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A Guide to Rowing and the Head of the Charles

The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team carries its shell back into Weld Boathouse after practice on October 19, 2023.
The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team carries its shell back into Weld Boathouse after practice on October 19, 2023. By Julian J. Giordano
By Katharine Forst, Crimson Staff Writer

The Head of the Charles Regatta (HOCR) is a unique race that occurs once a year, bringing together tens of thousands of people to Harvard Square to watch some of the most talented rowers in the world. Even though the actual crew season takes place in the spring, every athlete regards this race as the second-most important of the season, behind only nationals.

To senior Calliste Skouras, women’s lightweight rowing captain and a Crimson advertising associate, the race is the most important of the fall because of the talent that comes to compete, and the responsibility that comes with racing in such an important event.

“Head of the Charles is by far the most exciting race to compete in for all four Harvard and Radcliffe teams. There is something so special about rowers flocking from all corners of the country and overseas to this one 4.8 km stretch of the Charles River, which Harvard’s campus sits directly in the middle of,” Skouras noted. “It’s also a race that a lot of Harvard students –– no matter how unfamiliar they are with rowing –– come out to see, which makes it really fun to give my non-rowing friends a taste of what I spend so many hours of my day doing.”

In an effort to make the weekend more accessible for viewers unfamiliar with the sport, and to ensure that they can participate in the event, Skouras outlined some general terms to know when watching any crew race. Harvard boasts four teams:

  1. Men’s Heavyweight Rowing (Harvard University Boat Club, or HUBC)

  2. Men’s Lightweight Rowing (Harvard Varsity Lightweights, or HVL)

  3. Women’s Heavyweight Rowing (Radcliffe Varsity Heavyweights, or RVH)

  4. Women’s Lightweight Rowing (Radcliffe Varsity Lightweights, or RVL)

Men’s Heavyweight Rowing (Harvard University Boat Club, or HUBC)

Men’s Lightweight Rowing (Harvard Varsity Lightweights, or HVL)

Women’s Heavyweight Rowing (Radcliffe Varsity Heavyweights, or RVH)

Women’s Lightweight Rowing (Radcliffe Varsity Lightweights, or RVL)

The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team races along the Charles River during practice on October 19, 2023.
The Harvard men's heavyweight rowing team races along the Charles River during practice on October 19, 2023. By Julian J. Giordano

On each team, there are several types of boats that race at HOCR. There are boats of eight rowers, four rowers, pairs, and singles. They are further broken down into coxed versus un-coxed boats. Skouras says that “the number represents the number of rowers in the boat, the x signifies a sculling boat (two oars per person, often without a coxswain), the + signifies a sweeping boat with a coxswain, and the - signifies a sweeping boat without a coxswain.”

  1. Eight (8+): These boats boast eight rowers, each with one oar, as well as a coxswain.

  2. Coxed Four (4+): Coxed Four boats, like the name suggests, house four rowers who each hold one oar, and the boat typically has a coxswain.

  3. Coxless Four (4-): Similar to the above, with four rowers each using one oar. The only difference is that there is no coxswain. In this case, the boat is steered by a rower in the bow of the boat by controlling a rudder with his foot.

  4. Quad (4x): Rowed in what is known as a sculling boat that holds four rowers. Raced with or without a coxswain.

  5. Pair (2-): The Pair (2-) is rowed as a sweeping boat with two rowers and no coxswain.

  6. Double (2x): The double boat is controlled by two rowers, each of whom utilize two oars. There is no coxswain in the boat, and the rower in the bow of the boat either with a rudder or by pressure steering which is essentially a concerted effort to pull the boat into a turn.

  7. Single (1x): Like its name, a single is a sculling boat with only a single rower.

Eight (8+): These boats boast eight rowers, each with one oar, as well as a coxswain.

Coxed Four (4+): Coxed Four boats, like the name suggests, house four rowers who each hold one oar, and the boat typically has a coxswain.

Coxless Four (4-): Similar to the above, with four rowers each using one oar. The only difference is that there is no coxswain. In this case, the boat is steered by a rower in the bow of the boat by controlling a rudder with his foot.

Quad (4x): Rowed in what is known as a sculling boat that holds four rowers. Raced with or without a coxswain.

Pair (2-): The Pair (2-) is rowed as a sweeping boat with two rowers and no coxswain.

Double (2x): The double boat is controlled by two rowers, each of whom utilize two oars. There is no coxswain in the boat, and the rower in the bow of the boat either with a rudder or by pressure steering which is essentially a concerted effort to pull the boat into a turn.

Single (1x): Like its name, a single is a sculling boat with only a single rower.

There are 75 events that row at the HOCR that are split based on boat class as defined above. They are further divided into age divisions and weight-class, distinctions that are HOCR-specific. The age groups include youth, collegiate, master, and senior.

Within boats, there are positions held by each rower that correspond to specific seats within the boats. Skouras outlined the breakdown within an 8+ boat, but these distinctions are applied to other boat classes as well, with the stern seats being rhythm-setters, the middle seats being the power rowers, the front seats being pace setters, and — if applicable — the Coxswain sitting at the front steering and keeping pace.

  1. Seats 8 and 7 (“stern pair”): The stern pair sets the rhythm of the boat. They sit in the stern, or the back, of the boat. However, they are in a sense leading the other rowers, because they all face backwards in the boat. This position is held by rowers with the best technique.

  2. Seats 6, 5, 4, 3 (“middle pairs”): The “engine room,” or the middle pairs of rowers are seated in the middle of the boat. This part of the vessel is wider and more stable, which allows these rowers to generate power. The fastest and strongest rowers often sit here.

