It's been half a century since the original British Invasion, when the Beatles led a parade of Stones, Kinks, Pacemakers, Yardbirds, Zombies, and Dreamers across the pond to the colonies. This weekend for the 50th edition of the Head of the Charles, Her Majesty's subjects are arriving by sea with an eclectic naval task force of 58 entries ranging from youth to masters to championship crews.
"There are just boatload after boatload of Brits," marveled regatta executive director Fred Schoch. "This has become their fall destination. They must like our cold Sierra Nevada."
The UK flotilla includes several podiums full of Olympic champions, most notably Sir Steven Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent, who haven't rowed a competitive race together since they and the rest of the "Fab Four" won at Sydney in 2000.
It may or may not be a coincidence that Redgrave, who won gold medals at five consecutive Games, was born in 1962 when the original Fab Four released their first single ("Love Me Do"). Or that Pinsent, who collected four golds, three of them with Redgrave, was born in 1970, when the Beatles broke up. "That's a great link," observed Ian McNuff, who'll be rowing with his two knighted countrymen in the Molesey boat in Saturday morning's senior master eights for the over-50 crowd. "I like it."
Molesey, one of England's most august clubs, is no stranger to the Charles. Its men's master eight, with Pinsent aboard, slammed the course record here two years ago and is back again with a couple of Olympic medalists in Jonny Searle and Alex Partridge. "We have a little group of people who used to be a bit better than we are," observed Searle, who won gold in the 1992 coxed pair with brother Greg.
The club's elder eight spans generations, with oarsmen who competed during seven Olympiads from 1980 through 2004. "We thought we'd try to drag some people out of retirement," said McNuff, who won a Moscow bronze in the straight four with Martin Cross, who himself went on to win gold in the coxed four in Los Angeles. "Let's say we had a bit of a sales campaign on one or two people."
Redgrave, whose previous Head appearance was in 1993 as a distinguished ringer in the Vesper eight, was a rare addition. His rowing days were finished, he declared in 1996 after he and Pinsent won in Atlanta. "If anyone sees me near a boat, they can shoot me," he said.
Yet he was back four years later with Pinsent, James Cracknell, and Tim Foster, collecting another gold. It was the Brits' first in the straight four since 1932, and they haven't lost the event at Olympus since.
"They've been incredibly impressive," said Olympic sculling champion Mahe Drysdale, whose New Zealand teammates are Britain's perennial rivals in the global medal chase. "They've just continued that dominance on."
Redgrave and Pinsent were in the forefront of Britain's rowing renaissance, which peaked in London two years ago when the hosts won nine medals, four of them gold. At this summer's world championships in Amsterdam the British won seven men's medals, including golds in the eight and uncoxed four, plus gold in the women's uncoxed pair.
Since the national championships are being held in Nottingham this weekend, their elite cadre won't be showing the flag here, but Britain's past and future will be very much on display.
"Along with Henley and the Head of the River it's one of those races everyone wants to do once in their lifetime," said Thames Rowing Club coach Ben Lewis, who has eights entered in the men's senior master and club events.
What the Head of the Charles offers is a Yanks' version of Henley's festival atmosphere and shoreside crowds along with the processional race format that the British themselves invented, with the advantage (usually) of more tolerable weather and conditions than the bleak stuff they're used to with head races on the Thames in March.
"We go out on the river and crawl back to the boathouse for tea and cake," said Jen Wainer, who'll be rowing with the Cambridge alumnae against their Oxford archrivals on Saturday afternoon. Training for the Head of the Charles is decidedly more agreeable than for the Head of the River, which was cancelled two years ago and truncated this time amid filthy conditions. "Cracking the ice off the riggers," mused Searle. "We've had a lot of practice with that."
The HOCR offers both foliage and an exceptional variety of events, particularly for bemedaled older rowers. Molesey's entry in the women's master eights includes a quartet of British Olympians, including medalists Katherine Grainger and Gillian Lindsay.
"We recognize that in masters rowing one of the most prestigious events to win is the Head of the Charles," said Neil Chugani, British Rowing's chief executive officer and a former world champion who'll be coxing Molesey's 40-and-older men's eight. "I don't think there's too much on offer in Europe as something to aim for."
Nor is there much for alums, who now have their own events here that double as reunion opportunities. "More of the US colleges do a better job than we do at staying in touch with their alumnae," remarked Wainer.
The college tradition at the Head of the Charles, which goes back to the inaugural edition in 1965, is especially resonant for the British, whose annual men's 4-miler between Oxford and Cambridge on the Thames began in 1829. With their women's varsities scheduled to race next year for the first time on the same day and same place over the same distance as the men's, this year's event here provides a priceless opportunity for a dress rehearsal.
"That's exactly why we came here," said Cambridge coach Rob Baker. "Our boat race is going to be on a bigger stage. For us it's a big opportunity to come and test ourselves on such an iconic course."
Their competition, which will include a Great Eight of international Olympians plus the US world champions and top American colleges, will be an exceptional test as well. "The last two years have been devoted to understanding what the standard of women's rowing can be at Oxford," said coach Christine Wilson, "and educating our women to what the quality of that boat speed is."
The Head of the Charles offers an international fast lane for everyone. "It gives the boys fantastic big-race experience," said coach Steve Hermes, whose Eton crews have been coming here for a decade and twice have won the youth eights.
The trip here also gives them a great opportunity for a college tour and an American varsity experience. "It's a great ticket for them if they're strong rowers," observed Hermes, whose Henley champions from last summer have provided oarsmen for Princeton and Stanford.
The British Invasion didn't stop with Herman's Hermits. Sir Paul McCartney still comes back to the States. Now Sir Steven Redgrave has as well. Despite his old vow of abstinence he still is drawn to the river at 52. "Please don't shoot him before the race," requested McNuff.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.