Head of the Charles | A Young Coxswain’s Dramatic First Race
* * *
“Bromfield, please paddle.”
The amplified voice of the regatta official floated across the Charles River basin.
Emily Erdos felt her heart jump in her chest but kept her words calm and even. “Paddle on two. One, two,” she said into the headset. She could feel the girls move forward on their slides, drop their blades into the water and pull them forward. Easy, easy. They didn’t want to close the 10-second starting gap between them and the boat ahead of them, not yet.
Tucked as she was into the tapered bow of the 40-foot rowing shell, only her head and shoulders poking out above the gunwales, she had a waterline view of the start just ahead, in line with the Boston University boathouse. Beyond it loomed the first two of seven bridges along the three-mile course. Most of all, she could see, falling into line ahead of them, the boats she hoped to pass.
It was Emily’s first Head of the Charles. A high-school sophomore from the town of Harvard, 20 miles west of the university, she was nonetheless no novice. She had already raced three spring seasons with the Bromfield Acton-Boxborough crew, a program that drew from two local high schools, under the direction of former Olympic coxswain and coach Holly Hatton. But she had never tested herself on a world-class course like the one now in front of her.
She and her four Bromfield Acton-Boxborough teammates funneled into the starting chute in the broad basin, where the Boston skyline glittered in the Sunday morning sun. Their race, the youth women’s four, was scheduled to start at 10:52. The exactness of the start reflected the regatta’s tight tolerances, if race officials were to fit 55 events into two late-fall days and leave any margin for safety. Entries for the youth fours and youth eights races had been capped at 85 boats each, the largest fields of the weekend — and the regatta organizers could have filled each of those races a second time over with entries they’d rejected.
For Emily, as for Holly Hatton four decades earlier, coxing was a perfect fit of physique and personality. In seventh grade, after going out in a shell at an open house for the rowing program, Emily had told her parents that she wanted to be the little person who got to drive the boat and yell at everybody. Like her coach, she’d wasted no time in dreaming big. “I want to be a Mary Whipple,” she said. Mary Whipple, three-time U.S. Olympic coxswain who had won her second straight gold medal in London two months earlier.
As a freshman, she started keeping track of each practice in a small pink notebook, writing down the line-ups of her boats and quick summaries of the workouts. Off the water each evening, she jotted down lists: three things the rowers could do to improve, three things she could do to improve, and two things she thought she’d done well. She reviewed her practice tapes and developed checklists for those, too, in such categories as communication, enunciation, and the speed of her delivery. She consulted a thesaurus for new ways to ask her rowers for power. She liked explode.
The spring of Emily’s freshman year, Hatton brought her up from the novices to cox the girls’ third varsity eight. Some older rowers questioned whether the ninth grader belonged. After every race that spring, Emily asked her rowers for written, anonymous feedback. Her parents tried to talk her out of it — teenage girls, unfettered opinion — but Emily insisted. That season, Pamela and David Erdos comforted their daughter more than once, but they also noticed a new toughness in her, and a deeper level of persistence.
Even after spending five days over the summer at a coxswains’ camp, Emily didn’t expect to race at the Head of the Charles as a sophomore. But Hatton threw seniority overboard. Two weeks before the regatta, she sent Emily a short note: “You’re in.”
In the girls’ four, she would be coxing Bromfield’s strongest entry.
From then until race day she would study for the Head of the Charles as if it were a “big final exam,” spending an hour every night reading through online articles, listening to race audio from other coxswains, memorizing the reference points on shore that would help her set a tight course — like the Eliot House steeple and a prominent shade tree known to coxes as “the turning tree” at the Weeks Footbridge that could help her shave 20 seconds off her crew’s time — and visualizing the race. In her mind, she steered her boat again and again through the twisted, bridge-pinched Charles.
Hatton told her to visualize a perfect course: “Never think about messing up,” she told her young coxswain. “Visualizing a mistake just makes you more likely to do it.”
* * *
“Bromfield, number 21, you’re on the course.”
This is it! she thought. I’m at the Head of the Charles. Emily registered cheers from the dock of the B.U. boathouse, but already was locking in on the race.
