They call it the race that everyone wins, everyone—world-class oarsmen rowing for glory and record times, veterans rowing to celebrate themselves, and dead-last losers rowing, as one of them said at the finish last week, "just for the thrill of being in the world's largest regatta." And that is what it was, or sort of was, Boston's 10th annual Head of the Charles, with 2,437 oarsmen, 19,496 blisters and—leading the world—542 gleaming racing shells.
Other regattas, those featuring mostly eight-oared crews, may have had more oarsmen, but none ever put more shells on the water: single and double sculls, pairs, fours and eights; shells for veterans, novices and juniors, lightweights, intermediates and elites; and 72 just for women. And what ensued, on a clear, delicious fall day, was a feast for the senses. The white steeples of Harvard all but shimmered in the cool air, and the trees along the Charles were still wild with color. The bridges and the riverbanks were brimming with a young, happy crowd, shouting, "Go-go-go." Clack-clack-clack came the echoes from the coxswains' blocks, up and down the winding course, and all day on the water there was the rhythmic rise and fall, the soft lap-lapping of a thousand oars and more.
The start was at the western end of the broad Charles River Lagoon, a mile upstream from downtown Boston. The racing began at 11 a.m. Sunday with the veterans' single sculls—46 men over 40, 13 of them 60 or over. A strong northwest wind blew in their faces, kicking up a foot-high chop against the frail shells. The course for this and the rest of the events was three miles upstream, the boats starting at intervals of 10 to 15 seconds. All the vets survived the long pull, each in his fashion, notably Jerry Olrich of the Cambridge Boat Club, who had the unbeatable combination of being 61 years old and having a strong, wiry body. An eight-second handicap is granted the veterans for every year over 40 and Olrich won for the eighth time in 10 years, with an uncorrected time of 23:49.1.
As Olrich finished, another veteran, Ed Witte, had just passed the halfway point. He had had a heart attack last year, but now he rowed with a big grin on his face, hearing the cheers for him. Ed Witte, age 78, Harvard '20, was the oldest, slowest oarsman at the Head, with a time of 41:26, and as he crossed the finish line he was caught by the winners of the next event, the double sculls, Dr. Larry Klecatsky and Jim Dietz, who were about to finish their race in 17:38.9. The day would be an endless series of contrasts—the young and the old, the playful and the serious. But just how Witte stopped and watched and seemed to be remembering how it once had been.
November 11, 1974
Klecatsky, 33, and Dietz, 25, current national doubles champions, were two of the superstars at the Head. The Cat, as Klecatsky is known to his admirers, is a 5'11", 150-pound New Yorker and a six-time national lightweight singles champion. He makes an odd-looking but effective doubles partner for Dietz, who is 6'6" and 195 pounds. Dietz, a five-time national heavyweight singles champion, was fifth in the singles at Munich and second at the world championship last summer. He said, "I'm finally learning something about rowing." Judging by the way the other oarsmen watched him, he was teaching something, too.
They were the first of the day's Heads of the Charles—Olrich, Witte, Klecatsky and Dietz, each in a different way the first of the best, each a Head of the River. That is what the term means—excellence. And there were many more Heads to come.
A Harvard shell was the next, with a 16:33.9 win the lightweight eights. And then came the elite fours, a race that might have been closer than it was had not Harvard rowed into an unregistered entrant, a Labrador retriever in the process of retrieving a stick. In trying to avoid the Lab, Harvard lost half an oar to a rock and finished third, 1.8 seconds behind the first-place Potomac Boat Club of Washington, D.C. Fourteenth place in this event was captured by the Brothers Four, not a folk-singing group but the Raymonds from Princeton, N.J.—Peter, the Harvard freshman lightweight coach, Whitaker, Christopher and Joshua. It was said there had never been such a crew anywhere. But no one at the Charles thought too much about it. One women's eight had twin sisters. Competing in other events on the river were fathers and sons, a sister and a brother and even one combination of a father, a son and a daughter.
The first women's event was the single sculls—there were 15 entrants—and it had rowing's answer to Wonder Woman, Gail Pierson of Natchitoches, La. Pierson is an associate professor of economics at M.I.T. as well as a four-time women's national trapshooting doubles champion. She is also currently in the top half in the East among ranked women cross-country skiers. She took up that sport two years ago, but has been rowing five years, in which time she has been on three national teams and twice national singles champion in the 500-meter sprint. At the Head she won the women's singles easily, in 23:25.8. Thirty-eight seconds back, in second, was a Radcliffe junior named Wicki Royden, who has been sculling for just a few months.
