Head of the Charles Part II

Last weekend the Head of the Charles took place. You probably knew that already though; it was certainly hard to miss the over enthusiastic parents and mass of fluorescent tops that went wandering down Memorial. But for those ostriches amongst us, they were rowers and a very big gathering took place. As a stranger in a foreign land I was however reliably informed that the Head of the Charles was the world’s largest rowing regatta and that it was therefore definitely something I should check out.

Now maybe in the past I would have been excited to go and witness ‘the world’s largest something’ but I have to admit I found myself a little non-plussed. I blame TV, for too many Ripley’s episodes, and the subsequent Pavlovian word-image association they have created which means that whenever I hear the phrase ‘the world’s largest’ I immediately expect to see a huge group of midgets all tap dancing in the style of Fred Astaire, or a throng of grannies sitting in a bath tub full of baked beans.

Come Saturday morning, my hangover and I weren’t really wasn’t in a baked beans mood, (which begs the question are you ever?) Still I figured stick “the world’s largest” in front of anything and you’re bound to attract some sort of a crowd if only so people can say they’ve been to the ‘world’s largest something’. Believing that some fresh air would help evict the construction workers who had taken up residence inside my head overnight and ever curious, I popped down to the edge of the river to see what all the fuss was about.

The one thing you would probably expect to see at the world’s largest rowing regatta is a lot of boats and the Head of the Charles certainly didn’t disappoint here. I’ve always felt that the beauty of seeing lots of any kind of sport, particularly amateur sport, is you really get to see and appreciate the good and the bad. Again the Head of the Charles delivered; from the cox who couldn’t steer, ended up crossing the highway and careering into not one but four boats (the rowing equivalent of a destruction derby), to the frightening, almost industrially efficient crews (were they robots or people at the oars?), the day’s rowing was varied, and actually very enjoyable.

Part of that enjoyment came from the crowd who all appeared to have turned up hours before us and who appeared to be long into the evening.

We all cheered when the HBS boat came careering past and we laughed at the rowers dressed as reindeers, at the dollar signs on the HBS oars and T-shirts. I also resolved some long held rowing questions. Apparently no one actually likes ergos not even the being ill part afterwards and yes, rowers do brag about how bad the festering sores on their hands are. You see, the day was educational as well as enjoyable!!

The other thing the regatta had lots of, apart from color blind people – how else can you explain some of the blazers on show, was food. There seemed to be enough food stalls to feed a small army. In fact it was at one of these stalls that I truly began to feel at home. For me, growing up on the terraces of St. James’ Park (that’s a soccer stadium in Newcastle, England for those heathens out there) sports events are also about really, really bad food. The kind of food that makes the 2am kebab seem like cordon bleu cooking. I can happily confirm that the hot dog I managed to get was one of the worst ‘dogs’ I have ever tasted – magic. (But the apple crisp was of course amazing – Adam)

The thing that struck me the most about this sporting ‘race’, while sitting on the bank of the Charles, is how it doesn’t really look like any kind of race I’d seen. Call me a traditionalist, or just narrow-minded, but to me a race is something along the lines of ‘on your marks, get set, go’.

Everyone screams off as fast as they can, the fat kid gets left behind at the back (or more recently, the Brit gets left behind) but critically you can tell who is winning, you know who is good and who will soon be warming the bench again. Instead because boats are started at 15s intervals, this race looked more like a procession of 11 year olds; a procession where even though everyone’s been told they have to stay in a set order, x just has to stand next to y, and so goes charging through the people ahead.

At times I almost expected some of the rowers to turn and wave to the crowd a la carnival float time, and if it weren’t for the pain etched on many of their faces I suspect many might have done.

So did the head of the Charles motivate me to go rowing? Almost. For a brief second I felt it might be fun, and then my brain switched into TOM gear. The course for instance is over 3 miles in length and takes around 18-19min. Taking my steer from the faces of the sportsmen and women as they rowed past, that’s 18 minutes of intense, constant, excruciating physical pain, (the other minute being the time it takes your body to thaw out from the freezing cold weather outside.) I may have a greater level of respect for those who row now than I had at the start, but I’m still not that much of a masochist.

Would I recommend it to others next year? Definitely. If you’ve never been, you really ought to give it a go. It’s definitely worth it (if only to try the Apple Crisp – Adam.)