It began five years ago as a two-fisted statement that scullers, who pull a pair of oars, could hold their own and then some against their one-sided sweep counterparts. The men’s Great Eight won the championship race at the Head of the Charles Regatta that year after losing its rudder amid the snowflakes, starting what has become an annual tradition for international all-star eights.
For this year’s 50th edition of the world’s most popular Head race there’ll be four of them racing in Sunday afternoon’s championship event — men’s sculling (Craftsbury Sculling Center) and sweep (Taurus Boat Club) entries, a men’s lightweight entry (Cambridge Boat Club) that wants to prove that it can punch above its weight, and a women’s sculling eight (also CBC) that will be defending its title.
“It’s something special because these girls are usually my opponents and now we are in the same boat and we want to win,” said Olympic singles titlist Mirka Knapkova of the Czech Republic, who’s making her third Great Eight appearance.
For sweep rowers who are used to being on the global podium, beating the scullers is a point of pride. “This is our game, isn’t it?” mused Olympic pairs champion Hamish Bond of New Zealand, who with partner Eric Murray collected both the coxed and uncoxed world titles this year. “So definitely the pressure’s on us and the expectation is to do well. We’re aware of that. We want to win. That’s obvious.”
So Bond convened his crew, all of whom are Olympic or world medalists, on the water here a week ago Saturday. “They’re afraid,” joked Croatian sculler Valent Sinkovic, who with brother Martin won the world doubles crown and Saturday’s title here.
Bond hasn’t lost an international race since 2008 and doesn’t care to start here. “He certainly doesn’t want to lose to us,” said countryman Mahe Drysdale, the Olympic singles champion who, like his other seatmates, raced on Saturday while the sweep guys were putting their feet up. “He’s got a reputation to uphold.”
So do most of them. Ondrej Synek of the Czech Republic is the world singles titlist. Norway’s Olaf Tufte is a two-time Olympic champion. Five of the sweep oarsmen won medals in London. The women’s eight includes Australia’s Kim Crow, the former world singles victor who won two medals in the 2012 Games, and Lithuania’s Donata Vistartaite, who has a global doubles gold.
What they enjoy about racing in a Great Eight is the rare chance to go from competitors to comrades. “We’re all good mates,” said Drysdale. “As scullers we only have ourselves so generally we are good friends. One reason why we love coming to regattas like this is that fun aspect.”
Rounding up a bemedaled fraternity and sorority from multiple continents is mostly a matter of e-mails and taps on the shoulder at World Cups. “Occasionally people say no, but it’s usually a legitimate and serious conflict,” said Newton native Gevvie Stone, who’ll stroke the women’s eight after collecting her fifth singles crown on Saturday. “People usually jump at the opportunity.”
Even for those who’ve been to Olympus, racing on the Charles with their planetary peers in front of hundreds of thousands of people on an October weekend is a must-do. “Everyone in Croatia who was here said, you have to see it,” said Martin Sinkovic. “You have to see Henley and the Head of the Charles. It is very special.”
Assembling rowing’s version of a Dream Team starts with a wish list of the global top guns. “Amazingly, everyone wrote very similar names,” said Weston native Jack Carlson, who’ll cox the men’s sweep eight. US sculler John Graves, tasked with corraling his peers, took the simple approach. “I basically chose all my heroes,” he said.
Figuring out boatings involves a bit of mixing and matching. Denmark’s Jacob Barsoe, who’s an overgrown lightweight, was an obvious pick for bowman in the sweep boat.
But Bond, who seemed a natural choice for stroke, wanted to be elsewhere. So Australia’s Josh Dunkley-Smith was penciled in as stroke, Bond settled into the 6-seat behind Olivier Siegelaar of the Netherlands and everyone else slotted in behind him. “Seven through two, you can put them anywhere and it wouldn’t make a difference,” said US member Henrik Rummel, who’ll be at 3.
The scullers assumed that the Sinkovic brothers would be at stroke and 7 and that the rest of them would slide in somewhere. “It’s about putting your egos on the dock and going out there and rowing as a crew,” mused Drysdale, a five-time world champion who has won the Head twice.
Given the rowers’ pedigree, melding eight different styles generally takes a relatively short time.
“The way the guys have jelled and got on has exceeded my expectations,” said Bond. “There’s always a bit of an unknown element there but we’ve all got a common background. No matter where we’re from in the world our approach to rowing and the way we do things are similar so there hasn’t been too much trouble. Everyone’s sort of lived up to their country’s stereotypes anyway. There hasn’t been any unexpectedness, put it that way.”
What’s expected is that the Great Eights will be more than competitive here against national boats and top college varsities that row together year-round.
The welcome difference for the Stones and the Syneks and the Schmidts is that they don’t have to beat each other to do it. “This is a chance for us to go out there,” said Drysdale, “and enjoy rowing for what it is.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.