In the bow-loaded boat, facing away from her rowers, she could sense their power, match lit, wanting to explode. Directly behind her sat her bow pair, Sylvia Sarnik and Molly Hart, both strong, both quiet. Emily had warned them that she might call on their help during the race to get other coxswains to move over. “I need you to be loud,” she said, “and aggressive.”
Emily’s message to her stroke was to be less aggressive. Caroline Hart, Molly’s older sister, had made the junior national team over the summer, along with fellow senior Olivia MacLean. Caroline and Livvi, best friends, had rowed together all through high school, paired in strength and intensity. Livvi was the bigger of the two, nearly six feet tall and broad-shouldered, but Caroline’s ferocity at stroke drove the boat; Caroline would try to win the race all by herself. It was Emily’s job to keep her calm and working with the others.
Caroline and Livvi, already being groomed for the next rung up on a development ladder that led, for some, all the way to the Olympics, were likely to row together in college, as well. Over the past week they’d each received a conditional acceptance from Yale. Pam and David Erdos thought that one reason their daughter had prepared so diligently was to prove to the older girls that she belonged in their boat.
Emily had written the bow numbers and names of the 15 boats directly ahead of them with fine Sharpie pen, and taped them in two lists to the console on the bow: the left-hand list ended at bow 13, the Winsor School boat stroked by Abigail Parker, daughter of Harvard coach Harry Parker and Kathy Keeler, one of Hatton’s Olympic teammates. Noticing the lists earlier that morning, Hatton had cautioned the girls that it was hard for any crew to win from 20 places back. She reminded them that in a head race, in which boats race against time, the more boats a crew has to pass, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong.
Bromfield surged off the starting line and dug into 20 strokes of full pressure, and Emily felt the boat take off. Through the B.U. Bridge, they flew through bow 20 and began moving on bow 19, Camp Randall, from Madison, Wisconsin. Emily had learned to feel what she couldn’t see, and she could sense Caroline’s power driving them forward, Livvi matching her, Molly and Sylvia staying with the engines. In a long straight section by Riverside Boat Club called the “powerhouse stretch” for the power plant stacks rising above the river, they closed the gap on Camp Randall. Emily yelled to the crew’s coxswain to give way. No response. Quiet Sylvia yelled, “Move!” and the rival cox moved aside to let them pass. Emily smiled briefly. The boat was exploding; this was becoming the race she’d visualized.
Through the River Street Bridge and the Western Ave. Bridge, and Emily picked up the blue-domed steeple of Harvard’s Eliot House and drew her line. In the tight 50-stroke space between Western and Weeks, she counted two boats, one already on the buoys. Bow 18, next on her list, belonged to Northfield-Mount Hermon, a prep school from western Massachusetts. The Bromfield four ate up the water, gaining steadily on both boats. Just ahead, the river turned sharply into the tight arches of the Weeks Bridge. Emily was losing the steeple to the horizon, so shifted to the “turning tree” to draw her new line. She made a quick calculation, a decision. A gamble. Through the microphone she said, “We’re going to keep competitive here.”
She touched the rudder slightly. The boat sloughed off the inside line she’d been holding and drifted toward starboard, buying the extra space they would need to move on bow 18 but costing a sharper turn coming into Weeks. Emily called out, “Give me ten to pass this boat!” channeling urgency into her voice. She knew without seeing it that Caroline’s face had narrowed. She felt an answering surge of power.
The Head of the Charles is known as a coxswain’s race. The river is a serpent, banded by bridges, its treacherous curves making the course quite possibly the most demanding in North America. As much as the rowers, a coxswain could win the race — or lose it.
On Friday, at a special pre-race workshop that Emily had skipped school to attend, Yasmin Farooq, two-time Olympian, warned the coxswains about the river’s two crux moves: a 90-degree turn at Weeks Footbridge, and an even steeper, 120-degree bend heading into Eliot Bridge. Every year, she told them, those two bridges were the scenes of multiple collisions and errors. She showed video footage of one boat going too wide at the Weeks turn and running aground: “These guys are going to check out Harvard Square,” she said. “You don’t want to do that.”
Farooq advised caution when trying to pass other boats at bridges. “Your goal is to get through all seven bridges by yourself,” she said. “Falling back for five strokes may save you time in the end. If you go through with another boat, some of your fate is out of your hands.”