In all, there were 452 women competing at the Head last week. In 1971 there were five, and in 1976 women's crew will be an Olympic sport for the first time. The Head of the Charles may well have been the pre-tryouts for the U.S. team. But for every woman pulling to the limits of her strength at the regatta, there were many more for whom being there was all the fun. A Wellesley College senior named Melissa Hale, an English lit. major, came with her new single scull, an early graduation present. She had painted a name on it—J. Alfred Prufrock—and at the Head she sculled dreamily up the Charles, reciting from T. S. Eliot, "Let us go then, you and I...." until a fiercer competitor tried to pass her beneath a bridge and accidentally hit her in the stomach with an oar. Later her bandanna fell off and, lunging for it, she almost capsized. She heard friends shouting her name and thought the race was over, but it was only the halfway point. She kept wandering off the course, but finally finished, in 39:05, dead last. But she did not care. "I was kind of taken with it," she said.
All day the oarsmen passed each other. Paddling leisurely downstream, some were passed by those with more serious purpose going up. Sometimes the leaders in one event would overtake the stragglers from the previous one. Melissa Hale was passed and momentarily alarmed by a number of the better junior eights. From the J. Alfred Prufrock, the far larger eights with their shouting coxswains seemed like slave galleys.
And the boats kept coming. The traffic on the river was like downtown Rome. A Yale women's eight, cruising around upstream, plowed into an intermediate sculling shell, leaving a gaping hole. But Larry Klecatsky pierced the armada like a needle to win the elite lightweight singles competition by 39 seconds. And then came the lightweight fours, the only event at the Head with both men's and women's boats. Harvard led the men, and Radcliffe was best of the women. It was not meant to be a competition between the sexes, but when the Radcliffe boat pulled to within a length of one of the men's fours, well.... "They realized we were women and took off," said Radcliffe Coxswain Nancy Hadley. "I think they cut 20 seconds off their time."
But that was the day's only threat to male egos. All other events were segregated. In the women's eights there were 42 shells, the largest field ever, anywhere, and the best crew won by 31 seconds. Every member of Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club entry had won a national title at one time or another, and in 1972 Vesper had set the course record of 18:24 in a tail wind. Now, with five women from that same boat and rowing into a cold, tough wind, the crew only missed breaking it by .4 of a second.
The clocks had been turned back the night before, and by four o'clock much of the riverbank lay in shadow. As Jim Dietz left the starting line for the elite heavyweight singles event, which he would win for the fifth time, the portals beneath the six bridges over the course were growing darker. Finally, only one event remained, the elite eights, and the big shells were moving downstream toward the starting line. Suddenly, no other boats remained on the river but the eights, and this, with the lowering sun and the cold, seemed to create an air of repressed excitement in the huddling, waiting crowd.
Partly it was the general glamour of the big eights, but mostly it was the specific glamour of one of them, No. 79 on the regatta program. With the exception of one oarsman this was the U.S. national crew, the one that had gone unheralded to Lucerne in late summer and beaten the British and the New Zealanders over 2,000 meters to win the world championship. Four of them were Harvard men from last season's undefeated Crimson crew, and as the shell bobbed in the lagoon there were questions upstream: Are they still in shape? How will they do over a three-mile course?
The answers were: Yes, and, Oh, boy!
The world champions blasted up the river. On the bridges the spectators watched them approach, looked down on the shell as it disappeared underneath and then darted daringly through the traffic, to see it emerge on the other side. The onlookers had the exuberance of small boys in the long-ago South, who had waited all day to see the Robert E. Lee.
And then it was over, suddenly, the race and the regatta and the day, all of them together. The world champions had won in 15:36, 23.2 seconds ahead of No. 80, from the Vesper and Union boat clubs. The out-of-town boats were being packed aboard their carriers now, big boats from places like Yale, a single scull from the Nonesuch Oar and Paddle Club of Prout's Neck, Maine, boats from 114 other clubs, schools and colleges, of all sizes and sorts, all homeward bound after a glorious day on the river.