Returning year after year to Head of the Charles
Autumn colours were on full display as Boston’s Charles River flashed to life the way it does this time of year; rowers in their thousands and spectators in their hundreds of thousands assembled for one of rowing’s great traditions.
Now in its 55th year, the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, United States lived up to its reputation as the pinnacle of American autumn rowing and a highlight on the calendars of many past and present international rowers.
In the women’s single sculls two medallists from this year’s World Rowing Championships – Kara Kohler (USA) and Emma Twigg (NZL) – finished third and fifth respectively. The winner was Rio Olympic medallist, Genevra Stone (USA) who won for the tenth time. Second was under-23 silver medallist, Emily Kallfelz of the United States. US national team member John Graves finished first for the men’s single ahead of World Cup winner, Denmark’s Sverri Nielsen.
The regatta acts as a gathering for crews across age groups and skill levels with it an annual pilgrimage for many. Reunion crews are a main feature. Rowing for Canada’s Victoria City Rowing Club, Olympic Champion, Marnie McBean was back for a second reunion year.
“It started in the fall two years ago,” says Marnie McBean of a reunion row for Canada’s 1992 Olympic gold medal women’s eight. “We liked it and wanted to do more.” So, they set a goal: “We targeted the Head of the Charles.”
With a range of masters events for singles, doubles, fours and eights, the Charles is a top choice for many former national teamers from around the world. Competition can be incredibly fierce for the 4,800 metre race, but McBean’s crew were up for the challenge. “It was gorgeous, fun and – while rowing is always hard – rowing together remains very easy, even a bit magical,” says McBean who has recently been named as Canada’s chef de mission for Tokyo 2020.
McBean’s team went on to win the women’s senior masters eight (50+), retaining their title following last year’s win.
“The race last year was fantastic,” she recalls. “We started from way back in the pack and it felt so easy to get into our familiar rhythm. We were hooked.”
It’s that desire for more that keeps so many crews coming back to Boston year after year, often with small changes to the line up reflecting people’s availability to race – a reality faced by so many older rowers. For McBean and company, the flexibility to embrace those changes has proved a strength.
“The first year Kathleen [Heddle] and Jessie [Monroe] couldn’t be in the boat, so when they said they could be available this year, it was easy to rally eight rowers from our 1991/92 training group,” says McBean before adding, “we always felt the ’92 crew had ten-plus people in it – maybe we’ll have to add a coxed four.”
McBean used the word “family” to refer to her crew. It’s a feeling rowers of all ages and experiences can understand; for American sculler Barbara Green, however, racing at the Charles is quite literally a family reunion.
“To be out there with the family just makes my heart swell with pride and gratitude,” says Green as she and six other members of her family – three generations worth – all competed at this year’s regatta.”
A relative latecomer to the sport of rowing, Green started as an adult and has won the Charles seven times in the course of her 29 appearances. While she didn’t win this year in the 70+ women’s single division where, at age 79, she was one of the oldest racers of the entire regatta, competing has brought new joys over the years.
“It was the best feeling to get cheered by them,” she says. “It is unforgettable when you hear a little voice (granddaughter Thea) cheering from the Elliot bridge on that legendary turn, ‘Go Oma!’”
Unforgettable is the way so many who attend the Charles describe their experience, especially if you happen to be a coxswain. For Terry O’Hanlon, coxswain for Australia’s Mosman Rowing Club – the team who travelled farthest to compete – the journey around the world to race at the Charles is “like nothing I have experienced before.”
“Starting 19th in a field of 20 resulted in a series of challenges around course, wind, assessing upcoming turns relative to crews we were overtaking,” says O’Hanlon. “In short, I felt like a jockey working every stroke to analyse the race as it evolved around me.”
For the Mosman rowers – and even those coming from much closer – a trip to the Charles is about more than just a race. “It provides an opportunity to mix rowing with a holiday for many of the crew and their partners,” says O’Hanlon, who feels that the Head of the Charles is something “very special”, a sentiment shared by so many around the world.
No matter what the motivation to attend, it is clear that the Head of the Charles is one of those regattas that people come back to again and again.
For complete results here.