By Sara Corey
As a coxswain, my principal job is to steer, so the Head of the Charles is my time to make the biggest difference in my boat’s performance by steering the shortest course possible and by keeping the rowers engaged and motivated for three miles, or about eighteen minutes. By turning at just the right point and time, I can shave seconds off our overall time. In addition to steering, I have to maneuver around other boats, manage weather conditions and motivate my rowers, all while barreling down the three-mile course at full speed.
The Head of the Charles is one of the largest and most famous rowing races in the world. Teams and athletes from all over the world come to race in this prestigious regatta. It is not uncommon to see crews from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Australia.
To be a part of this race is an honor, and this year I was selected to race in the most competitive women’s race of the entire regatta, the Women’s Championship 8+. I did not want to waste this opportunity, so I came up with a plan of action to prepare.
Each morning during practice leading up to the race, I practiced my turns and positioning on the river just as I would during the race. I printed out maps and made notes of things to remember, such as “start to turn when you see this tree” or “eyes up and watch the buoys.” Using a GPS device, I tracked my courses during practice to see if I took the fastest line up the river.
On Sunday, Oct. 21, the day of the big race, my eight rowers and I shoved off the dock at Henderson Boathouse after being wished good luck by our coaches and teammates. With the cheering and hollers left at Henderson, it was just me and my eight rowers in our sleek, sixty-foot long, white rowing shell.
We warmed up in the boat and wave-filled Charles River basin. We focused on supporting a strong rhythm that would give us confidence going into the most important race of the fall season.
High winds whipped around us as waves threatened to toss into the boat. The cold started to seep in through my sweatshirt. The key about rowing is that its characteristics and accompanying features cause discomfort. Rowing is hard and it takes an enormous amount of dedication to even get a glimpse of success. If you cave into feelings of discomfort, you can only expect mediocrity. How we manage discomfort determines if we will strive for perfection or complacency.
We reached good speed in the windy basin for our practice race-pace strokes. Before we knew it, it was time to line up at the start line. Dartmouth was bow number 17, and we were 18, so we slid right behind them.
At the referee’s call, we started to row. With about fifty meters to the start, I called the rowers up to full speed and full pressure.
We flew through the start line at 40 strokes per minute and lengthened to 32 strokes per minute. As we charged through the BU Bridge, I hugged the right-hand buoy line around the turn. I looked up, and we were starting to challenge Dartmouth. We would soon be in a position to pass.
Meeting some swirling wind through the “Power House Stretch” between the River Street and Western Avenue Bridges, I urged my crew to support each other and press on despite the conditions. Through this stretch we were beginning to come even with Dartmouth and inched our way up to a passing position.
Dartmouth hung with us through the Weeks Bridge, and it was a battle to see who would capture the inside turn as we headed to the Anderson Bridge. I told my crew that it was now or never and we jumped in front, taking the inside turn.
As we passed Newell Boathouse, we had a comfortable lead on Dartmouth, but that would not be good enough. We continued to build on our speed. Bow number 16, Duke, was no more than two lengths in front of us as we approached the horse-shoe shaped, half-mile long turn to the Eliot Bridge.
This is always the hardest part of the race. The rowers start to feel the lactic acid build-up in their legs and their lungs burn. But we only had one mile left in the race, and this was the time to dig deeper and rely on mental strength to bring us around this never-ending turn.
Pain and fatigue must take a backseat during races. You and your competition experience the same thing. What separates successful crews from others is their willingness to row better technically and to row harder even though your muscles scream, “no more.”
As I clung to the left-hand buoy line to save more time and shave off meters to row, the rowers found their second wind and started to catch up with Duke. We finished the turn and shot past the Cambridge Boat Club and through the Eliot Bridge.
I got a straight shot for the next inside turn and hugged the buoys. We were inching up towards Duke; I could see their coxswain peeking over her shoulder at me through her Oakleys. With 500 meters left to go, I called the Huskies up to a full sprint in an attempt to pass Duke before the finish line.
We crossed with our bow overlapping with their stern.
We docked at Henderson once again and hopped out of the boat with huge smiles on our faces. We hugged and congratulated each other. Everyone had committed to giving everything they had to that race, and it worked.
In 2017, the Huskies placed twenty-second. This year, we placed fourteenth and beat crews that had overtaken us just a season before. As a team, we have since set a new bar, and we are prepared to exceed expectations.
Sara Corey, women’s rowing
Featured image by Brian Bae.