After Farooq, head referee John Lambert stood up and explained the gentlemen’s code of sportsmanship and safety the race organizers had written into their rules and penalties. The worst thing a crew could do, he told the coxswains, was to overturn that spirit of sportsmanship by refusing to yield to a faster boat.
But it was also true that if you were coming from back in the pack, a certain scrappy fighting spirit was useful.
“We have two seat!” Emily barked. “We’re by them!”
She turned her focus to the Weeks turn, consciously holding off as long as possible to get the best angle through the arches. She briefly thought ahead to the next bridge, Anderson, on the far side of Weld Boathouse, eager to get back to the ideal line she’d visualized. “It’s go time, starboards,” she commanded. “Ports, ease off.” She felt the boat pivot, sensed the shoreline moving past, the salmon hue of Weeks coming into view.
Another boat intruded on her vision, interrupted their forward movement. She barely had time to recognize it as the boat they’d just passed. And then they were tangled, her port side’s oars trying to find a way back into the water.
Hatton had biked to Weld boathouse and was watching the race from the dock. She saw the attempted pass, the two boats drawing together as if by magnetic force. She checked her watch. One thousand one, one thousand two. Seconds ticked away. The Camp Randall boat slipped past the two tangled fours.
Listening to Emily’s audio of the race, later, Hatton would hear a second of silence, then Emily’s voice, telling the ports to pull in their oars. It would be so quiet that she could hear the ports comply with Emily’s command, the squeak of their oars in the oarlocks.
Emily heard the other cox say, “Keep rowing.”
“No!” Emily called out. “We need to push off from each other.”
Speaking to the crews in both boats using her most authoritative voice, she said, “Push off in two. One, two.”
The boats slid apart, the spell broke. Turning back to her team, speaking only to them, she said, “Let’s get out of here.”
On the Weld dock, Hatton checked her watch again. The Bromfield Acton-Boxborough four had been stopped for at least 25 seconds, probably closer to 30. Dead in the water.
In Emily’s quick calculation, she’d decided to forego the turn she’d imagined so many times — tight, clean, port oars just clearing the bridge arch — but she hadn’t accounted for her boat’s wider arc and reduced power into the turn. Assuming that the other boat would turn as she needed it to turn, Emily had put her boat’s fate in their hands.
With more experience, Emily might have let the Northfield-Mount Hermon boat go through ahead of her, trading off the chance to pass for the reduced risk of a collision. Hatton understood that Emily hadn’t recognized the riskiness of her move — but also that she was being aggressive, trying to win. And she’d recovered like a pro. Her coach couldn’t ask for more.
It was nearly impossible to make up so much lost time.
But they were going to try.
Caroline burst forward, her oar biting water with hunger, anger, precision. The others followed. Each ferocious stroke seemed to say We. Will. Not. Be. Denied. Emily checked her stroke watch: 38 strokes per minute. A final sprint pace, too fast to sustain. She waited five, ten strokes, understanding their need, then called the rate down. The boat rocketed forward.
Emily locked back onto the perfect line she’d imagined so many times over the past weeks. At Anderson Bridge, they came up on Camp Randall once again. She called for the cox to yield, her voice echoing under the arch. The Wisconsin boat held its line, even when Sylvia once again yelled for the other boat to move, the effort telling in her voice. Molly, normally so sweet-tempered, boomed in a deep voice from the two-seat, “Move over!” The other boat’s port side stopped rowing momentarily, and Bromfield was past.
David Erdos saw the boat emerging from under the Anderson Bridge, sun glancing off the blue hull and blue blades, Emily’s face shaded by a white visor. He stood at the river’s edge, near the bridge’s footings. He caught a glimpse of Emily’s face. It was the most focused and intense he’d ever seen. It unnerved him.
Emily had regained her tight course, but she had no idea what was now possible, only that she had to make it up to her rowers. The one thing she could do was to steer a perfect line to the end.
Emily cut to the inside of the big turn heading into Cambridge Boat Club and the Eliot Bridge, narrowly avoiding clashing oars with bow 16. She kept her hull tight against the orange buoy line, feeling a flicker of fear that the boat would cross to the wrong side of the line and earn them a 10-second penalty. But they drove tight around the turn, while boats 14 and 15, taking wider turns, fell further away. She could feel her rowers respond as she called out each boat they left behind, and allowed herself to think again, <i>Wow. The Head of the Charles. </i>
The day before, Holly Hatton, coxing 1980 Olympic teammates in a senior-masters race, had taken a nearly identical line around the challenging curve. As if connecting the two expert maneuvers, announcers at Cambridge Boat Club shouted, “That’s Bromfield, taking a fantastic course, coached by former Olympic coxswain Holly Hatton.”
