The Head of the Charles Regatta (HOCR), the world’s largest two-day regatta, is upon us. I’m five foot eight, but on the third weekend in October, I feel dwarfed alongside the much taller physical specimens who overrun the streets of Cambridge. Competitive rowers tend to be extremely tall in stature and have the peculiar habit of always looking straight ahead. Each rower seems to stare at the head in front of them, and Cambridge is inundated with groups of people walking in chains of four and eight, often led or followed by a shorter loud person telling them to hurry up, lest their dinner reservation is lost.
The other distinguishing characteristic of these folks, aside from their magnificent stature and formation, is their choice of attire. Though meant to represent club or team affiliation, the rowing blazer looks more like an artistic collaboration between Willie Wonka and Kaptain Kangaroo. This garment is easily distinguished by its bold, garish stripes and clashing piping. The get-up is part of a time-honored tradition wherein members of the elite classes don hideous clothing, thereby indicating that they are not in need of gainful employment. For decades, Murray’s Toggery Shop on Nantucket has been siphoning old money into their coffers by cladding middle-aged men in $119 pink pants. Perhaps I will make my first million by selling plaid bermuda shorts on Chappaquiddick – “Chappy Plaids.”
But not all regatta participants fall into the category of oversized Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus employees. Though the younger set does occasionally wear the rowing blazer, it is more commonly seen on the Masters Rower, an act of nostalgia for a time when the blazer actually buttoned.
With 9,000 participants, the Head of The Charles is quite simply a showcase of vibrant people of all ages and genders. A visitor unaware of the event might be under the impression that Boston is a city of superhumans. Until, that is, she walks through the parking lots to find the tailgating spectacle on display. If you know anything about what it takes to get an athlete to HOCR, you will then understand why the parents and supporters of these elite crews indulge in such bacchanalian river bank festivities. Imagine a version of “The Wind in The Willows” in which Toad and Ratty have access to an endless supply of alcohol and Dean and Deluca delicacies.
After the athletes, the parents, the spectators and the sponsors, there is the invisible backbone of the whole event: the coaches. You will need to look hard to see them, for they are in constant motion or else bent over a piece of rigging. If they are clad in club attire, it it usually a coffee-stained Boat House pullover. They are most likely not in outstanding physical condition, as they are up before dawn and a sleep after midnight during the weeks prior to the race. Line-ups, rosters, paperwork, group dynamics, travel arrangements and endless practices are their events. They are the first to arrive and the last to leave, and sometimes they don’t even see the race after the boat has launched. So, if you find yourself among the Head of the Charles revelers watching the rowers from the Elliot Bridge, remember who helped get them there.