Championship eights

As expected, the so-called ‘Great Eights’ put on an incredible display of international talent for both men’s and women’s race. Drawing together a who’s who of elite single scullers, this year’s women’s top crew boasted Genevra Stone (USA W1x silver in Rio), Kim Brennan (AUS W1x gold in Rio), Emma Twigg (NZL W1x 4th in Rio), Carling Zeeman (CAN W1x 10th in Rio), Jeannine Gmelin (SUI W1x 5th in Rio), Magdalena Lobnig (AUT 6th in Rio), Miroslava Knapkova (CZE W1x 7th in Rio), Sanita Puspure (IRL W1x 13th in Rio), and coxswain Erin Driscoll.

“We had three practices,” Gmelin told World Rowing following the regatta. “We all know how to move the boat since we row the single, which demands good boat feeling as well as good technique. To race with the girls I normally compete against is fantastic. I have so much respect for every single one of them and coming together for a race like this – in an environment where the fun factor is more important than the aspect of performance – is simply phenomenal.”

For Brennan too, it was all about the friendships that the Head of the Charles helps build. “It is so much fun catching up with international rowing friends,” said Brennan. “We have a great international rowing community, particularly amongst the single scullers. It is nice to get to know each other and share stories.”

“It is fun to race with other international scullers in one boat,” added Knapkova. “It is a completely different experience than what I am used to. We are able to jump in the eight and work as a team. We race all season against each other so we are able to recognise each other’s qualities.”

The women’s Great Eight (racing as Cambridge Boat Club) finished first by 15 seconds ahead of New York Athletic Club, another all-star eight. This crew was also a composite of Olympic athletes including Grace Luczak and Felice Mueller (USA W2- 4th in Rio), Rebecca Scown and Genevieve Behrent (NZL W2- silver in Rio), Heather Stanning (GBR W2- gold in Rio), Jessica Eddie (GBR W8+ silver in Rio), Kate Christowitz and Lee-Ann Persse (RSA W2- 5th in Rio), with coxswain Jill Carlson at the helm.

The men’s composite Great Eight did not fare as well as the women against top US College teams. With Eric Johennesen (GER M8+ silver in Rio) in stroke, Damir Martin (CRO M1x silver in Rio), Mahe Drysdale (NZL M1x gold in Rio), Olaf Tufte (NOR M2x bronze in Rio), Rob Gibson (CAN M4x 8th in Rio), James McRae (AUS M4x silver in Rio), Alan Campbell (GBR M1x 12th in Rio), Julien Bahain (CAN M4x 8th in Rio), and Peter Wiersum (coxswain NED), the crew placed 7th. The University of Washington won the event.

Small boats with big names

Several members of the Great Eights also took part in the small boat racing. Some notable double combinations included Brennan and Twigg, who won the women’s race ahead of Lobnig and Puspure.

The partnering of Drysdale and Tufte, combined winners of the last four Olympic single golds, was a favourite to win. But the duo placed third while Bahain and McRae were second behind an American crew of Justin Keen and Erik Frid of Philadelphia’s Penn AC.

2016 Head of the Charles M2x Olaf Tufte and Mahe Drysdale © Joe Provenzano

In the championship men’s singles, Kjetil Borch (NOR M2x bronze in Rio) took gold while Gevvie Stone won the women’s race.

 “I return to race and to spectate because I love the weekend every year,” Stone said of the regatta that takes place just 500m from where she lives. “It combines many of my favourite things: racing long(er) distances against serious competition, the camaraderie of the rowing world, reconnecting with former teammates, and (very simply) being outside on a fall weekend in New England.”

“I have tremendous respect for my international competitors / Great Eight teammates. I think we are all a bit in awe of one another (at least, I am), and I think that respect leads to an incredible team spirit and willingness to work hard for the boat.”

Stone put the success of the super-scullers eight down to the fact that they are not regularly sweep rowing. “I think that none of us has our own distinct sweep style and we are willing to adapt to one another. If anything we’re probably all guilty of rowing the eight a bit like it is a single.”

Golden opportunity for development

While many Olympians were mixing with their international peers, the Danes took a different route, focusing on development and some fun within their own team by combing two Danish women’s pairs for the women’s championship four - Olympic bronze medallists Hedvig Laerke Rasmussen and Anne Andersen and the 2016 World Rowing Junior Championship silver medallists Ida Petersen and Frida Sanggaard Nielsen. Their gamble paid off as the crew captured gold with a commanding lead of 40 seconds over second place Brown University.

“This was Anne’s and Laerke’s idea,” said Nielsen, who admitted to being somewhat in awe of her Olympic crew mates at first. “It has been a lot of fun to row with these girls and when we started practicing, it wasn’t as hard as I had imagined.”

Windy conditions

Rough conditions made for a challenging row for the Danes and many other crews on Sunday, the second and final day of competition. “It was tough,” said Petersen, “but the conditions were the same for everyone, so it was basically just fighting all the way through it.”

The wind and waves made things difficult even for coxswains with a lot of experience at the Charles. “It was the craziest race of my life,” said coxswain Ali Zimmerman whose crew from the University of Western Ontario, Canada won the lightweight men’s eight by a second ahead of Cornell University.

“I’ve never rowed in anything like that. Just swirling around and hitting the guys like a truck. I’m not sure we took one ‘good’ stroke over the entire 3 miles.”

A regatta like no other

The event drew rowers from clubs around the world.

“Last summer we decided to go,” said Judith de Wilde, who travelled from the Netherlands with her team from ASR Nereus in Amsterdam. “We have quite a big group of lightweight women at Nereus and we wanted to race all together in one boat. We had a lot of fun starting the process and thought it would be awesome to have an overseas adventure.”

De Wilde’s crew finished 5th in the lightweight women’s eight, which was won by Radcliffe (Harvard University’s women’s rowing team).

“I have loved racing here,” said Felix Iggo of Kings College School, Wimbledon, whose team of 19 made the journey from the United Kingdom to compete. “It is such a prestigious event with a great atmosphere. It’s great to interact with rowers from all around the world.” Having raced last year to 37th place in the youth men’s four, Iggo raced this year in the youth men’s eight, finishing 27th.

“I fell in love with the spirit of this regatta,” said Gmelin. “What makes this event so special is the fact that young people, old people, beginners and Olympians are united because they simply love rowing.”

For full results: www.hocr.org