Malliaris said. "The buoys just went under the starboard instead of the port oars and once we missed the first buoy, there wasn't enough time to adjust before we missed the second."
The team's time of 16:59.12 would have placed Radcliffe fourth, ahead of the University of Michigan by 39 hundredths of a second.
"We felt we really rowed a good race," Malliaris said. "We were really psyched heading in and improved tremendously over last year."
The team placed a disappointing 17th last year, but improved 44 seconds this time around to finish within 15 seconds of the German National team.
"The most frustarating thing about the penalty is that it didn't make us at all faster," Malliaris said. "If anything it slowed us down when one of our oars hit the buoy."
Despite the disappointment, the team was happy with its performance and content in the fact that it proved to itself how good it could be.
"This was a fabulous race," Malliaris said. "It showed that the boat was fast, and hopefully we'll have a good season. Our coxswain was just great. The turn at the Weeks Footbridge is really hard and she nailed it for us."
Both lightweight teams also turned in excellent performances and improved over last year.
The men's lightweight crew rebounded from the one-minute penalty it suffered last year to finish sixth in a time of 15:58.50.
The women's lightweight squad made similar improvements, finishing fourth in a time of 18:32.27 after a 10th-place finish a year ago.
The men's freshman heavyweights made it a three-peat in the Youth Eight division, successfully defending their '98 and '99 titles with a convincing 13-second win over Ruderverein Emscher in a time of 15:35.43.
"The win today is certainly not a surprise," freshman heavyweight Coach Bill Manning said. "But the guys were really excited to beat the German club team. There were a lot of gold medallists from the Junior Worlds in that boat, and to beat them was a great feeling."
Yale finished a distant third in a time of 15:47.58 and was not a serious concern to the Harvard crew.
"To be honest it's not something you really think about," Manning said. "I give a lot of respect to Yale, but it's the fall. That rivalry becomes a little more important in the spring and today we were really looking out for the crew from Germany."
The women's freshman heavyweight boat was the only team not to improve upon last year, finishing eighth in a time of 18:32.51. Like the men, Radcliffe was the defending champion in the Youth Eight Division.
But Harvard was represented in the races Sunday by more than just current students. Men's heavyweight coach Harry Parker, 64, rowed to a fourth-place finish in the Veteran Singles division with a time 21:47.62 and alum Wolf Moser '98 stroked the U.S. National Team to victory in the Championship Eight.
In a new twist to the event, a 580-meter dash for cash was added to the ticket.
The three top finishers from the three-mile men's and women's Championship Singles event raced head-to-head with $30,000 up for grabs.
The event was sponsored by Charles Schwab and attracted the world's best to Boston.
"It definitely brought some of the world's best rowers," Manning said. "Just a month after the Olympics, most would have just stayed home. It's normal to see such high-caliber rowers at this event, but never before in an Olympic year and never before this good."
In the three-mile event, Olympic gold medallist Rob Waddell raced to a first-place finish in a time of 18:20.89. Xeno Meuller from Switzerland, the silver medallist in Sydney and the gold medallist from Atlanta, finished second with a time of 18:26.13.
In the women's event, Rumyana Neykova of Bulgaria scored a little revenge on Olympic gold medallist Ekaterina Karsten from Belarus, winning in a time of 20:12.39.
Neykova finished second to Karsten a month ago in Sydney, losing by one hundredth of a second in the closest photo finish in Olympic history.
Karsten was third today in the longer distance, finishing in a time of 20:30.67, while Sonya Waddell, the husband of Rob Waddell, improved on her sixth-place Olympic result to finish second yesterday, 11 seconds off the pace in the three-mile race.
In the final 580-meter sprint, with $7,500 awaiting the winner, Sonya Waddell scored a huge upset defeating both Karsten and Neykova in another close race.
Just minutes later in the men's event, Rob Waddell completed the New Zealand and Waddell sweep with a relatively comfortable win over Mueller.
"It's great for Harvard students to be able to walk out of their dorms, over to the boathouse, and compete with the best in the world," Manning said. "It's a real treat for them."
Of course, the Head of the Charles was not just about boats. With 300,000-plus spectators from all over the world lining the Charles, the event grounds were ripe with food vendors, corporate tents and state-school rivalries being played out thousands of miles away.
Main sponsors like Lucent Technologies put up hospitality tents and flew small airplanes with banners that advertised the company. Lycos.com, an Internet portal company, thrilled fans with a plane that spelled out "LYCOS" in smoke letters.
Fans also got to gorge on some of the fattiest foods the area has to offer. Fried dough was a favorite, but sausages and french fries also wowed the crowd.
"The fried dough is one reason I come out this far," said Patricia Williamson, of Akron, Ohio, while gorging on one of the cardiac arrest-inducing delicacies. "I mean, I'm a fan of the races, but this food is excellent."
With the plethora of college teams, rowing clubs and national organizations making up the bulk of the competitors, there were many subplots and stories to this regatta.
Take, for example, the Tempe Town Rowing Club. The club, from Arizona, fielded a female club eight on Saturday afternoon.
Tempe Town, however, wasn't even in existence seven months ago. Team members range from an elderly 60-year-old woman to a 17-year-old high schooler. The Head of the Charles was the team's first regatta, and it was even more unusual because the team trains on a man-made lake.
Even with all these disadvantages, Tempe Town didn't finish last in a field of 72. Well, it did, but two disqualifications and a one-minute penalty on Iona put Tempe in 69th place instead.
Veterans from Europe and Oceania were not the only far-off participants. In perhaps the oddest appearance, several teams were fielded by the Cairo [Egypt] Policemen's Athletic Club.
With 5,500 competitors from 30 different countries, there were dozens of intriguing stories to be found.
In the end, however, this year's sprint for cash returned the focus of the event to the water, where it belongs.
Sunday was a day for New Zealand and the Waddell family to shine atop the rowing world.
But on the collegiate scene, it was a chance for Harvard and Radcliffe to reestablish themselves as dominant rowing powers.
Consider it mission accomplished.