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Head of the Charles Regatta 2020 canceled due to coronavirus pandemic

The Head of the Charles typically draws thousands of rowers and spectators to the banks of the Charles River each fall.
The Head of the Charles typically draws thousands of rowers and spectators to the banks of the Charles River each fall.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

The Head of the Charles Regatta today became the latest casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic as the race’s Board of Directors canceled the annual October event, which has been held since 1965 and long has been a highlight of the international rowing calendar. It will be the first time that the race has not been held since 1996, when the wind-driven “100-Year Storm” made the Charles unrowable.

“The one word that formed this decision was ‘responsibility,’ ” said HOCR executive director Fred Schoch. “We have a responsibility to our athletes and volunteers and to the spectators that we would have to discourage from coming.”

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The regatta, which is the sport’s largest two-day competition, attracts 11,000 rowers from around the planet and offers more than 70 races with athletes ranging from teenagers to nonagenarians and from Olympic champions to novices. Hundreds of thousands of spectators line the river’s bridges and banks, and the event produces an estimated economic impact of more than $75 million for Massachusetts.

“As someone who has stood on the banks of the Charles off and on for 40 years enjoying the race I, like so many other fans of the Regatta, am saddened by this announcement but can totally understand the decision,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “COVID changes many things and it is better to be safe.”

Like the Boston Marathon, the city’s other iconic mass sporting event which was postponed and then canceled, the Head will be run as a global remote event. Rowers will be able to race the length of the 4,702-meter course either on their own body of water or on an ergometer.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many of Boston’s favorite and important traditions,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “But it also has proven that whenever Boston is challenged, we respond with resiliency.”

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Regatta executives will announce the lineup of events, formats, and racing rules for the remote event by mid-August with registration opening on Sept. 1.

“It makes the regatta, which always has had an entry issue of turning away so many people, an entirely inclusive event,” observed Schoch.

The coronavirus has scrubbed virtually every major rowing event around the world since last winter, including the spring World Cup series, this month’s Henley Royal Regatta, and next month’s World Championships in Slovenia plus the entire American collegiate season. Philadelphia’s Head of the Schuylkill, which is held at the end of October, already has been called off. So HOCR organizers knew that staging a normal regatta was unlikely.

“Early on we realized that running a full-on sweep-event regatta (with eights and fours) was going to be an impossible task,” said Schoch.

Still, the organizers hoped that they could stage a singles-only regatta. But the restrictions imposed by both the state and US Rowing made even a dramatically downscaled event unfeasible.

“We’d only be putting on a token regatta for one and a half percent of the normal competitors,” said Schoch. “When you added all of those factors it seemed more logical to figure out what we could do, which is how we arrived at the remote concept.”

British Rowing last month held a virtual indoor national championships after its on-water events were called off. The HOCR’s tentative plan is to hold its remote event during the week leading up to the original Oct. 17-18 date. But organizers will be discouraging rowers from traveling to Boston to race on their own.

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“We’re not going to buoy the course and we’re not going to marshal it and we’re not going to guarantee people’s safety,” said Schoch. “This is row-at-your-own-risk. Hopefully, people will be responsible.”