CAMBRIDGE -- A warm afternoon sun broke through an overcast sky Saturday, gleaming on the Charles River as boats glided past, each crew team determined to outpace the competition in the 48th annual Head of the Charles Regatta, the world’s largest rowing contest.
With temperatures topping 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a crowd began building up on the banks of Memorial Drive and Eliot Bridge as spectators rooted for their friends and family members, spent time with loved ones, or simply enjoyed the sunny fall foliage.
“It’s very picturesque,” said Katie Field, 25, a California native who came to watch the race for the first time. “I love how the leaves are changing color, and it’s exciting to check out crew, which is a very East Coast thing.”
More than 9,000 athletes worldwide are expected to travel to Boston for the 55 races during the weekend, drawing a crowd of about 300,000 people over the two-day event, according to race organizers.
Although the competition attracts over 100 Olympic rowers from around the world, including dozens of Olympic medalists, most spectators said they were more interested in cheering on people they knew than world-famous athletes.
Kate and Evan Polos, 40 and 48, said they traveled from Wallingford, Conn. to watch their niece, Nora Heidel, compete for her college, Hofstra University.
“It’s exciting to see the boats and athletes,” Kate Polos said. “It’s something totally new for us, so we decided to make a weekend out of it and go shopping and out to eat in the North End.”
Others traveled from farther for the international race. Bert Cocu, 48, flew with his 10-year-old son from Amsterdam to explore Boston as well as snap some photos of rowing teams, which he sells from his website.
Sitting on a ledge just over the water near Eliot Bridge, Cocu never put down his camera, which was complete with a foot-long lens to capture the dozens of boats coasting through the water.
Cocu said he started taking photos of crew competitions after he himself rowed for a few years in the Netherlands.
“Everyone should have at least one picture of their rowing career,” Cocu said, furiously clicking his shutter. “I’m glad that it’s finally sunny. It’s a really nice day out to be taking pictures.”
Behind him, seated on a quiet leveled rock jutting out from the banks sloping down from Memorial Drive, brothers John Egan, 63, and Tom Egan, 60, both let out tense sighs as they watched two boats collide about 10 yards away from where they sat.
“That was a pretty bad one,” said John, laughing in amazement. “They hit pretty hard.”
The brothers know from experience: the pair has been camping out at the same spot every year for 15 years, arriving at 6 a.m. to root for Tom’s wife, Cheryl, who rows in the competition.
Some years, the pair said they have had to grit their teeth and bear through the rain and cold. But this year, they came prepared with a tarp, Gore-Tex waterproof clothes, and umbrellas in case the weather took a turn for the worst.
“We thought it was going to be bad out today, but it’s actually just beautiful,” John said as a crew team paddled by, exhaling forcefully in unison. “We’ve got some nice foliage and not too much wind, which can make it difficult for the rowers.”
Tom said he did not know how his wife’s team placed, but said he felt nervous for her. But as a friend approached him and informed him that his wife and her teammates won second place in their event, he smiled.
“I’m glad – she got second place last year, too,” he said, looking out over the river peacefully. “She’ll be happy.”