IN a borrowed boat, with oars bought after they arrived in America, the nine-man crew of the Amsterdam student rowing group Nereus were but a few of the more than 4,000 participants in the 28th annual Head of the Charles Regatta last Sunday.
"Rowing in the United States is completely different than rowing in Europe - everything is much bigger," said Nereus oarsman Steven Arnold. "The boathouses seem like castles to us." The awe-struck team from Holland made its American debut at this race, the largest single-day rowing event in the world.
A brief hiatus in rainy, overcast weather brought sunshine and brisk autumn air to the Charles River for the regatta's 16 events. By 7 a.m., early competitors were warming up, perfecting the arm, body, and oar synchronization that is a key to successful rowing.
The normally quiet shores of the Charles River teemed with people and equipment from all over the United States and several other countries, including France, Canada, Poland, Ireland, and Russia. Whether in single sculls or with teammates in two-, four-, or eight-person shells, the participants, who ranged in age from late teens to early 80s, demonstrated a sport that the general public rarely gets a chance to observe.
At Magazine Beach, an area of the Charles converted to accommodate four docks for rowers to launch from, the call of "Heads up!" was heard all day long as rowers, boats hoisted shoulder-high, made their way through portions of a crowd estimated at 150,000.
"It's nice to see all these people around," said Stacy Semler, a member of the University of Minnesota rowing team. "In Minnesota it doesn't seem like anyone even knows what crew is."
The regatta regularly draws large crowds, a commodity most rowing races lack.
"Oarsmen don't typically have an opportunity to be appreciated," said Fred Schoch, executive director of the regatta. A past participant, Mr. Schoch said of the masses that "There's nothing like it in this world to have cheers from the start of your race to the finish."
John Carlson, a coordinator of the Magazine Beach operation, said the regatta shows spectators that people of many ages and sizes can participate in rowing. He said it also dispels the myth that rowers are all "6-foot, 4-inch guys named Sven who look like Adonis."
From boat clubs, colleges, and high schools came rowers competing for a Head of the Charles medal and a title to go with it. "The name the `Head of the Charles' does not refer in any way to a portion of the river," said one of the regatta's founders, D'Arcy MacMahon. "It is a title conferred on the crew that wins."
But winning the Head of the Charles is no easy task. Rowers are started at 15-second intervals, racing for the fastest time through three-miles of treacherous curves and seven bridges, often passing or being passed by competitors.
"You really have to hold off the other crews and try to get through the bridges first ... and keep [your crew] going as fast as possible," said coxswain Miranda Wade, a junior at Niskayuna (N.Y.) High School and a member of her school's team. "We held off a college crew for two miles," she adds.
"The rowers get to be a little wild here," said Betsy McCagg, a member of the US National Rowing team who recently returned from the Barcelona Olympics. Ms. McCagg said the race draws so many rowers because, unlike most courses rowed in lanes in a straight line, this one allows the participants more contact with one another. "It's like tackle football with rowing," she said.
Nowhere was McCagg's observation more evident than in the Championship Eights race, which pitted collegiate and boat-club teams against one another in the last event of the day. In the women's division, the Boston Rowing Club boat - made up of US National Rowing Team members (including McCagg) - easily defended its Head of the Charles honor, not only winning the title for the fourth year in a row, but setting a new course record as well.
In the men's Championship Eights, the Vesper Boat Club of Pennsylvania defeated four-time winner Penn AC Rowing Association, also of Pennsylvania.