Tradition on the Charles

Tracing the evolution of the world’s largest regatta

Chika-Dike O Nwokike and Mandi Nyambi

Temperatures in Boston were in the low 60s on Oct. 16, 1965, when more than 250 oarsmen in nearly 100 boats gathered at Boston University’s DeWolfe Boathouse on the Charles River.

Coached by 29-year-old Harry Parker, crews from Harvard were set to compete against boats from MIT, Penn, Northeastern, and Dartmouth as well as the Vesper and Potomac Boat Clubs in the first-ever Head of the Charles Regatta.

At 1:30, the event was underway amidst a light rain, and would be over within three-and-a-half hours.

“Nobody quite knew what to expect,” recalls Parker, who had represented the United States in the single sculls at the Rome Summer Olympics five years prior. “There weren’t a lot of participants.”

That was something that would change very quickly.

Fast-forward 48 years, and Parker, now just over a week away from his 77th birthday, is still heading the Crimson men’s crew program.

But other than that constant, one would find few similarities between today’s event and that of nearly a half-century ago.

The Head of the Charles is now the largest two-day regatta in the world. One weekend every October, nearly 9,000 athletes from all around the globe race more than 1,900 boats in 55 events as approximately 300,000 people look on.

“It’s a great kind of reunion for all kinds of competitors, from various high school programs to college programs to club programs,” says Elizabeth Diamond, Director of Operations for the Regatta. “[That’s what] brings everyone back every year.”


In 1964, Harvard sculling instructor Ernest Arlett proposed an idea for a “head of the river” race. Such time-trial competitions were traditional in Arlett’s native England, where London’s own head race was held annually in early March.

At that point, crew was not considered a fall sport in the United States. But Cambridge Boat Club members D’Arcy MacMahon, Howard McIntyre, and Jack Vincent liked Arlett’s idea and decided to organize such an event—one that would combine high school, collegiate, and club rowing—to complement their training.

“We had wound up our rowing careers in college and wanted to give something back to the sport that had given us so much,” MacMahon recalls. “So we decided to start a little informal regatta—where emphasis would be on fun, and there wouldn't be too much emphasis on who was winning and who was losing.”

MacMahon thus approached Parker about having his rowers compete, allowing the coach to waive all entry fees.

“I think their primary interest was in masters sculling,” Parker says. “There weren’t any races for master scullers in those days, but they had a number of them at the boat club.”