It all began when the Campbell family moved from Illinois to Connecticut and their oldest child discovered that he couldn’t sail a boat in landlocked New Canaan. So Andrew Jr. took to the Norwalk River in a rowing shell, followed eventually by his brother, Charlie; his father; and his sisters, Mary and Claire.
Four of them will be on the river this weekend at the 48th annual Head of the Charles Regatta, which has become a Campbell autumnal tradition.
“It’s become one of the huge events on the calendar for us,” said Andrew Jr., who will be rowing for Harvard’s lightweight eight Sunday afternoon. “As a family, we look forward to it all year.”
Andrew Sr. will compete in Saturday morning’s senior master singles event. Mary and Claire, who are 16 and 13, respectively, will be racing in that afternoon’s club singles against women old enough to be their mother, and one of them will jump into a shell with their dad four hours later for the parent/child double. “That’s the best event at the Head,” said Andrew Sr., who has rowed in it with Charlie. “It’s a ton of fun.”
The world’s largest two-day regatta offers 60 events, ranging from senior veteran singles to adaptive doubles to youth fours to championship eights, enough to make room for an entire household.
“We were going to row a Campbell family quad,” said Claire, “but Andrew said he had to row with Harvard.”
Enough of them pull an oar that Andrew Sr. designed a yellow-and-black Campbell unisuit with the family crest.
“It has a boar’s head with a phrase in Latin, some vicious take-no-prisoners thing,” said Mary. “Which is suitable for our family.”
The Campbells don’t just venture out for a paddle. Andrew Jr., who just missed making the Olympic team in the lightweight double, won the bronze medal in the single at this year’s world championships. Charlie, who has competed at the world junior regatta, rows for the University of Wisconsin. This summer Mary won the under-17 singles title at the club nationals in New Jersey, then teamed with Claire as part of the Maritime Rowing Club’s victorious quad.
“We haven’t had a family vacation in five years,” said mother Laura, who helps run the New Canaan crew program. “Every time there’s a break, somebody’s traveling for rowing.”
Had the Campbells not migrated east, their sport might have been sailing. But once 13-year-old Andrew began commuting to Norwalk seven years ago, the procession began. After Charlie came Andrew Sr., who confessed that his first venture afloat was “petrifying.”
“He’s very comfortable in water,” said his wife. “But balancing on top of it . . .”
Next was Mary, who had been tagging along with her brothers.
“The rowing bug bit me,” she said.
Then Claire, who is not one to be left out of anything intriguing.
“She’s very fearless,” said Laura. “Anything anyone can do, she can do, too.” Claire was only 11 when she joined her dad at the Head of the Charles in the parent-child double but still fretted that she was overtaxing him.
“I said, ‘Dad I need to slow down, you’re going to get a heart attack,’ ” she recalled. “He was, like, dead at the end. I said, ‘Sorry.’ ”
Claire, who is the youngest competitor in the club single by two years, got into the oversubscribed event through a lottery system, which irked her big sister, who had to sweat it out on the waiting list.
But nothing is as challenging and satisfying as going solo aboard a tipsy single scull, which provides what Andrew Jr. calls “that instant feedback and harsh criticism of small boats.’’
“It’s sort of like skiing, where you have to be paying attention or you’ll hurt yourself,” his father observed.
The Head, a 3-mile upstream pull against the clock, is an especially daunting undertaking with its seven bridges, whimsical winds, and competitors of varying skills who may never have seen a serpentine course, much less navigated their way around and between a forest of flailing oars.
So last weekend Andrew Jr. gave his father and sisters what he called “a little steering clinic” on the river, with particular attention paid to the Weeks and Anderson bridges, the scene of hundreds of crack-ups over the past half-century.
“It was really cool,” said Claire. “He showed us all the turns and stuff. He gave us tips.”
Her big brother, who will be sitting in the five-seat for the Crimson lightweights, will not have to worry about steering on Sunday, as his boat will have a coxswain. Andrew Jr. rowed for the freshman boat but had to bypass last season to prepare for his international bid.
“I wondered, ‘How far can I take this? How good can I get?’ ” said Andrew, US Rowing’s man of the year in 2011.
So he relishes being back with his teammates, who are reigning national champions and are bidding for their first Head crown since 1975.
“It’s different being on a team with dozens of other guys,” said Andrew, who was second in last year’s championship doubles with teammate Austin Meyer. “I’m loving that camaraderie.”
The Campbell varsity has its own camaraderie, which is at its most special on Head of the Charles weekend.
“I really have to do that,” Laura said after watching her husband and children cruising through their course tour. “I’ll get there eventually.”
If mom gets up to speed and Charlie comes east with the Badger crew, all six Campbells can wriggle into their team “unis.” And if someone can build them a 12-oared shell, the Head organizers just may create a 61st event.