Elegant New Book Celebrates Regatta’s First Half Century

Author John Powers tells the story of telling the story of the Head Of The Charles

By Scotty Schenck – Posted on October 16, 2015

Even though there have been cold days in the first 50 years of the Head Of The Charles Regatta—that snowstorm in 2009 comes to mind—a peculiar warmth has run right along the riverbanks for most of those 50 years. Bill Becklean, 1956 Olympic gold medalist, will tell you it’s the camaraderie and community between rowers that has made the Regatta what it is.

“[The Head is] all about the people. The wonderful thing about the Head it is a regatta run for the benefit of the competitors,” Becklean said. “The energy level just goes crazy. The river becomes Grand Central Station. Somebody [had] to write down the story of the Head Of The Charles.”

Somebody did.

Longtime Boston Globe staff writer John Powers’s book, The Head of the Charles Regatta: First 50, has just been published by the Regatta and will be available for sale at various Regatta site throughout the weekend. The book is a vibrantly visual telling of the story of the Head, reading more like magazine article than history text. Quotes superimposed on two-page photo spreads show just how much the Regatta has grown from its humble beginning in 1965.

“We didn’t think this would work,” Regatta founder D’Arcy MacMahon said of the Regatta’s beginnings. “It’s scary in a way to see how big the Regatta has become.”

The book brings the Regatta to the young and old, seasoned and novice alike. Those who know plenty about the race will be hit with nostalgia, those who know little will gain a rich understanding of the art of rowing, as well as the world-famous Head.

There are informational texts about the different aspects of rowing, such as the types of races, commands often given by the coxswain of boats and plenty of definitions for all kinds of row-speak.

The book notes the triumphs, the struggles and the quirkiness in the Regatta’s history. Powers said he was surprised when writing the book at just “how accidental a number of things were” that led to the Regatta’s evolution.

“It was a three mile race because they could get an electrical cord at the end of it,” Powers said.

Powers walks his reader through the history of the race, not by giving a detailed list of events in chronological order, but rather by weaving the multiple facets of the race and the hundreds of stories that the Head has created.

One of those tales is about Charles Attager, a character fabricated in the early days to take the complaints from people calling the Regatta. Attager’s first name comes from the river, his last is regatta spelled backwards. “The phone would ring and someone [picking up on the HOCR end] would say, ‘Is Charles Attager here?’ and I would say, ‘Take a message,’” MacMahon is quoted as saying in the book.

It wasn’t the only joke that was played in the Regatta’s early days. MacMahon also said that the first year had a low turnout, but when asked to write about the Head of the Charles for US Rowing, he started with “Countless thousands lined the shores.”

“’Countless thousands lined the shores?’ That’s nobody. People believed it, they had to see it. I think it was funny that the Regatta was born out of a joke,” MacMahon said.

Challenges to the Regatta’s operation are chronicled, from the dastardly weather some years, to the quickly growing crowds and the problem of collegiate debauchery on the riverbanks during the 1970s. The book itself had some challenges; it started as a one-year project but ended up taking more than two.

“There was a concerted effort to aim for quality. We didn’t care if it was a year late, we wanted it done right,” said Fred Schoch, executive director of the Regatta.

Above all, the book tells the story of the Regatta’s people. “Our true asset is out human capital if you will,” Schoch said. The people who work on the regatta are the brightest.”

Ultimately the story of the Head Of The Charles people is the story of the rowers, rowers who come not for the weekend, but for a lifetime. Rowers like Roger Borggaard, who was a part of Northeastern University’s first rowing team and rowed in the very first Head of the Charles in 1965.

“You’ve got the ambiance of Boston. it’s just the whole package of the Head Of The Charles that makes it so much fun,” said Borggaard, who will be competing in this year’s Head at age 70.

Powers said that rowing is a lifetime sport and this is highlighted by the 70+ category, composed of senior rowers. This type of dedication brings people back.

“If you get to my age, there’s very few things you can get better at,” Powers said. “It becomes part of people’s annual ritual.”

At the other end of the spectrum are the youth rowers.

“One thing is, you can row your whole life. I started sculling at age 10. Rowing is a great way for a lot of students to take their lives seriously,” MacMahon said.

Part of the appeal for the younger crowds is the lack of need for experience. Powers said that some of the competitors in the youth events are “kids who just began rowing last month.” Borggaard said that was him when he started rowing for Northeastern.

“I was a walk on, I had seen and heard a lot about rowing but I had never experienced it. I grew to love it,” he said.

His love, and the love of all the others who have rowed in, watched, and helped organize over five decades now that love story chronicled between hard covers.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Borggaard said. “I think it’ll be the best coffee table book ever made.”

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