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Rain, Shine, or Pandemic, Head of the Kevin Presses On

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY ED MORAN

The morning sun broke low over the Boston skyline, filling the Charles River basin with a sparkling light that glinted silver in the puddles made by the parade of single scullers who rowed under the Boston University Bridge and formed a warmup group just above the traditional start line of the Head of the Charles Regatta.

It’s a familiar scene in Boston when summer fades into autumn, and the fall head-race season begins. But in 2020, it is not an expected sight. As with everything else that was canceled to curtail the spread of Covid-19, all racing on the Charles River has been shut down–everything from the spring collegiate duals to the club summer sprints, and finally the Head of the Charles.

Yet, on this last Sunday of August, and every Sunday through October, the same scene repeats. As dawn lights the Charles River basin, between 60 and 100 scullers glide into place and wait to be called onto the course to start racing.

One by one, the scullers in singles, and a few doubles  rowed by people living in the same house, line up in front of Boston University’s DeWolf Boathouse to race spaced 10 to 15 seconds apart down the Head of the Charles course.

For 21 years, the Head of the Kevin head-race regatta series–often described as “a practice, not a regatta”–has been run up to three times a fall. It is not an official race, but winners are awarded hand-made sterling silver medals, and their names are etched onto official plaques that honor each year’s champions and hang on the walls of the Riverside Boathouse on Memorial Drive in Cambridge.

There is no fee to participate, but anyone who wants to race must submit an entry for approval. While there are no official timers, times have been recorded each of the last 21 years, recently by HereNOW, the company that times some of the most important regattas in the country.

Again, it is not an official race, especially in 2020, when no official regattas are permitted in most places across the country, especially Boston.

“If you’re going to have a regatta, you have to have permits and stuff like that. We’re really just a practice,” says founder and guiding spirit Kevin McDonnell. “Right?”

Right.

This year, this “practice that is not a regatta” became the only racing outlet for rowers training through the pandemic in Boston, making the rite even more cherished. It began in 2000 as a fun way to bring together rowers of different levels at the Riverside Boat Club and help them prepare for the Head of the Charles. 

“It’s wonderful to have something that’s the same in a year where nothing has been the same.” said Olympian Gevvie Stone, whose plans to compete in her third Olympics were derailed when the 2020 Tokyo Games were postponed. “For the Head of the Kevin to feel the same it has every other year is special.”

The First 20 Years

Understanding how the Head of the Kevin became the only regatta to survive the 2020 ban on racing requires looking back at how it began, and how it has grown.

The man who started it all was McDonnell, a lightweight sculler from New Brunswick, Canada. When he moved from Los Angeles and the California Institute of Technology to Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to finish his Ph.D., he began coaching and sculling at Riverside.

Previously, McDonnell had rowed at the Long Beach Rowing Club, which held an event called the Bay Series, a 5,000-meter head race once a month during the fall and winter on a course that begins at Marine Stadium, proceeds around Naples Island, and ends at the LBRA boathouse dock.

“There are not quite as many head races in California, so they have a longer season and they do this piece around the island in Long Beach,” McDonnell said. “Basically, you just showed up and signed your name on a piece of paper, and they came up with a start order and off you went. 

“But the best part was you would come back and there would be people making breakfast out on the tarmac outside the boat bays and you would just kind of hang out and shoot the breeze and have food. It was a really fun way to go get your head-piece training in.”

After moving to Boston, McDonnell realized that the East is a bit more formal, with more rules at Riverside than he was used to. Most of them involve managing limited boats and equipment among many members and teams in the small boathouse.

“When I started rowing there, I realized that they didn’t have anything kind of fun; the East is a little stiffer than the West.”

And so, McDonnell saw an opportunity to replicate the Bay Series, right down to the post-racing breakfasts.

The first Head of the Kevin was run in 2000 and is run pretty much the same way today. People sign up to race, get a start order, row to the Head of the Charles start line, and wait to be called.

Everyone has a bow number (you create your own, so the way boats are numbered is unique and, well, quirky), and the start order is assigned by McDonnell, generally fastest to slowest.

For the first three years, it wasn’t called the Head of the Kevin.

“I gave it a really awkward name, like the Riverside Fall Head Piece Series, or something terrible like that,” McDonnell recalls. He credits Riverside sculler John Tracy with renaming it after him.

Winning is not about who rows the course fastest. Everyone competes against a time standard based on the events they would have rowed in the Head of the Charles. So a lightweight woman has a chance to beat anyone else in the pack, including world-class heavyweight men. And that is exactly what happened in the second of the 2020 series, when U.S. national-team lightweight women’s sculler Mary Jones won against a field of 78 other boats, including a men’s double.

Anyone who rows any of the races accumulates points, and champions are named at the end of the series, which is usually three races, but this year could be extended to five.

One of the best parts of the event occurs after each race, when the athletes gather at Riverside for breakfast and wait for McDonnell to figure out the times and declare who won, a ritual that has changed the club’s social dynamic. 

“At the time we started, Riverside was going through some transitions, and there were different types of memberships coming in,” McDonnell said. “There was really bad communication between these different aspects of the boathouse.

“People weren’t talking to each other, and a really nice side effect of running these pieces was that everybody just kind of hung out and had breakfast afterwards while they waited for me to slowly use my Excel spreadsheet to calculate their times.

“Over the years, I got feedback that that really made a difference, because people really weren’t talking to each other. They were zipping in, rowing a boat, and zipping out. And now they had a reason to stay and hang out and talk, and it really sort of improved the mood a little bit.” Longtime Riverside member and rowing photographer Igor Belakovskiy (a.k.a., The Sculling Fool) says the former social tension was more about the amount and availability of the club’s equipment.

