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Return of The Head of the Charles Regatta

STORY AND PHOTOS BY ED MORAN

The Boston sports scene, like in every other city in the world, has been drastically altered by the lasting Covid pandemic since the start of the outbreak in 2020.

The Charles River, normally packed with rowers practicing and racing, was empty until this spring. Arenas and stadiums fell silent. The Boston Marathon, run annually in the spring on Patriot’s Day, and the Head of the Charles Regatta, a staple of Boston’s fall, command the attention of the city and the world.

Neither took place in 2020.

Little by little, events have been added back onto the calendar, although some, like the Marathon, were run out of their normal time of year. The famous road race took place last Monday, and while it was a success, it was still a jarring reminder of just how impactful the pandemic continues to be.

But this week, beginning Friday morning, one staple of normality will be held—mostly as it always has been—when the 2021 Head of the Charles Regatta kicks off. There will be differences, for sure, some good, and some disappointing.

Still, given the fact that the regatta was scrubbed last year, its return will be a very welcome three-day celebration.

“It’s been a lot of hurdles, but man are we excited to be hosting it again,” said Head of The Charles Regatta Executive Director Fred Schoch. “I think the overwhelming feeling, for those that we’ve talked to, is they are really excited about coming.”

To be sure, this iteration of the Head of the Charles is going to continue to be impacted by the pandemic. It is still going to be the largest and most popular head race in rowing, but it will lack multiple entries from around the world.

But the size of the field will be only a few entries shy of the 2019 event, the last time the regatta was held. There were 2,263 crews entered in 2019 and 2,245 this year.

Still, while there were multiple entries from 26 countries in 2019, there are only a handful of crews from 13 other countries racing.

And that makes this the largest domestic field ever to row the Head of the Charles. In normal years, the number of entries that were not guaranteed a slot based on the previous year’s result was relegated to a lottery, and there were many entries that did not get accepted.

That was not the case this year.

“I think that’s the silver lining,” Schoch said adding that the regatta has entered every eight that applied and that the numbers of Director Challenge Eights and Quads, and Parent-Child Doubles were increased.

“The silver lining was that not having twenty percent of the field is that twenty percent of our domestic crews were admitted.”

One notable exception is the Olympic champion Canadian women’s eight, which is coming and will race in the women’s Championship Eight event.  

“We’re going to miss all those Dutch rowers, and the Germans and the British,” Schoch said. “We do have the Canadian women’s Olympic team. You can fly into Boston, but you can’t drive across the border. So, they are flying in. But the rank-and-file clubs from all over the world just aren’t going to be here.

“It’s disappointing, but it’s understandable. But it’s a milestone,” Schoch said. “I would have personally just been crushed if we had to go two years without an actual live event.”

Will Covid Change the Look of the Regatta

Some of the biggest questions about the regatta are what will it look like, how big will the crowds be? The Head of the Charles normally sees hundreds of thousands of people line the six-mile course on both sides of the river, with spectators standing shoulder to shoulder jammed on the six bridges from the top of the course to the finish.

Along the river, there are miles of spectator and alumni tents and gatherings, and a large vendor area just below the Eliot Bridge.

How many people show up is unpredictable, but Schoch said the Eliot Enclosure and Hospitality Row should look normal. There are no restrictions on crowd size or viewing locations.

“We’ve got a clear runway to pull this thing off,” he said. “Obviously Covid has put a black flag over everyone’s plans for a year and a half, or more. And we have worked practically by-monthly with Mass General-Brigham Hospital and their epidemiology staff to plan this as well as with the state regulations, and CDC regulations as the second and third legs of the stool.

“Because Covid has been so dynamic, that’s been the problem. You make plans, and then all of a sudden you have to make new plans.,” Schoch said. “We’ve been pivoting every six weeks until now, and I think we’re stable. The variants threw a wrench in everyone’s plans who thought we were going to be completely back to normal by now.”

“The overarching blessing is that we’re this completely safe outdoor event which has been sort of the saving grace of it all. We’re so much safer than a baseball game, or much safer than an indoor arena and so that’s why we are planning this with complete confidence and have the support of the state and local officials,” he said.

Schoch said there will be Covid mitigation signage posted throughout the venue recommending mask-wearing indoors. But what people do and how close they choose to congregate will be individual decisions.

Regatta volunteers are required to be vaccinated and the vast majority “99 percent” of the entered schools and institutions all require athletes to be vaccinated. Of further note, collegiate teams travel in pods and generally stay amongst their teams. Scullers often travel to the regatta by themselves and launch and race by themselves.

And for vendor tents, with sides left open, they are considered outdoor locations.

“The messaging from MGH has been that a tent is considered outdoors if it has one side down, so we are treating our tents as being outdoors,” Schoch said.

Some vendor and hospitality tents could limit the number of people allowed inside at one time, but that will be up to the individual vendors and hosts.

New This Year

The biggest single difference of the 2021 regatta is going to be the change to a three-day event. Eight masters events in the singles and doubles 50 plus categories are going to be run Friday morning. Also moved to the Friday lineup is the Mixed Para Inclusion Double.

The nine events will run between 8 and 11 a.m., with the course opening for practice for crews arriving from out of town as the para events are concluding.

“People really value the experience of being able to get on the course,” Schoch said.

 “If you are from out of town and have never seen the Charles, you could make the case for how important it is to have a look at those bridges at least one time. We’re going to release crews [for practice] as the last races are finishing.”

Also new to the regatta are the additions of the Alumni Fours to the event. “We’re expecting those events to be quite exciting,” Schoch said.

Special Medals

Awards ceremonies will be impacted by Covid mitigation with the number of people being allowed to gather for presentations limited to 20 at a time. But there will also be several medals added to the mix.

The most notable of this will come in alumni eights will offer medal acknowledging the loss of last year’s season to college seniors. The class of 2020 Medals will go to the fastest entered as 2020 alumni crews in the eights and fours events.

Each crew racing must seat seventy-five percent of their 2020 senior class, including coxswains, to be eligible.

In the champ eight events, Special Medals will be awarded to collegiate second varsity crews. “The champ eight event was getting a little thin,” Schoch said. “So, we are encouraging crews to bring a second-varsity boat.”

Lastly, in the youth divisions, the fastest athletes, and crews under 17 as of December 31, will be awarded a Special First Place Medal, including the youth single, double, coxed quad, and youth fours and eights.  

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