The Head of the Charles: A Rower’s Perspective

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Ryan Breneman ’10 rows for MIT Crew in the Head of the Charles, one of rowing’s most celebrated competitions. The two-day event drew teams from around the world.
Meng Heng Touch—The Tech
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Members of MIT Crew approach the starting line at the Head of the Charles Sunday during the Women’s Lightweight Eight event. The two-day rowing competition is one of the sport’s most celebrated.
Sam Range—The Tech
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Members of the MIT Lightweight Men’s Varsity Crew launch from Pierce Boathouse Sunday before competing in the Head of the Charles. The two-day rowing event is one of the sport’s most celebrated.
Sam Range—The Tech

The Head of the Charles is the largest regatta in the world, comprising over 8,000 rowers and 1,700 boats. The 5km-long race course connects the MIT, BU, Riverside, Harvard, Cambridge Boat Club, and Northeastern boathouses.

On the cold, windy, and rainy final day of the Head of the Charles, rowers warm up inside. Eight silhouettes of bodies black against grey windows and clad in even blacker spandex fill the absence of color with sound: whooshhhhh, whooshhhhh — as the fans in the ergometers cycle through crescendos and decrescendos, the shadows swing back in unison, and flashes of red stripes begin to profile the powerful lines of the bodies. Punctuating this rhythm are the sharp commands of the coxswain: “One team, one body — send it up, swing it back and lock it in!”

Twenty feet above the frigid water, held in midair by a worn tiled floor, eight bodies begin to blend into one, arms taut, heads steady, and the room begins to smell of a heady mix of human sweat, adrenaline, and the humming tension of utter concentration. In this room and on the twisting expanse of water below, intellectual power transforms into physical power, where singleminded intensity takes on the form of loose jaws and relaxed backs, gentle hands, and eyes boring into the river just beyond the boathouse windows.

As muscles bunch across shoulders and whirring fans rise to a cacophony of wheels, bearings, and wind, drops of sweat follow the contours of warm flesh. They run through eyebrows and eyelashes, and tears from the stinging salt mix with the sweat that drips onto the floor, tracing out a line that sings the motion of the rowers: pushhhh return, pushhhh return, whooshhhhh whooshhhhh. Each drop shimmers against the dull floor, arrested in space but dynamic through time, as it reflects shadows of the body above: motion contained within two feet of moisture.

“Big — Big,” a coach emphatically bellows. The water in the tank rushes by so swiftly that it shoots out of the breather holes and between the wooden slats on the ground. A swelling, tumbling, swirling deluge gushes over concrete banks and steel grates, and the river water splatters against the red of the uniforms. Coxswain, coach both inundate the rowers with last-minute advice, but the rowers are beyond words, so intent are they as individual motions merge and finally, eight bodies become the sweep of the water below.

As the championship 8+ women prepare to race, the chaotic traffic pattern of boats weaving in and out metamorphoses into the semblance of a line, and wind and rain give way to snow swirling around bodies, melting into the river, and muffling the whoooomp of the oars.

The race is a superposition of white snow, grey sky, murky water bubbling against the hull of the boat, and the brilliance of red-yellow trees illuminating the course. Each bridge is a brief respite from the snow, and the clicking of the oars magnifies and fills the space, like the crescendo of the ergs, before dispersing over the river again. At the end, as bodies slump and lungs gasp, steam rises out of these black silhouettes, dancing with the falling snow and the clouds of breath exhaled, and mixing with the passion, gut, and discipline that form the fabric of the Institute and the sport of rowing.