This marks the third year that EBRC has participated in the Head of the Charles Regatta. After some unfortunate mishaps last year (the women’s 4+ getting ramrodded by another boat in the starting basin, Gil’s legs deciding to stop working halfway through the 1x event), the sole representative of the club this year was an entry in the Men’s Masters 4+ race, guaranteed based on its performance in 2013.
Crew, coxswain, and coach arrived over the days leading into the regatta, along with some moonlighting EBRC rowers and one just there for business (and at the fanciest hotel, of course). While everyone else opted to rely on Uber, cabs, and the T to get around town, I opted to rent a car. How anyone drove in that town before the advent of GPS navigation is beyond me. You know how they say the Inuit have a bunch of words for snow? Well, Boston has just as many to describe left and right turns. Over the weekend, Siri taught me the difference between “veering left,” a “slight left,” “stay left,” and just plain old “left.” Add Boston drivers to that, and madness ensues. There is no sense of urgency to driving there, as if it’s all some metaphysical voyage where the journey is part of the experience. And I’m not just talking about the Prius drivers! People are slow slow slow — like, speed-limit slow.
But I digress. Back to rowing.
The crew gathered on Friday for a practice row. Through the connections of coach Gulliver Scott, we secured the use of a boat from his alma mater, Wesleyan. Made in 2010, it qualifies as the newest boat that anyone representing EBRC has ever rowed in. After rigging and deciding on some oars, we took the boat to the water for a practice spin. There was some stuff to shake out on that practice row.
Okay, there was a LOT of stuff to shake out. In particular, the steering cords had been thrown out of whack in transport to the course, so the first 1000m were spent playing bumper cars from buoy to shore while preppy easterners looked on in disdain. Being Oaklanders, we decided to “occupy” Harvard’s boat house, where we docked, put our boat into their stretchers, and got things working again. Once that was settled, we got back on the water, nerves frazzled but rowing better. Came down the course on our practice run, definitely leaving room for improvement, but getting a little more confident on the water.
Twenty-four hours later, we were back at the regatta. If you’ve never been to Head of the Charles, imagine the largest regatta you’ve attended, multiply its scale by a factor of ten, and throw in a Brooks Brothers pop-up store. It is chaotic, but it’s also amazing to see so many boats and rowers all in one place. Our race was scheduled for around 2 in the afternoon, leaving everyone ample time to sleep, get food, and pray for the wind to die down. Ken, Mike H., Gil, Gina, Gulliver and I assembled around noon, made sure everything was in order, and launched.
Our warmup was much smoother than the day before, re-instilling some confidence in the boat. We worked our way to the starting basin and found our place in line (bow number 9). After checking our oar locks one last time, we were finally called to the starting line and began to power up. Going through the chute, we built to full power and started the race off strong. The boat behind us, a crew from DC Strokes, worked aggressively to make a move on us, but we successfully fended them off. About 500m in, we found our stride and started really moving the boat. Rate wasn’t too high – 29 to 30 – but the strokes were long and powerful, allowing us to start creating some room between us and the boat behind us, while attempting to catch up to the boats in front. Gina took a tight line, staying on the inside around each corner, and the crew responded with appropriate power at the turns. And then…
After a powerful 3800m, we had one last hard turn to port before the Eliot Bridge, after which it’s a soft curve to starboard down to the finish line. On Gina’s call, Mike and I powered up to take us through the turn ….and nothing. “More power!” Gina cried. So we gave more… and nothing. “Ports drop out!”
Our boat continued to go straight instead of turning left. Did we hit a weird current? Did the issue with the steering cords resurface? Whatever the reason, we eventually found ourselves checking the boat to a complete stop to keep the bow of the (rented) boat from careening headlong into the shore (thankfully, all we lost was a bow number). With the help of a kind man on the shore, we pushed away, turned back to the course, and fell back into line ahead of bow 12. Things seemed to be working properly again, and so we laid it on for the remaining 1000m of the course. Unfortunately, the 40 or so seconds it took us to get back into the game (not to mention the 5-second penalty for crossing the buoy line) left us finishing 21st out of 24. It’s back to the lottery next year!
With beer in hand at the airport bar later that evening, I searched for the lessons to be drawn from our experience. The first thing that came to mind was the importance of practice. There are mornings where the last thing I want to do is get up at 4:30 am, but the regularity of practice is what instills confidence on race days. That confidence is what allowed us to refocus after calamity and get our boat over the finish line.
The second is to check and re-check your equipment. In our case, we had a fussy steering cord that was near-impossible to identify until we were on the water. But it reminded me of the importance of other things that all rowers should be doing before launch, like checking the bolts on your rigger. And is your oarlock tight? Are your foot stretchers where they need to be? Is your cox box getting rate? If you expect any of this to be done by someone else, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, usually at a very inconvenient time.
The third lesson came a couple of days later when I was back at a computer. And that is: if you’re going to screw up, do it on camera! Eliot Bridge happens to be where they record all events for the regatta, and the commentators are sitting at nearby Cambridge Boat Club narrating the action. If you’re curious, click over to the webcast, select Event 20 and bow number 8 (the boat in front of us), and get ready to laugh. Don’t feel bad – I laughed, too!
“COXSWAIN, YIELD!” A firsthand look at the near collision of a warming-up novice 8 and a Varsity 4 coming down the Charles at race pace. Never a dull moment on the water!