Steering The Head of the Charles

by Geoffrey S. Knauth US National Team Coxswain

If you don’t have a coxswain, don’t put your oars over the buoys, even if you are allowed to. Chances are you’ll miss one (your hull falls on the wrong side of a buoy), and that’s a 10 second penalty. Sometimes buoys drift–be especially alert for that.
Before the start, be in the middle of the river. It gives you a straighter shot through the B.U. Bridge to pick up the tangent of the green buoys in front of Magazine beach.

Get a good start, but make sure you settle into a strong and sustainable rhythm as you go through the B.U. Bridge. Crews that extend the frenetic pace of the start past the B.U. Bridge often fizzle early. After Magazine Beach, at the blockhouse, you have gone about half a mile. Watch out for idiotic crews that might try to launch from Magazine Beach right into your race. Even if they get disqualified for doing so, it can ruin your day. Be alert for green buoys that have drifted or been dislodged by launching crews.

After the blockhouse between Magazine Beach and Riverside Boat Club to starboard, let yourself go wide to port a little, because that will lead you right onto the extended centerline of the River Street and Western Avenue bridges in the Powerhouse Stretch. Go right down the center of the middle arches. That straight stretch is between 1000m and 1500m long, depending on where you pick up the true course. Ideally you will be going straight about 1200m or so.

Midway between the River Street and Western Avenue bridges, there is a blue and white stripe on the stonewall to starboard. That is the first mile mark.

After Western Avenue, do not be tempted to turn at all to port aiming straight for the center of Weeks Footbridge just yet, or you’ll completely screw up the 90 degree Weeks turn to port, shoot wide coming out of the bridge, and lose three to five lengths almost instantly. This is the ruin of many good races.

You have to emerge from Weeks already pointed 40 degrees to port of the perpendicular, already pointed straight at the center arch of Anderson, which means that coming out of Western Avenue you have to hold a straight line toward the Dunster House crest until you are past the drooping tree on the Cambridge shore before you begin the wide arc that completes most of the Weeks turn before you even get to Weeks.

Just after Weeks you are halfway done with the race.

Going by Weld Boathouse to starboard, listen for the announcer to say something about you. It might give you a boost if they say something nice, so row your best.

Coming out of the center arch of Anderson, you need to be pointed 20 degrees to starboard of the perpendicular to pick up the tangent of the red buoys at a point just beyond the two-mile mark. So, as with Weeks, you get most of the turn done before you get to the bridge, but the effect is a little less dramatic. As a cox, my point is a distant little red brick house just to the right of the big white apartment building.

After Anderson, the classic mistake is to get sucked in to port too close to Harvard’s Newell Boathouse, not realizing that Newell is in a little bay of its own, and the red buoys follow a concave shore line, only to come out to the true course again after 500m or so. So stay away from those red port buoys after Anderson. You can visit Newell Boathouse at some other point not during your race. Just as the Big Turn begins, you’ll usually find a yellow triangular buoy well to starboard indicating the two-mile mark. One mile to go!

For the Big Turn, now, don’t go wide to starboard! If you do so early coming out of Anderson and then correct, you will lose a few lengths. If you stay wide and don’t correct right away, you will add many, many more lengths to your course. The big turn lasts half a mile and goes a full 180 degrees around to port. People just don’t believe that until they look at a map or an aerial photograph. So once you pick up the red buoys at the correct point, stay close to them. Keep a lookout for errant crews going the other way on the return side of the port buoys. The turn is tight enough that sometimes returning crews stray slightly onto the course. If they interfere with your race they will be disqualified, but of course that doesn’t help you at all.

Going by Cambridge Boat Club to starboard, listen again for an announcer to mention you by name. With half a mile to go, you want all the moral support you can get. Going through Eliot Bridge, the angle is about 25 degrees to starboard of the perpendicular.
Pick up the tangent of the green buoys and then stay close to them. Be careful. Because of the zone of safety around the Winsor and Belmont Hill Boathouse dock, the buoys are a little further out from shore than you would expect. Also, you’ve just spent several minutes dealing with port buoys, and you may not be used to judging starboard buoys correctly.

Don’t get caught on the outside of that last turn, or it will cost you 15 to 30 seconds, and probably half a dozen positions in the finishing order.

Once that last turn is done, stay a little to starboard and make sure you are aimed right between the finish line buoys. Be prepared for a blast of headwind at that point if the wind is from the west. In my single, once I have the finish line in sight it is almost exactly two minutes to the finish. The last twenty strokes begin right before the boardwalk on the port side. On shore, the finish line is the second telephone pole after the boardwalk, the pole with a transformer on it. (Note: In 1995, two four-foot white posts were planted, on both sides of the river, to mark the finish line. Since 1996, those white posts have an orange barber-shop stripe too.) Once through the line, keep paddling. This is a head race, and stopping at the finish makes officials angry. Keep your eyes about you, because others will stop ahead of you, not thinking.

Remember that the extreme right hand arches at the B.U. and Anderson Bridges are 60 second penalties, so stay out of them. Basically you want center arches all the way.

Copyright 1994-2001 by Geoffrey S. Knauth. Copy permission granted if this notice remains intact. “Head of the Charles®” is a registered trademark of Cambridge Boat Club.