For the last two years, the ducks and geese have owned the river. No swinging oars or coaching launches to avoid. But this weekend, the waterfowl will be making way. After a year’s absence due to the COVID pandemic, the Head of the Charles Regatta returns for its 56th edition, this time as an essentially homegrown three-day event.
“The rowing community has been itching for the signature event to announce that we’re back in business,” said Fred Schoch, the Head’s longtime executive director. “That’s the feeling from our volunteers and race committee. They’re jazzed that we’ll be able to open the gates again and let everybody in and have a chance to go down the course and feel somewhat normal.”
The operative word, of course, is “somewhat.” Customarily, the regatta is an international reunion, graced by competitors from the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and other European countries as well as New Zealand and Australia. Roughly one-fifth of the annual field of 11,000 athletes comes from as many as 30 foreign countries.
This year, with the notable exception of the Canadian women’s eight that won the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, the Head will be almost entirely a domestic affair.
“A lot of people said they’ll see us next year,” said Priscilla Livingston, the regatta’s operations director.
The CDC restrictions simply are too burdensome for overseas visitors this fall.
“The entries that made inquiries one by one dropped off,” said Schoch. “The COVID policies just scared everybody off. Even if they were able to come in, they’d have to quarantine when they went home.”
So this year’s Head will be a throwback to the mid 1960s, when the regatta was all about clubs and colleges, the Cambridges and Unions and Riversides and Potomacs and Penn ACs, and the Harvards and Northeasterns and MITs and Dartmouths.
Not that the regatta, traditionally the largest two-day rowing event in the world, will be any smaller. The application list rivals that of the Boston Marathon.
“The silver lining,” said Schoch, “was that people who wouldn’t get in are getting in this year.”
There had been such growing demand in the veteran and youth events on either end of the age spectrum that regatta organizers long had discussed adding a third day to the program. With or without the pandemic, that might have happened this year.
So for the first time, there will be racing on Friday morning, with singles events for the senior veteran, veteran, grand master, and senior master categories, and doubles events for the senior and grand masters. Those age groups, which range from 50 years old to infinity, were deemed to have the most scheduling flexibility.
Otherwise, the schedule will look familiar. The championship singles and doubles and the club and alumni races and master sweep and sculling events still will be held on Saturday, with the championship eights and fours, and collegiate, lightweight, and youth events slated for Sunday.
Any reasonable facsimile of the usual HOCR is welcome after the regatta was canceled for the first time since the “100-Year Storm” wiped out the 1996 event when it still was a one-day undertaking. The question was whether the racing could safely be held while the pandemic still was very much active hereabouts.
“We’ve been confident for several months that unless the variant took a turn for the worse that we were going to be able to pull it off,” said Schoch. “We’ve been talking to the infectious disease experts at Mass. General Brigham twice a month for two years, and they’ve always expressed a high degree of confidence.
“The variant changed things, and the consequences of that is that we don’t have the international field. But everything else is on track.”
What helps greatly is that the Head is an outdoor event whose competitors race in individual boats at 15-second intervals along a 3-mile course. The overwhelming majority of entered rowers have been vaccinated and are used to complying with COVID protocols.
The fact that the marathon went off successfully earlier this month with nearly twice as many athletes clustered closely together for several hours was taken as an affirmation by HOCR organizers, who did all of their planning remotely via Zoom, that green-lighting the regatta was a prudent decision.
“We’ve already seen a bunch of large events go off in Boston safely,” said Livingston.
With crisp autumnal weather forecast for the weekend, the usual crowd approaching 200,000 is expected to line the banks and bridges along the course.
“There’ll be no limitations on spectators,” said Schoch. “The beauty of our venue is that it’s so spread out on both sides. There’s plenty of room.”
And after two years, there’s finally something for them to watch on an October weekend other than ganders and mallards.