The Volunteers Nobody Wants to Meet

By Erica Moser Published on October 20, 2014

Eight years ago, a Chinese team rowing in the Head Of The Charles Regatta hit another boat, kept rowing and ended up sinking.

“The boat had hit the rear of another eight, and it didn’t appear to be anything major or serious, but it must’ve cracked the bow,” said Skip Farkas, co-chair of Regatta’s emergency services committee, and volunteer representative from the American Red Cross of Massachusetts.

Emergency services committee member Skip Farkas checks supplies on Saturday.

When the boat approached Eliot Bridge, it began taking on water. The team found a coxswain who spoke Chinese, but apparently there was a bit of a language barrier, Farkas said: when she asked if everybody could swim, they all started jumping out of the boat.

“You’re supposed to stay with the boat,” first aid volunteer Robyn Churchill said. “If you’re near a boat, at least there’s the chance [other rowers will] see the boat and avoid that.”

Emergency Services volunteers jumped to action, trying to get the boat off the course and retrieve both those in the water and those still in the boat.

Volunteers with emergency services have amassed a number of stories over the years, ranging from the casual cut to hypothermia, dehydration, head injuries and abdominal wounds. They are the committee people would rather avoid.

“We don’t want business,” Churchill said.

Another one of Farkas’ notable stories is that one of the eights missed a turn and hit the dock.

“They had a crowd cheering people on,” he said, “and everybody ran like crazy when that happened.” But no one was hurt.

It’s more common “to have mishaps with the boats with eight people, just because of the amount of coordination it takes,” said Kate Bermingham, a certified emergency nurse volunteering.

One problem that occurs every year is boats hitting Eliot Bridge or the Weeks Bridge, which are each on a curve. There are always boats overtaking each other and it’s very difficult to get four boats under the bridge at the same time, Farkas said.

The damage – or lack thereof – “depends on what part of the boat and how hard you hit,” Churchill said. “So ideally, you hit it and regroup and keep moving.”

When a boat hits another boat or an abutment, the sudden stop has the potential to send the oars into the rowers’ abdomens and cause internal injuries, said emergency services co-chair Jonathan Ellis, who is also a firefighter and EMT.

The third emergency services co-chair is June Richard, who was invited to the position after completing a safety audit of dock operations last year. As a result of her report, changes to traffic control were made.

With Farkas, Ellis and Richard representing the Red Cross, EMTs and the federal government, respectively, they “each bring a different perspective to the committee, to bring full circle emergency responsiveness to all situations,” Richard said.

Emergency services has people stationed at Cambridge Boat Club (CBC), the finish line, Weld Boathouse and Magazine Beach, Farkas said. This includes volunteers working with first aid and amateur radio operators, commonly known as ham operators.

The latter serve to take the burden from the public frequencies, amateur radio operator Ralph Milroy said. Their title is because “the FCCs have allotted us the privilege to operate on these frequencies,” Milroy said, “and by law, we cannot be paid when we operate on these frequencies.”

Bill McIninch, an amateur radio operator who has been volunteering at the Head Of The Charles since 1998, said the regatta has a reputation as an event where volunteers “have the chance to enjoy the event while still dealing with emergencies.”

The “craziest thing” he’s seen at the regatta was when a gust of wind blew off the awning covering part of a Revlon trailer five years ago, giving a girl a concussion.

“It’s hard to tell sometimes whether the rowers are crazier or the spectators or the volunteers,” McIninch said.

“Most of it is common sense,” Ellis said about avoiding injury. “You know, pay attention to the weather, that’s key. We’ve had all sorts of conditions here. One year it snowed. People can get hypothermia here very quickly.”

In keeping with the theme of common sense, a word of advice to the rowers: when carrying a boat, don’t hit anybody in the head with the oars. And a word of advice to the spectators: don’t get hit by an oar. The emergency services volunteers are lovely people but are better encountered under benign circumstances.

Volunteer for HOCR

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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.