Head of the Kevin is “one of the few times when everybody is in the same room and racing at nearly the same time. It’s one of the more unifying events,” Belakovskiy said. “People might be jockeying for a specific single or double, but on race day, everybody races in whatever is there.

“A lot of people look forward to the wrap-up as much as they look forward to the race. Kevin’s pretty funny and will definitely take potshots at people who are really full of themselves. Whatever the results are, he’ll make it fun for you to wait and find out what happened.

“To me, the Head of the Kevin is like the Head of the Charles, but like the fun Head of the Charles, where everybody races at the same time and can compete on absolute speed and also relative speed. It’s really a good community race.”

Over the years, while the size and field of crews evolved, there have never been more than 130 boats–mostly small sculling crews but also 30 or so eights and fours from clubs and schools around Boston.

The only requirement is knowing how to navigate the Head of the Charles course, a twisting complex of turns and bridges with enough places for mayhem to keep McDonnell nervous. Newbies are never allowed.

“I don’t take just anybody,” McDonnell said. “Those [who compete] are mostly all local boats that know what they are doing. Crazily, we haven’t had any incidents over the whole 21 years. I can think of only one near-miss, and that person wasn’t invited back.”

Eventually, the accepted and invited list expanded to include rowers from other clubs in Boston as well as from the entire New England region.

“We’re happy to have people come and join us; it makes it a better thing,” McDonnell said. “But we can’t take 200 or 300 people. We cap it at 100 small boats and  up to 30 big boats. That’s the biggest it’s ever been, and I wouldn’t want it any bigger. It would just be unwieldy.”

“It’s grown to become a lot more like a Charles community thing rather than a Riverside thing,” said Belakovskiy. “Pre-pandemic, it became a New England thing. We would get people from the whole region.”

Another unique feature is the difference in the level of experience. The rowers in the start area include current and former Olympians and U.S. national teamers, club high-performance folks, along with masters and juniors.

The start order gives people competition to look forward to. Stone, who won a silver medal in the women’s single in Rio, and has won the women’s single championship at the Head of the Charles a record 10 times, still finds the racing challenging.

“I have been doing them for a number of years, and have done at least one a year, but usually two,” Stone said. “Honestly, it’s one of the most fun events because it’s local, it’s camaraderie, it’s people in small boats, and it’s really fun to start fastest to slowest and to try to catch the person in front of you.

“As someone who was training relatively alone in Boston, the only female in my training group for a large number of years, it was really fun to get mixed in with the boys and to race the lightweight [high-performance group] from Riverside–to show them that a girl can go fast, too.”

The Pandemic Year

When the pandemic shutdown forced the end of all official regattas, the board and safety committee at Riverside met to determine the feasibility of safely running the series when Covid restrictions eased. Social distancing is still required in Boston, which means the racing would be limited to singles, and doubles if the crew lived together.

It also would require an elaborate dock dance to get all the crews from the boathouse onto the water.

“This year is different, obviously,” said McDonnell. “And when we started thinking about it, we felt there is nothing going on, and everybody is dealing with a lot right now, and if we can give people just one little thing, like this, even if we get just one or two of them run, it would be something.

“It would give people a little relief, something to do, something to put in a few harder strokes. There was a lot of enthusiasm at the board level. We just had to work through how we could do it.

“We’re trying to play completely by the rules. The closest you’re going to get in a single to another single is probably 12 feet, and you are in open air. The biggest issue is bringing people to the boathouse, who then have to launch in a short period of time.”

The problem was solved partly by rowers launching from spots other than boathouses. 

“People are launching from public docks and other places because they don’t want to deal with going into a boathouse, masking up, rinsing their boat off with bleach,” McDonnell said.

To reduce the number of people going into the boathouse and onto the dock, rowers are given specific time slots to get their equipment and get on the water.

“Everybody has a 10-minute window or so to come to the parking lot, go inside, get their oars, get their boat out, put it on the dock and shove off,” McDonnell said. “We’re sending people through the boathouse in chunks of six to eight people at a time over 10 minutes. We do it in reverse on the way in.”

The one unavoidable loss this year is breakfast on the dock, but McDonnell turned to a very pandemic solution–Zoom.

“I tried it out after the last one,” McDonnell said. “I threw out a Zoom invite and then jumped on. I have never let the results go live, and everybody is used to that now. With HereNOW, the results pop instantaneously.

“I purposely have them turn the results off, so that when we weren’t in Covid, people would have to show up at the boathouse, eat some breakfast, hang out while I manually wade through the results and tell them to people in person. And then I would press the go button on HereNOW.

“You couldn’t find out how you did relative to everybody else unless you waited for me to go through my annoying spiel thanking all the volunteers and making fun of people who flipped or did something wrong.

“I thought it was good to keep that routine going, so I said you won’t find out the results until the 10 a.m. Zoom meeting. I did it from my car last time driving to vacation. It was great, kept it different and fun.”

Another change this year is that additional prizes for winners will not be given out. 

“Instead of buying gift cards for the winners, we chipped in money to give to a couple of local charities. It is a tough time for everybody, and we felt that was something we could do differently this year.”

To date, three of the series have been held, and it is hoped there will be five. That will depend on the pandemic and the weather.

“We actually have enough weeks in the fall to do up to five of them,” McDonnell said. “If we actually get five in, that would be wild. If the weather gets bad, or Covid spikes, we stop.

For a year with no official regattas, the Head of the Kevin has come through in ways McDonnell never could have anticipated. And the effort has been appreciated.

“If you look at what people are posting–from Gevvie Stone to random masters–they’re all writing the same thing: ‘I’m so happy that I got to put a bow number on and actually race and compete. People are really grateful that this is happening.’” 

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