Emily caught the diagonal through the bridge that she had visualized in her bedroom back home, the line that could shave another 10 seconds off their time. She said to the girls, “This is it. This is where we make up seconds.” Caroline took up the stroke rate, moving faster through the water, as Emily knew she would, sprinting to the end. “We are hauling!” she cried out, the finish buoys in sight, a wave of joy washing over her.
Then they were across. The girls stopped pulling, chests heaving, drawing rasping breaths, their oxygen-starved legs and arms finally able to give in to the demand for relief.
Emily looked over at the shore and saw their coach. Holly Hatton had biked along the Cambridge side of the river to follow them upriver from Weld.
They slowed as they paddled around the bend, past Northeastern’s boathouse, on their way to the Harry Parker boathouse at Community Rowing, where they would load their boat on a trailer. Livvi pulled her cell phone out of a plastic bag and checked the results. She shouted, “We won!”
In spite of being stopped at Weeks for half a minute. In spite of starting back in the pack. In spite of everything, they’d made the fastest time in their race: 19 minutes, 21 seconds, plus just over half a second more — or, as captured by the regatta’s official timers, 637 thousandths of one second.
Emily’s sense of the boat’s speed had been correct. The raw numbers between timing stations confirmed it. The Bromfield boat had covered the distance from the start to Riverside Boat Club and again from Eliot Bridge to the finish line faster than any of the 84 other crews.
Their jubilation did not last. A few minutes later, Livvi called out again, “Guys… We got a penalty. Severe collision.”
An umpire had seen at least one Northfield-Mount Hermon rower hit by a Bromfield Acton-Boxborough oar, and invoked Rule 10.6, “the Passer shall not press the right to overtake to the point of severe collision,” an infraction that included the blades from one boat striking rowers in another.
Bromfield, bow 21, had not completed its pass of bow 18. More important, no matter how well Emily’s rowers had handled the collision, making contact — whether an oar merely brushed past a rower’s hands or slammed bruisingly against back or ribs — violated the regatta’s code of conduct.
Preparing an appeal for referees at regatta headquarters, Hatton had the girls go over the collision in careful detail. Emily admitted that she hadn’t seen the other boat’s oars, so couldn’t say exactly where the Northfield-Mount Hermon boat was in relation to the Bromfield boat at the turn. Hatton told her bluntly, “It’s not the other coxswain’s fault if you couldn’t see their oars. It’s yours. You cut too close.” Emily burst into tears. The appeal, as Hatton expected, was denied.
The final results in the youth women’s fours were posted: Marina Aquatic Center, a California boat, won in 19:24.658. Winsor took the medal for third place. Camp Randall, the boat they’d passed twice, was 17. Bromfield Acton-Boxborough, with a one-minute penalty for the collision, finished 19. That only one minute separated first place from 19th place, an indication of the extraordinary depth in the youth four race, and in girls’ rowing in general, did not comfort Emily.
She felt that she’d let her rowers down, her team and coach down. She went into school late the next day. “Intense and intimidating” Livvi had left a cupcake for her at her locker.
* * *
For 36 hours after the finish of the girls four race, Emily was done with coxing.
In another half a day, she wanted to do it even more than she had before.
In early November, at the banquet for the Bromfield Acton-Boxborough crew, Emily could still feel the crushing sense of failure. But she also told people that she’d learned more by not winning, and meant it. She had to wait two months before she could sign up for Mary Whipple’s summer camp. Six months later, following an undefeated spring season, she would cox the same four that had rowed together on the Charles to a national youth championship. She’d be invited to the U.S. Rowing selection camp — where she’d be the youngest athlete training with the junior national team.
Holly Hatton called Emily and her teammates to the front of the room.
Hatton had picked out five first-place medallions from her personal collection of Head of the Charles medals. She knew that official results didn’t always tell the whole story. Emily bent her head while her coach placed a medal around her neck. Hatton had engraved the date of their race on the back, and one phrase: “Fastest Boat on the River.”