  3. Seats 2 and 1 (“bow pair"): The bow pair, or the first and second seat, are given to rowers with “good boat feel.” This is an important seat because these rowers balance the boat. These rowers are often the lightest of the eight since an ideal rowing shell has its bow slightly raised out of the water.

  4. Coxswain: The role of the coxswain is critical. The coxswain is responsible for steering the boat through the course, which is especially difficult due to the 90 degree turn, 180 degree turn, and six bridges the rowers must navigate on the Charles. The coxswain also motivates the boat by directing the rowers through a microphone, maintaining the goal pace and rhythm, and keeping morale high through the finish line.

  5. Port vs Starboard: The terms port and starboard are indicative of the left and right sides of the boat. Port means left, and starboard means right. In a sweeping boat, in which each rower wields one oar, a rower either sits on the port or the starboard side. Rowers tend to favor one side of the boat. According to Skouras, “usually in a boat, the rowers will sit in an order with alternating port and starboard sides, but this isn’t always the case –– in my boat, for example, the 7 seat and 6 seat are both port side.”

Seats 8 and 7 (“stern pair”): The stern pair sets the rhythm of the boat. They sit in the stern, or the back, of the boat. However, they are in a sense leading the other rowers, because they all face backwards in the boat. This position is held by rowers with the best technique.

Seats 6, 5, 4, 3 (“middle pairs”): The “engine room,” or the middle pairs of rowers are seated in the middle of the boat. This part of the vessel is wider and more stable, which allows these rowers to generate power. The fastest and strongest rowers often sit here.

Seats 2 and 1 (“bow pair"): The bow pair, or the first and second seat, are given to rowers with “good boat feel.” This is an important seat because these rowers balance the boat. These rowers are often the lightest of the eight since an ideal rowing shell has its bow slightly raised out of the water.

Coxswain: The role of the coxswain is critical. The coxswain is responsible for steering the boat through the course, which is especially difficult due to the 90 degree turn, 180 degree turn, and six bridges the rowers must navigate on the Charles. The coxswain also motivates the boat by directing the rowers through a microphone, maintaining the goal pace and rhythm, and keeping morale high through the finish line.

Port vs Starboard: The terms port and starboard are indicative of the left and right sides of the boat. Port means left, and starboard means right. In a sweeping boat, in which each rower wields one oar, a rower either sits on the port or the starboard side. Rowers tend to favor one side of the boat. According to Skouras, “usually in a boat, the rowers will sit in an order with alternating port and starboard sides, but this isn’t always the case –– in my boat, for example, the 7 seat and 6 seat are both port side.”

HOCR Terminology and Insight:

Skouras offered some interesting insight into how to make the most of the race. The course is much longer than a typical collegiate course, clocking in at 4.8 km versus the usual 2 km that the teams race in the spring season. Thus, there are a few things to note while watching. Firstly, there are HOCR-specific events like alumni boats, youth boats, and professional boats. There are also a few important landmarks to note. Skouras suggested two prime spots to view the races: Eliot Bridge and Weeks Bridge, both of which happen to be right on campus.

Skouras’ landmarks to hit on the course are as follows:

  1. Landmarks of the course:

Landmarks of the course:

  1. The first landmark to look for is the DeWolfe Boathouse, which serves as the BU crew team’s headquarters. This is located right next to the BU Bridge.

  2. The next point of interest is Weeks Bridge, which is the location of the first major turn of the race. This is an especially exciting vantage point as the bridge sits on a sharp 90 degree turn that is difficult for the coxswain to navigate with only a few strokes. Skouras joked that “this is a great place to watch –– chances are you’ll see a few collisions in the youth rowing events.”

  3. The next point of excitement comes on Eliot Bridge, which is the ending point of a long and treacherous 180-degree turn. It also marks the thrilling final 800m sprint, a dash to the final landmark of the course.

  4. The finish line is marked by two metal stakes on either side of the river. Watching here, the viewer is privy to the emotional toll of the long course, and the exhaustion, joy, devastation, pride, and heartbreak.

The first landmark to look for is the DeWolfe Boathouse, which serves as the BU crew team’s headquarters. This is located right next to the BU Bridge.

The next point of interest is Weeks Bridge, which is the location of the first major turn of the race. This is an especially exciting vantage point as the bridge sits on a sharp 90 degree turn that is difficult for the coxswain to navigate with only a few strokes. Skouras joked that “this is a great place to watch –– chances are you’ll see a few collisions in the youth rowing events.”

The next point of excitement comes on Eliot Bridge, which is the ending point of a long and treacherous 180-degree turn. It also marks the thrilling final 800m sprint, a dash to the final landmark of the course.

The finish line is marked by two metal stakes on either side of the river. Watching here, the viewer is privy to the emotional toll of the long course, and the exhaustion, joy, devastation, pride, and heartbreak.

The HOCR is also atypical because it does not follow the usual race pattern. The race is a time trial race, which causes the boats to stagger in the water.

According to Skouras, in a typical race, boats begin their dash to the finish at the same time. However, due the narrow and windy nature of this particular course, boats are spaced apart by about fifteen seconds. The boats are ordered based on performances from the previous year’s race, and in order to keep track of the boats on the course, they are emblazoned with a large number on the bow. Because of this, the fastest boats typically have the lowest numbers. Even so, it is typical for boats to race neck-in-neck, and to pass one another. If this happens, the passing boat is given the right of way, and the lower-numbered boat must deviate from its course."

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