The 2016 Head of the Charles Regatta brings considerable Olympic sparkle to Boston this weekend. Among the participants due to compete in the 52nd annual rowing event are Rio summer Olympic gold medalists and World Rowing champions Mahe Drysdale (New Zealand) and Kim Brennan (Australia); silver medalists Gevvie Stone (United States), Gary and Paul O'Donovan (Ireland), Damir Martin (Croatia), and James McRae (Australia); and bronze medalist Olaf Tufte (Norway). In total, more than 50 athletes who participated in the Rio Olympics will join 11,000 rowers from around the world and take to the Charles River over the course of two days. For Stone, a Newton native who lives in Cambridge, it's home turf.
"It is incredible that my home water hosts the biggest regatta in the world," says Stone. "I love the Charles River — all its turns, its bridges, its history, and its rowing community. The regatta brings all of that together. I'm fortunate to train here, to know those turns and those bridges, and to appreciate that history."
The picturesque three-mile course starts at Boston University's DeWolfe Boathouse and ends at Christian Herter Park off Soldiers Field Road, just shy of the Northeastern boathouse. This year, the HOCR debuts a new youth event, the quad with coxswain, and introduces the mixed eight to replace the mixed quad as a Directors' Challenge event. The Para Rowing section has expanded, too. At the end of the event, the BNY Mellon Championship Trophy is awarded to the winning collegiate competitors in the Regatta's Men and Women's Championship Eights, which was taken by Yale University and University of California, Berkeley last year, respectively.
Along with the thousands of athletes flooding into the city to participate, an estimated 400,000 spectators flock to the free two-day event.
Racing begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m., both days, and race viewers line the river from start to finish. Though, mostly, it's the finish line that attracts spectators. The Eliot Bridge, just before the finish line, is a very popular vantage point and always crowded. The banks on both sides around the finish line offer good views, especially along Christian Herter Park on the Boston side, where food trucks line up giving a carnival like atmosphere. A bend on the Cambridge/Watertown side off Greenough Boulevard obscures the view in places.
At the very end of the three-mile race, you see the rowers winding down, catching their breath and floating on the Charles in their boats. "It is an added bonus that October tends to be a beautiful time of year in Boston," says Stone.
For five years, Boston's Lenox Hotel has been a part of the races as official host hotel, and is a supporter of the Let's Row Boston outreach programs at Community Rowing Inc., which ensures access to rowing for any student in Boston. The Lenox offers a HOCR package (from $885 for two), which includes admittance to the hotel's hospitality tent in Herter Park, giving top-notch finish line views. The package also includes transportation, which is a huge help given the congestion there on race days.
"Being the host hotel for the past five years has allowed us to be a part of the rich history of Boston hosting this world renowned event," says the Lenox Hotel's vice president and managing director, Dan Donahue.
Harvard Square is a 15-minute walk away from Herter Park, and its many bars and restaurants are where race-goers end the day with food and sometimes celebration. From the new The Hourly Oyster House on Dunster Street, to the venerable Harvest, off Brattle Street, which has been around almost as long as the Head of the Charles, there's something for everyone.
Parsnip opened last November in the old Upstairs on the Square spot off Winthrop Park and is celebrating its first Head of the Charles with a special three-course prix fixe ($48) created by chef Peter Quinion. It might be his first year experiencing Head of the Charles, but Quinion, who hails from England, says it will remind him a little bit of home: "I used to love watching the English regattas when I was growing up in England," says Quinion. "I was able to watch the Henley Royal Regatta every summer, and it was a tradition for our family."
He's not the only one with a family tradition involving regattas: "My parents are the ones who introduced me to the regatta, and they've been racing it longer than I have," says Stone, who first raced in 2001 and has rowed in 14 regattas. Not counting the quads, she's won 11 times.
"My mom doesn't race anymore because she is busy coaching Winsor crew. Not only will my dad be there to cheer me on in the single and to coach my eight, but I'll be there Saturday morning to cheer him on in his single."