October 24, 2001

Visiting Charles

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It’s that big. I thought about it last month. I thought about it last winter. I was still thinking about it three days after it already happened. The 2001 Head of the Charles.

Annually, for one October weekend, over 250,000 people crowd the shores and perch atop all seven bridges on the racecourse along the Charles River in Boston, making “it” the largest international regatta in the world. This year the US, German, Dutch, French, and Croatian national teams had entries in the event.

Even though more people attend “it” than the Super Bowl, game seven of the World Series, NBA Finals, and the Stanley Cup Finals combined, it remains an event that most people have never heard of. And trust me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Our bus pulled into Boston around 4 p.m. Saturday, October 20th to a glorious spectacle of reds, whites, blues, and everything in between. Getting off the bus brings back a flush of memories from the previous year’s rendition. I recognized the familiar smell of roasted sausages, heard the delirious clamor of spectators, tasted the brisk warm autumn wind, and touched the sacred ground with my bare feet.

“It” is an event only a small subset of the population appreciates. There was once a time where rowing was the sport of choice, a sport fit for the king to gaze upon, a sport worthy of large betting wagers. This weekend, Boston provides a snapshot of the way all major regattas used to be, albeit with a twist of the modern flare. Seeing all of the boat trailers, spectators, and majesty of the event makes me long for the recognition rowing used to have.

I wondered whether I would get desensitized to this awesome spectacle if all major regattas were like “it”? Would the Charles River lose it’s unequivocal allure? Perhaps, but special or not, this river remained as my main focal point, as it must.

There have been countless stories of bridges, shorelines, and water taking bites out of people and boats indiscriminately. Her charm has put the best under her spell and broken many hearts.

Normally, the coxswain, my position, does not have a large impact on an outcome, but in this race, my role is magnified. If I can take the right lines through all of the bridges and turns, then I can shave precious seconds off the boat’s time. An average crew with a great coxswain can beat a good crew with an average coxswain. And this is just that kind of race.

I am not saying that being a coxswain is physically taxing, but mentally it can be. Keep in mind I am driving the school’s $35,000 boat that is 60 feet long, with a rudder the size of a credit card. On top of that I am responsible for the safety of eight fathers’ sons through hairpin turns, bridge abutments, other impeding slower crews, wind, current, and noise.

This little bit of extra pressure is only comforting because it is the same pressure that all of the other coxswains must deal with. Fortunately, I am very confident in my abilities and I know that I can drive better than most of them on the water. Bottom line: Donald Lee is the man.

I am happy to report that we finished no. 10 overall and no. 5 among college crews. More importantly, we were within 4.6 percent of the winning time which guarantees us an entry for next year’s regatta. What is most promising is that we had a bad piece and rowed at a lower cadence than most of the other schools (rowing at lower cadences usually means less speed with elite crews) and shortchanged ourselves. Despite all that, we managed to put out a decent effort.

The women’s entry in the championship eight was also successful in that it finished almost twenty spots better than its bow number (bow number equals relative seedings based on the previous year’s result). The women’s four finished 6th overall and were within 3.2 percent of the winning time.

It was a good weekend for Cornell crew and we all look forward in racing in Princeton this next Sunday for the Princeton 3-mile Chase as we were riding off back to Ithaca Sunday evening.

Archived article by Donald Lee