Of all the questions that come to Doctor Rowing, none is more frequent than “Whatever happened to the Head of the Connecticut?” I hear: “It was such a great regatta.” And: “I remember so well getting out into that downstream current on the Connecticut River in Middletown and feeling like we were flying.” And the inevitable: “Our coxswain was such a liar; she/he would always tell us as we passed the Wesleyan boathouse that the finish line was in sight. Bull! That was the halfway point of the 3.5-mile course.”
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It was indeed an excellent regatta, coming two weeks before the Head of the Charles. It was a great tune-up for school, college, and alumni crews seeking a final hard row before fall’s biggest event.
The regatta was begun in 1974 by a group spearheaded by Jack Smith, a legendary figure in Connecticut rowing. Jack had coxed one of the early Trinity College crews and then moved downstream to Middletown, where he decided that high-school students in this small city needed to have a rowing program. Although our country is replete with public-school rowing programs now, in those days there weren’t many. With the help of some like-minded members of the Middletown government and Lions Club, Jack got the ball rolling. Middletown soon had a high-school rowing program and boasted alums like Phil Stekl, Sue Tuttle Hingley, Anne Boucher, and Tim Clifford—all of them National Team oars.
The Head of the Connecticut took the Head of the Charles as its model. The Charles regatta, then in only its ninth year, was fast becoming a fixture on the rowing calendar. After it was launched by Englishman Ernie Arlett at Northeastern, other important coaches—none more so than Harvard’s Harry Parker—embraced the idea quickly that it would be a good idea to make fall rowing more serious. Friday-afternoon beer regattas gave way to more serious training. And crews, no surprise, kept getting faster.
By the end of the ’70s, the Connecticut was established firmly. Doctor Rowing coxed a number of alumni boats, and a few things stand out in my memory.
One: The weather was almost always terrible. Who knows why Mother Nature cursed this event, but it had the misfortune of coinciding with rainy and windy Sundays—so much so that rowing folk began saying, “Head of the Connecticut bad means Head of the Charles great.” And sure enough, it wasn’t until 1996 that the Cambridge regatta had a nor’easter that canceled it. Talk to anyone with a memory of just three to six years of the Charles and they’ll tell you, “It’s always fantastic. Indian summer. Perfect rowing conditions.” No one ever said that about the poor Head of the Connecticut.
Two: There was the inevitable midday oil tanker on its way to Hartford that came up the course and disrupted the racing and pulled out buoys with its tremendous wake. Although we all marvel at how big an eight is (comparable in size to the ships of Columbus), when a tanker comes alongside, it’s terrifying.
Three: Coxswains did indeed have a hard time finding the finish line. Is there something in a coxswain’s blood that makes her/him feel that just because you’re passing the Wesleyan boathouse from which you launched, and just because the greatest number of people are gathered there cheering, that the finish line is just around this starboard bend in the river? I think we call this phenomenon “The horse smells the barn.” Show me a coxswain in a head race and I’ll show you someone who miscalculates where the finish line is. I know that even the great (sic) Doctor Rowing urged his alumni boat, “Take it up for one last 20. And 20 more! Sorry, we’ve still got a half mile to go. Keep it going!”
If a coxswain has enough credibility to pull this off, you can always say, “Yes, I knew that you guys were getting tired and figured that by deliberately miscounting, I could keep you going, could keep the stroke rating up. Great job, guys.” (Never admit a mistake; it was all part of a calculated plan.)
So what did happen to this beloved regatta? It breathed its last in 2011, when after 37 years, the plug was pulled finally. As happens often, there was no dramatic finale, no smashup of five eights that caused people to declare that maybe it was time to stop. It was mostly entropy; the organizers who had done such a good job for so many years were getting older and were not being replaced by energetic youngsters.
And here we have a lesson about regattas. There is no group more critical to a regatta’s success than the volunteers. When you think of all the positions that need to be filled to pull off a big regatta—the timers, the entries people, the on-the-water referees, the registration-desk workers, the insurance checkers, the program compilers, and so many others—you realize that you need a small army of volunteers. And Middletown is a small town with a rather small rowing community—only one college and one high school.
At the same time that the Head of the Connecticut was losing steam, a new regatta was taking up the slack—the Head of the Housatonic in western Connecticut. It began in 1994 as a Saturday event.
“The idea” said Mitz Carr, who was in on the ground floor of the regatta that was started by New Haven Boat Club’s Norm Thetford and Yale’s Dave Vogel, “was that people who were coming up for the Connecticut on Sunday would like to stop off at the Housatonic and have a nice row before continuing on to the Sunday regatta in Middletown. We will be the warm-up for the HOCT.
“There was some divine intervention. We seemed to get good weather before the bad. And the Connecticut was getting so big that with only one launching area it could take 45 minutes to get on the water. We had a bigger club, hence, more volunteers.”
And so, as one regatta shrunk, another grew. There must be a law of physics that addresses this, but Doctor Rowing is up against a deadline and will let you science types explain it to us.
Wherever you are racing this fall, have a great row!