Northwest grit at the Head of the Charles

Northwest rivalries, victories and defeat went nose-to-nose this weekend during Boston's famed rowing race.
Northwest rivalries, victories and defeat went nose-to-nose this weekend during Boston's famed rowing race.

Most of sports Boston was focused on Fenway Park this weekend, where the big excitement of the American League pennant had concluded before the weekend was half over. But across the city, another 300,000 people — a number that would fill Fenway eight times over — spent a full two days watching another sporting event: the Head of the Charles Regatta.  

The yearly rowing race counted 7,000 rowers (and coxswains) from 37 states and 28 countries. Rowers, ages 11 to 86, compete in sixty events — some with more than 70 boats this year. Onlookers lining the banks of the Charles watched as athletes in 15 second staggered starts raced three miles up the serpentine bends of the river, battling to chase and hold one another off through the narrow arches of seven bridges.

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A bit of a turn to port is now required. Three boats to execute.

The Head of the Charles is a huge draw for Seattle’s big, enthusiastic rowing community and its teams were there in numbers: The University of Washington, of course — last year’s winner of the Men’s Championship Eights (more below on that), but also dozens of rowers from Green Lake Crew, Lake Washington Rowing Club, Pocock Rowing Center, Conibear, Lake Union Crew, Sammamish Rowing Association, Bainbridge Island, Holy Names Academy — even the Ancient Mariners Rowing Club, to put a nice bracket around the richness of gender and age.  

Seattle’s standout best showing came in the Charles' second race, which kicked off before 8:30 a.m. on Saturday. Amateur athletics doesn’t get much richer than the forty over-60 Veteran Women racing 4820 meters in single sculls. The winner: Susan Kinne from the Lake Washington Rowing Club, and two places and 23 seconds behind her, Jill Garner of Lake Union. No one was too surprised: Kline also won in 2009 and in 2012, but she was certainly pleased to take more than 20 seconds off last year's winning time.

Perhaps more of a shocker to the assembled rowing establishment was Seattle’s other victory — a runaway first posted Sunday in the Women’s Youth Fours by Holy Names Academy. High school rowers in Seattle know the perennial strength of Holy Names, whose 21-year crew tradition puts rowers to work on Lake Union three hours a day, five days a week. This weekend though, the crew announced themselves to the 85 other boats in their race: Second last year, they pushed the previous winner a whopping 27 seconds back.

Seattle boats race against the world of course, but in some races Northwest rivalries make for a more local elation. In a field of 22 Women’s Senior Master Eights boats, Sammamish was sixth, Conibear eighth and Martha’s Moms Rowing Club tenth, divided amongst themselves by a mere 21 seconds. Same thing with the forty boats in the Men’s Senior Master Fours, where 8th place Bainbridge Island Rowing finished just a bit ahead of the twelfth place Ancient Mariners Rowing Club. 

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Seattle's Ancient Mariners Rowing Club pulling hard.

Sammamish Rowing Association – a regular powerhouse — sent a flotilla, posting strong results in five of their six Saturday events. Their crews copped a second place in the Women's Master Fours, two fourths by the men's master team and two fifths by the senior women. By my quick tally, collectively leaving 140 boats from around the world in their wakes. 

Last year’s winner, UW’s national champion eight, had a rough time though on Sunday in the premier Championship Eights. Ninth place, 14 seconds off the pace set by the hot boat from Holland, and separated from third place and first collegiate boat Harvard by Northeastern, Brown and Berkeley.

But who’s counting? For spectators at least, the Charles is just a fun boat race. Everyone walks back and forth along the banks of the river, looking for prime viewing spots under golden fall foliage. It’s no problem finding the people from home. A huge cheer from the bank a bit upriver as the Green Lake men pulled by was a dead giveaway as to the location of the Green Lake women.

There they were, full of smiles, bursting with the joy of cheering and racing in a borrowed boat. We chatted about strategy: This is a coxswain’s race, they said, to be won by steering the right line around the bends and asking for the proverbial pedal to the metal at just the right moment to pass the boat ahead.

Hearing coxswains’ hollering race after race for “power tens” and lots more colorful exhortations, we asked the Green Lake cox for the message she yells when she wants the big push. She rendered it, a resounding “No mercy!” It must have been pretty effective, since her crew placed a highly respectable 14th in a field of 86th and accomplished what the Green Lake boys narrowly missed — a trumping of the Sammamish Rowing Association boat by five places.

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Green Lake's Women's Youth Eight from high schools around Seattle.  On their way to the boathouse and the row downstream to their starting line on Sunday.

Sunday morning we ran into three easily recognizable passersby in Sammamish fleece from the Senior Women’s Eights. Eastsiders Diana Farrow, Melissa Snyder and Wendy Beeman.“It was my first time, it was so exciting,” Beeman said, of the Head of the Charles. For her, rowing was a natural sport to take up after growing up a dancer.

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Wendy Beeman, Sammamish, Diana Farrow,  Redmond and Melissa Snyder, Bellevue. Three women from the Sammamish Rower Association's Women's Senior Master Eight looking for races to watch after competing on Saturday.

“Rowing is such a graceful sport,” Beeman said. “It takes not only power, but a unified effort with teammates to row well – and striking the perfect balance of the two is a special feeling.” 

“It’s the only thing I’ll get up early for, or will do before a cup of coffee.” Coming from Seattle, that’s a statement.  


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.