On the Campus - December 1, 1999
Heading up to the Charles
The two-day regatta brings together rowers of all generations
by Katherine Zoepf '00
Two years ago-during the fall of my sophomore year at Princeton, and having never watched a regatta of any sort before-I headed up to Boston to watch the Head of the Charles.
It was the kind of fall day a college-catalog photographer dreams of, and Magazine Beach on the Cambridge side was an anthill of activity. Boats were stacked on trailers, the narrow aisles between them packed with rowers in uniforms, and their friends and coaches. Vendors peddled fried dough and Italian sausages. The crowd ducked obediently (and automatically) every time a crew trundled by with a boat overhead.
I found it all a bit intimidating. Rowing is not the easiest sport to watch, and really, how did everyone know where to go? Was it better to watch from a bridge, or from the bank? And with the staggered start, what was there really to watch, in the first place? What was it exactly about this sport for which you don't even know the score until hours later?
Later that same afternoon, I found myself hanging over a bridge on the Charles River, screaming "Go Princeton!" at the race going by. I whirled around, about to try to cross the bridge to see the boat going past on the other side, and ran smack into an older man with an amused expression on his face.
I started to apologize for almost knocking him over, but he stuck out his hand. He'd graduated from Princeton in the '50s, he explained, now lived in the Boston suburbs, and came down to cheer the Princeton boats at the Head of the Charles every fall.
For sheer size, color, and pageantry, the Head of the Charles would be hard to match, but I began to understand that it's not really about that. It was also my first introduction to the way the Head of the Charles brings together alumni and rowers of all generations.
So, with a twinge of premature nostalgia, I went up to the Head of the Charles again on October 24.
Begun by the Cambridge Boat Club in 1965, the two-day regatta is an English-style "head of the river" race. That is, there is a staggered start for each boat in a race at approximately 15-second intervals, and crews race against the clock, trying to catch up with the boat just ahead. Rowers compete in a number of different categories. The Head of the Charles is the largest social event of the American rowing year, and this year's event drew more than 300,000 spectators.
"Part of the attraction of the Charles is just that it's so big," says Princeton women's crew coach Lori Dauphiny. "There are national teams, club teams, college teams, high school teams . . . all age groups. It's one of the few head regattas where a college team can compete against the national teams like that, an opportunity for colleges and clubs to go out and test themselves against the big boys. There's always the idea that a team can come out of nowhere and win against one of the national teams."
While, for a college team, Head of the Charles results don't count toward NCAA standings, the regatta is considered to be an very important event emotionally.
"The Head of the Charles doesn't tell you how you'll do in the spring, but it does set a tone for the year," says Dauphiny. "It's definitely an interesting race from a coaching perspective. There's a lot of strategy involved."
Narrow and famously hard to navigate, the Head of the Charles is often called a "coxswain's race."
"As far as I'm concerned it's the most fun race anywhere," says Alden Zecha '87, who for the past three years has been a coxswain for the Fat Cat crew, an unofficial Princeton alumni boat.
"Officially the boat is independent of the university," says Zecha. "It was begun a few years back by Dan Roock '81, who rowed at Princeton, and it has turned into a kind of de facto Princeton alumni boat."
Fat Cat rowers include both alumni and alumnae from the late '70s through the mid '90s. Practicing as a group is next to impossible. "It's an honor system," says Zecha. "Everyone trains on their own.
"But the social atmosphere before, during, and after the race is what it's all about," adds Zecha. "The Head of the Charles is a huge event for us as alumni."
I don't row, but having spent most of the day wishing I could be out on the water, I understood what he meant.
Stuyvesant Pell '53, who since 1965 has missed only one Charles regatta and this year placed second in his age group, put it even more matter-of-factly.
"It's a sport that does bond people together," says Pell. "It is a very demanding sport, and there's a certain affinity, or attachment, for others who do it."
Katherine Zoepf '00 is copresident of the Press Club.
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