As the 48th Head of the Charles Regatta kicked off Saturday morning, the buzz a half mile from the finish line at the Cambridge Boat House was no longer the threat of rain showers, but the near record-breaking temperatures.
“It’s really the perfect conditions for rowing,” said Jim Connelly, the Regatta’s director of media relations. “It’s one of the warmest days on record.”
With smooth waters on the Charles River and a slight tailwind in the Powerhouse Stretch, the first coxswains began racing at 8 a.m. with the Grand Master men’s and women’s singles for rowers 50 years old and up.
The crowd continued to grow on Eliot Bridge as spectators of all ages gathered to glimpse a portion of the world’s largest rowing event and cheer on the hundreds of rowers cutting their blades through the water. As thermometers leaned toward 70 degrees, Connelly predicted record crowds, which have been known to reach into the hundreds of thousands.
Around the Cambridge Boat House, rowers dropped their boats into the water while aficionados on the balcony cheered on names that are as familiar to them as Big Papi and KG are to Red Sox and Celtics fans. The undercurrent of whispers throughout the crowd was the presence of Olympians among mere mortals.
More than 100 of the men’s and women’s participants at the London Olympics this summer will be competing in Boston. Counting a flotilla of Olympic reunion boats, the number of world-class rowers will be several hundred.
Among the Olympic talent on hand Saturday morning was Susan Francia, a 29-year-old Philadelphia native who helped power the Americans to gold in the Women’s Eight event in London this summer.
“It’s fantastic weather,” said Francia as she prepared for a photo shoot for an upcoming Olympian picture book. “It’s warm, a little muggy, but it’s always a toss-up here.”
The United States, Canada, and the Netherlands are set to reprise their Olympics championship race on Sunday at 3:08 p.m., when they compete with 37 other crews in the championship Women’s Eights race.
On Saturday, Francia planned to take it easy, getting her picture taken and signing some autographs.
Her goal on Sunday?
“Tomorrow we hope to win,” she said.
Other competitors, such as London’s Jamie Wooller, 26, of the Vesta Rowing Club, were happy just to be sharing the waters with the Olympic champions.
“It’s the biggest club race in the world,” Wooller said as he and his coach, Matt Gilliver, made 11th hour adjustments to his boat before he hit the starting line for the Club Men’s Singles event. “It’s a huge privilege to share the water with these athletes.”
The 3-mile regatta stretch begins at Boston University’s DeWolfe Boathouse in Cambridge and ends at Artesani Park in Boston. The regatta will host 55 competitive races over a two-day period with 9,000 athletes ranging in age from 14 to 85.
Bruce Smith, the executive director of Community Rowing Incorporated, pointed out that the competition brings together participants from a wide spectrum.
“The great thing about the Head of the Charles is that it’s a tremendous community event with people from all skill levels coming together,” he said as he commented on the regatta from the roof of the Cambridge Boathouse while rattling off facts about the competitors as though he was the Joe Castiglione of the rowing world.
Like the Boston Marathon, the Regatta allows world class athletes like Francia to share the stage with amateurs like 58-year-old Ned Cooke of Newton.
Cooke has been rowing for more than 35 years and participated in at least a dozen Head of the Charles Regattas. For him, it’s not about winning — a wayward tree branch slowed him down in this morning’s Grand Master Men’s Singles 50-plus event.
“It’s the aesthetics and athletics, the peaceful and beautiful part of being out on the water,” he said of his love of rowing, adding that he enjoys taking to the water before 6 a.m. to think, exercise, and write in his head. “It’s the one time of the day you can control. It’s all about balance — literally and figuratively.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by two-time Olympic gold medalist Francia — she also won in Bejing.
“It’s supposed to look graceful and effortless to an outsider, even though we’re pushing ourselves to the limit,” she said. “It’s a beautiful balance.”