This weekend, spectators will come out in droves for one of New England’s biggest sporting events.
It won’t be for the Patriots game — Tom Brady and company have a bye this week — or the Harvard football game, but rather for the Head of the Charles, one of North America’s premiere regattas of the year.
“There’s people dangling over the bridges and along the shore all the way up and down the course,” Penn lightweight crew coach Nick Baker said. “It’s a festival along the shoreline.”
Baker’s team, as well as the men’s heavyweight and women’s teams, will be among the 8,000 athletes that take to the Charles River. Rowers from amateurs to Olympians, teenagers to old-timers all participate in one of 55 categories over two days.
“It’s really one of the marquee regattas for the rowing community,” Baker added.
The course runs three miles in length down the winding river that divides Cambridge and Boston. Like most fall races, it takes the “head race” format, meaning that boats race against the clock rather than side-by-side, and the crew with the best time wins.
“You don’t know where you are in the race, so it’s very important that our athletes give 100 percent for every stroke,” women’s coach Mike Lane said. “It’s 15 minutes long, as compared to the seven-minute spring races, so it’s a different challenge mentally.”
For the sport that never ends, fall racing allows crews to train differently and focus on aspects of rowing that are typically left out in the spring.
While Lane said the fall gives his team the “opportunity to work on the finer details — the technique, the rhythm,” in the spring, the concentration is on finding the combination of rowers that will make the boat go fastest in the shorter, 2000-meter race.
Though the crew season begins in the fall, the pinnacle of the season does not arrive until May or June, depending on the date of the championship regatta. Without a doubt, rowing has one of the longest seasons in collegiate athletics.
“By NCAA rules, we’re allowed the most practice days of any sport, along with track,” Baker said. “We’re training right from the first week of school, and if we’re as successful as we want to be, we’re going through the beginning of June.”
Despite the long season, they continue to compete throughout the summer.
“A lot of guys choose to row over the summer at different clubs,” Baker said. “The individuals that choose to row over the summer are really training and rowing just about the whole year.”
“We’re insane,” Lane joked.
Of course, rowers have ways of keeping themselves from going “insane” throughout their year.
Lane said he likes to change up his team’s workout routine. Instead of running and erging — using the rowing machine — all the time, he adds in running, climbing stadium steps and sometimes even soccer and basketball.
“To be honest, that’s probably the most entertaining practice you’ll ever see. People row because they’re uncoordinated, and they can’t play other sports, so watching rowers trying to play soccer is pretty entertaining,” Lane said.
But when it comes to the race this weekend, his team will be all business — for the most part.
“We do want to go up there and be successful,” he said. “But this is just an opportunity to go up there and have fun and put all the practice we’ve been doing the last six weeks to the test.”
On the men’s lightweight side, Baker wants to see improvement from last year’s results and get ahead of some of the crews that defeated them.
“We feel like we have a more talented group as a whole, and we’re hoping that this group will be able … to be more competitive than we have been in the past.”