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How the remote Head of the Charles is making a splash by helping under-resourced youth rowers

The Head of the Charles Regatta will be held as a global remote event this year, and that’s bad news for 11,000 athletes and 225,000 spectators who, according to the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, would pour an estimated $88 million into the local economy.

As was the case with the Boston Marathon, few are questioning the decision to cancel because of the coronavirus pandemic but it doesn’t take much for the disappointment to bubble to the surface.

“It’s a heartbreaker,” says Matt Muffelman of the Riverside Boat Club. “It’s the Super Bowl, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day all rolled into one for rowers. A huge tailgate party that has some rowing going along with it.”

But organizers and rowers are all paddling in the same direction to make something good out of a bad situation.

The HOCR has partnered with The Gold Cup in Philadelphia to raise $100,000 to award grants to support rowing programs that serve under-resourced youth.

The money will come directly from entry fees for the HOCR 4702 to be held Oct. 9-16. The three-part event will allow rowers to race the 4,702-meter course distance on an ergometer or any body of water. It will be a celebration of rowing with entries coming from as far as Afghanistan and Peru. Times are irrelevant and everybody is on an honor system. No awards will be given. The hope is the funds raised will spawn a new generation of under-19-year-old scullers.

“We, the Head of the Charles and rowing specifically, have been a little bit behind in our efforts on diversity and inclusion,” says HOCR executive director Fred Schoch.

But that appears to be changing. Community Rowing Inc. has also made a commitment to diversity and social justice.

They are not alone.

At the Riverside Boat Club a “Black Lives Matter” banner faces the Charles River. Founded in 1869, they say inclusion is a top priority.

“At the end of the day, we have not done enough to be anti-racist in a sport that is often associated with racism and white privilege,” according to their website.

The Riverside is a good place to take the pulse of the rowing community.

Every year, on three weekends before the Head of the Charles, they run the “Head of the Kevin” — a practice regatta that follows the same 3-mile snake-shaped course as the largest two-day regatta in the world.

Last Sunday at 5:30 a.m., a masked RBC member Kevin McDonnell and staff held a team meeting lit by a cellphone flashlight on the banks of the Charles. Later he explains that the races were originally called the “Riverside Fall Head Piece Series” when McDonnell started them 21 years ago.

McDonnell says he was embarrassed when rowers jokingly renamed it after him and the name stuck.

“It’s bizarre,” he says. “I guess RFHPS doesn’t really roll off the tongue.”

This year, because of the coronavirus, there will be no team boats. Only single scullers are allowed, although an exception was made for a mother and daughter team and another duo that lives together.

Everyone here wears masks on the dock. A former Navy Seal makes sure boats are launched with military precision. Buckets of bleach are available for cleaning.

This year 98 scullers took part despite very strict COVID-19 precautions. Boats were dispatched at the starting line one at a time, 10-20 seconds apart. This regatta is definitely low key. Pigeons on the Boston University Bridge far outnumber spectators for the 7 a.m. start.

Afterward there is little celebrating, even though four records were set. The famous post-regatta breakfast party — including pie a la mode — is canceled and there is no loitering at the dock.

But rowers return raving about the beauty of the river and the respite from the mounting problems of the world.

McDonnell says he applauds the HOCR grants and Riverside’s pledge to host community events such as learn-to-row sessions for underrepresented communities.

"They’re trying to develop the sport and it’s super important,'' he says.

But McDonnell knows there will be challenges.

“You can’t just drop on your sneakers and go for a row. You have to have specialized equipment. It’s always going to be tricky, right? Most kids have a bike. Most kids don’t have a boat.”

Hannah Elder, a former UCLA rower and Riverside coach, believes change is coming.

“In a lot of ways [rowing] is inaccessible to a lot of people, which is why it’s great that they are doing grants from the Head of the Charles,'' Elder says. "It should have been done a long time ago.”

Mats Terwiesch, a Bates graduate, says that the public perception that rowing is a rich person Ivy League sport is “unfortunately grounded in truth. It’s up to us to be more welcoming.”

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