Before the Head of the Charles, Every Year There is the Head of the Kevin

By Drew Daylor — Posted on October 20, 2017

“It’s not a regatta, it’s a practice,” says Kevin McDonnell, Riverside Boat Club member and founder of the appropriately named Head of the Kevin series. Three times every fall, dozens of crews, some coming from as far Philadelphia, come early on a weekend morning, to compete against Head of the Charles gold medal standard times in what has become more than just popular HOCR practice series; it’s become an event in itself. There are fans; the results go up on Row2K.

McDonnell migrated from Long Beach Rowing Club to Riverside in 1999 after relocating to Boston to pursue a PhD at MIT. Frosty oarlocks and a busier river weren’t the only difference Kevin found on the East Coast. “The West Coast is very laid back and there aren’t a whole bunch of rules, I came to Riverside and there was a rule for every single thing,” says McDonnell about his first impressions of the club.

A dawn launch for 2017 Head of the Kevin III. Photo courtesy of Igor Belakovskiy.

A dawn launch for 2017 Head of the Kevin III. Photo courtesy of Igor Belakovskiy.

What attracted Kevin to Riverside was its rich history and atmosphere of volunteerism. In addition to annual dues, every Riverside member must complete several hours of volunteer tasks that range from taking out the trash to landscaping the club grounds. The Head of the Kevin is McDonnell’s Riverside volunteerism.

When he implemented his first Head of the Charles practice piece in 2000, eight years before it was christened Head of the Kevin during email-thread banter, Kevin wanted the day to both exemplify Riverside’s community ethos and Long Beach’s laid back vibes. There weren’t, and still aren’t, any entry fees and the entire event is run by Riverside volunteers. Any Riverside member can sign up and will always get first priority for registration and are the only ones eligible to win prizes.

And the prizes too are completely Riverside-brand DIY. This year’s female Head of the Kevin champion and veteran single sculler Catherine Widgery took home a handmade sterling silver medal, crafted and donated by a Riverside member. Having now completed her fifth Head of the Kevin, Catherine has well absorbed the tenor of the event. “One of the things that makes Head of the Kevin special is the spirit with which everybody approaches it, without a lot of fanfare or rules. Everybody is on their own to row safely and well,” says Widgery.

The event does have a relaxed execution but Head of the Kevin’s racing is anything but. Raw times are taken and studied closely by all competitors, but because the results are based on standards in different boat categories, a single can beat an eight, and everyone is measured against their own standard.

The Head of the Keven has grown to nearly 100 boats, with more clamoring to get in every year. Cal Brooks, a member of Riverside’s men’s sweeps team, sees the Head of the Kevin as a privilege. “If you did expand the event, every single college team would want to do it and it wouldn’t be manageable by volunteers.” Men’s champion double competitor Theo Pritz, who drove six hours from Philadelphia to compete at Head of the Kevin would share Cal’s sense of value for the event. “It doesn’t have any retail aspect, it’s just people who are in it for the rowing.”