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My Head of the Charles experience began earlier than most, as the regatta’s announcer somehow projected the lineup of the “Grand Master Singles 50+” up five stories to my room in Eliot, gracing me with a complementary early-morning wakeup call on Saturday.
But like the game-day tunes the band plays on its rowdy morning jaunts down JFK, the man’s voice served, more than anything else, as a reminder that there’s a vibrant athletic event taking place right in our backyard.
Riverside gates were locked, non-Harvard guests required to sign in, and students warned against the dangers of renting out your room to strangers, as Harvard readied itself to host the largest two-day rowing competition in the world.
And as it turns out, Head of the Charles isn’t just about rowing.
On day one, I occupied myself by wandering the banks of the river—maneuvering my way through the crowd and narrowly escaping the wrath of a man barreling down the riverbank with a baby carriage—on a quest for free food and the most interesting “stuff” the regatta had to offer.
I wasn’t disappointed. As boats made their way upstream, venders handed out free hummus, soy protein shakes, energy drinks, programs—you name it—to a sea of restless bystanders. The hectic array of stands even featured a virtual reality coffee shop, an erg station, an assortment of large pillow-like seats, and a blow-up obstacle course, catering to just about everyone on the river’s edge.
A Brooks Brothers booth displayed a line of regatta-themed sweaters and jackets, complete with Head of the Charles insignia. I didn’t stop to check, but based on the conspicuous lack of a crowd around that particular area, I’m assuming none of it was complementary.
The boats whistling by in the background seemed to be an afterthought to a mob of tall, built individuals fighting their way toward a stack of granola bars.
Occasionally, I stopped my riverside explorations in hopes of engrossing myself in a race, but the near impossibility of knowing exactly which race was in progress at any given moment left me feeling a little out of touch despite being so close to the action. I partially staved my craving for involvement in the actual athletic event by comparing the various teams’ form and quickly determining Princeton’s neon pink shirts to be the boldest fashion choice of the day.
It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that I watched a race in its entirety.
I stationed myself, as previously instructed by my rower roommate, next to the Weld Boathouse. From my vantage point between Anderson and Weeks, I’d get the best view of any carnage that the 90-plus-degree turn at the footbridge might elicit and get to see a solid stretch of racing.
Soon after I arrived on the scene at 3:00 p.m., the first women’s championship eight traveled smoothly by as I spent the subsequent, stressful few minutes counting bows to be sure I didn’t miss number 14.
The boat emerged, neck-and-neck with bow 13, as the dual-like nature of the stretch between bridges made the staggered start even more exciting.
The action was over as quickly as it began with just a few minutes elapsing between the boat’s entrance into and departure from my line of vision. I yelled my roommate’s nickname a little too loudly and noted, to no one in particular, “They look really good.”
It wasn’t until later that night that I found out the Radcliffe heavyweight 1V placed second in a field of 39, making it to the finish in an impressive 16:19.63. Virginia edged the Black and White by 8.11 seconds to earn the overall victory.
From a spectator’s point of view, a regatta can be more difficult to watch and understand than a sport played on a field or court. A three-mile course isn’t exactly conducive to a start-to-finish watching experience, unless of course you ride your bike alongside the rowers—a feat attempted by only the most brazen of spectators at a regatta as large as Head of the Charles.
Because all of the races at this particular regatta are time trials, it’s not even clear which team is winning until times are announced after each race.
But maybe a logical viewing experience isn’t the point of this kind of event; rather, Head of the Charles seems to be more about tradition, atmosphere, and excitement—at least for inexperienced spectators like myself.
Between the constant competition on the water and seemingly unrelated amusements on land, Head of the Charles is an event not to be missed.
—Staff writer Catherine E. Coppinger can be reached at email@example.com.
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