George Ernest Arlett | Father of the Head of the Charles
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
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Legend has it that George Ernest Arlett, “the father of the Head of the Charles,” was born in an oar box on the working side of England’s storied rowing river town, Henley-on-Thames. He grew up in the early 20th century in a “boatman” family that ran a livery. A skilled professional sculler, “Ernie” Arlett was hired at age 17 by one of the private boat clubs on the Thames as its boathouse supervisor. Private clubs maintained England’s rigid class barriers, allowing as members only “gentlemen” who didn’t have to work for their incomes. Arlett could repair their sleek rowing shells but never row with them.
Arlett discovered a talent for coaching but was boxed in by England’s class system. He looked across the Atlantic for wider opportunities. In 1962, the same year in which Harvard hired a young assistant coach named Harry Parker, the university also hired 49-year-old Arlett—as boatman. Arlett’s real chance arrived two years later, when Boston’s “factory school,” Northeastern University, hired him to build a rowing program. Arlett’s fledgling crew won all but one race that first season, earning an invitation to the Henley Regatta back on his home river. Arlett’s former employers invited the Northeastern rowers into their gentlemen’s club—but insisted that their coach enter, as before, through the rear door.
Early in Arlett’s tenure at Northeastern, D’Arcy MacMahon, Howard McIntyre, and Jack Vincent of the Cambridge Boat Club approached the balding, bandy-legged Brit for advice on starting a new regatta. Arlett called on centuries of tradition and suggested a “head race”—common on England’s winding, narrow-banked rivers—to be held in the fall, giving his boys more chances to get on the water. The club members were skeptical. No one had ever held such a race in the United States before, or staged one so close to the time when the water turned cold.
Eventually, though, they warmed to the idea—and the private-club gentlemen and the immigrant boatman created a new breed of regatta. Its British format would be open to all, not limited by invitation or qualifiers, and certainly not by pedigree. Its Henley bloodlines would be unmistakable. But the regatta would be marked by a hybrid vigor.
The Head of the Charles débuted on October 16, 1965, with 237 rowers. In time, it would become the crowning event of a nationwide fall head-racing season. And it would take on an increasingly American expression: a democratic expansion of younger and older and differently-abled racing categories, corporate sponsorship, and an organization led by thousands of volunteers. Arlett had imagined the race as “a humble regatta.” Even as the Head of the Charles has become the largest regatta in the world, that vision—along with the spirit that animated it—remains true.
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