Orange Buoys and Green

Course setters check a sounding map on Friday morning.

Setting the Head Of The Charles Course

By Connor McGann | Published on October 18, 2013

Think of the Head of the Charles and you think of the course. Three miles long, it weaves between Boston and Cambridge, presenting rowers with narrow turns, traffic reminiscent of a pre-Big Dig commute and an imposing series of bridges, and it’s Chris Richard’s job to give the course its race-day flavor.

“I really like hands on kind of stuff and I love being out on the water,” said Richards, the Belmont Hill crew coach and the co-chair of the Regatta’s course committee. “And because I coach on the river, I know the river, I know the bends of the river and know the course probably better than most and so on, you know, it’s sort of a natural fit.”

Richards has been a volunteer at the Head of the Charles for over two decades and has rowed in nearly every regatta, besides two, since his first in 1979. He learned how to set up the course from Sherry Proctor, whom Richards called “the guru of the modern course.”

In the years since his mentorship with Proctor he has built a feel for everything from how to make a bridge safe for navigation to how to fix off-center buoys at the apex of a turn. Megaphone in hand he shouted directions to scullers and eights as he searched for imperfections in the meandering course; buoys floating too shallow, or far out of place.

“What you’re trying to do is to create a course that is fair and safe and has room for travel lanes,” he said, “And so trying to tweak the course so that it’s just right for the majority of people is actually more of a challenge than one might think. Particularly around the Eliot turn where people are always saying that the buoys are either too far out or they’re too far in. And you know if people are complaining about them both being too far out and too far in then we’ve got it about right.”

Setting up the course can get tedious as buoys float out of place and supplies fall into the river — on Friday a bin, a glove, several buoys, a megaphone and more ended up in the river during the course of the morning. Still the challenges are of minimal concern when the safety of rowers is at stake. The buoys are necessary to prevent too many collisions in a race with thousands of participants from inexperienced juniors to Olympians. Still accidents are bound to happen, especially around the bridges where rowers have to navigate tight spaces at high speeds and even experienced coxswains can make mistakes.

“What we try and do is set the angle of it so people are coming in not at too sharp an angle,” he said, “Cause that’s the problem, if people cut the turn too tight then they can’t make the turn afterwards. Weeks and Anderson, to a lesser extent, really Weeks and Eliot are the two where the buoy lines going in are crucial.”

And to make such a twisting urban course safe for the numerous races over the course of the weekend an array of gear is needed. Before setting out Richards and company loaded up orange, green and white buoys, tetrahedrons (floating pyramid-like structures meant to be used as place-markers), and flags to help guide the rowers. Dozens of anchors were brought aboard to keep the buoys in place in addition to a spool meant to measure the distance between them.

After nearly four hours and numerous adjustments including stray buoys, an errant flag and a misplaced tetrahedron the course was ready for rowers. It will be adjusted again Saturday and Sunday morning before the days’ races.

“There are so many buoys, and they’re fairly delicate because if you, you know, hit them and you snag an oar, you pull the buoy and you snap the tether, and what-have-you, there’s a lot of that,” Richards said, “And so the course really gets beaten up quite a badly and so it’s a lot of continuous maintenance.”

And it is the upkeep put in early every morning before the oars break the surface of the river that keep the most important piece of the regatta alive — the races. By noon the course was set for a long day of practice for the many rowers preparing to race in the prestigious Regatta. Of course buoys will have to be adjusted and replaced, rowers will collide and bridges will continue to stand as uncompromising obstacles but, thanks to the work of Richards and his crew the Regatta will go on.

Tim Woods, Richards’ co-chair of the course committee, says the character of the course is a big part of what gives the Regatta its personality. “It’s a challenging course to steer,” be said, “you’ve got a lot of crews racing, it’s the oldest Head race, you got crews from all over the place, so it all kind of makes it a very special race. The beauty of having some straight stretches, then and all of the sudden you have this series of bridges and turns that you have to navigate as you’re trying to race and pass crews—it really makes it fun.”




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Make this year’s Head Of The Charles® a success. There are many opportunities to get involved over race weekend and before.