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Winning From Last Place


It was the only way for the weather gods to reward us Texans for practicing so long and so hard during the hottest summer in recent memory.

I spent the first day of the 2009 Head of the Charles Regatta as a volunteer, motoring around in the Basin, marshaling boats, watching all my friends in the Austin Rowing Club eights, plus our club men's single and the two ARC championship doubles start their races. By the end of the day I was frozen and my muscles were stiff. My host in Cambridge cruelly relished reading Sunday's forecast aloud after dinner--"wind driven rain, high of 43 degrees and decreasing temperatures throughout the day, wind gusts to 30MPH." A referee friend from New York pulled me aside and said if it were his race on Sunday, he would be staying home, but with a tone of pity and sarcasm he said someone who came all the way from Texas should probably tough it out. I ate dessert and crashed into bed.


I woke up Sunday to the sound of rain and wind on the windows. I found no sympathy in talking to a sailing friend who was excited about the wind forecast for the day--weather that is good for sailing is terrible for rowing. After a hot shower I put on every stitch of clothing and marched off to the venue.

Arriving at the trailer it seemed hard to believe that a regatta was still in progress, yet everyone knew this was not a normal regatta. Every personal threshold for suffering was raised, and nobody wanted to surrender a racing opportunity. The scene was the usual mayhem of people loading boats, people in various states of undress in broad daylight, people yelling, people shivering to death after a row--no shortage of entertainment. I calmly prepared my equipment while the rain progressed to bigger drops coming down harder and harder. I thought of the referees and other volunteers who were stuck on the water and realized that their constitution, and not that of the rowers, would decide if the regatta was canceled or not.

At 11:30 I found help bringing down my single. Standing in the launch area in mud, cold rain and impatient rowers, I snapped at a dock volunteer and immediately regretted it. The weather had become bad enough to advance to the comically bad stage--such that one couldn't help but laugh at the audacity of what we were doing out there in those conditions.

The three mile warmup row to the start helped loosen things up. I watched a fellow single sculler struggle with a rain jacket, almost flip his single, and then give up on the jacket and resign himself to getting soaking wet. Eights races in progress cast pulsing wakes from the race lane into the warmup lane, and the occasional unanticipated light gust of wind caught my oars. Thankfully the water was calm. It didn't seem so bad after all.

I rounded the turn in front of Magazine Beach and started to heard towards BU bridge when out of nowhere I was slammed by a cold wind and chop. The wind caught my bow number card like a sail and began to turn the boat, and waves started to wash into the cockpit. Suddenly, three inches of water were sloshing around in the bottom of the hull. I realized I had arrived at BU Bridge.


Over my shoulder I looked at the bridge which marked the entrance to the Basin, a large open marshaling area with sailboats, sails like shark dorsal fins, plying the waters at its extremity, mocking our fragile rowing craft. I witnessed other single scullers struggling through the wind in the bridge, trying to get into the basin to queue for the start. I saw white caps and waves with spray flying off of them. A fog of rain and spray blurred the horizon. Finding my point, I worked my own way through the bridge. With inertia the conditions were manageable, but when sitting still the waves and wind would toss my boat around. I was the lightest guy in my race by at least 20 pounds, and the lack of mass meant the waves and wind were going to have their way with me. As I rowed through the bridge, I reminded myself that I was there voluntarily and that none of these adverse factors came as a surprise to me. "I signed up for this!"

Once in the basin, the wind and rain were such that I could not hear any instructions from the marshals, so I just rowed carefully over to the other rowers who were queueing in numerical order for our race. This was probably the most perilous moment of my rowing career--at this Really Important Regatta, maneuvering my shell in wind and two foot waves rising parallel to my boat, sloshing water into the cockpit and snagging my oars as I tried to keep the shell set. I resolved to not be the guy who capsizes in the basin this year, but I had about ten visits to the "point of no return" (anyone who has capsized will know what that is) and managed to keep everything upright. Thankfully this was not my first Head of the Charles and I finally got in line for my race. They started us almost immediately and I barely had time to pull off my jacket.


Once out of the basin, the distractions went away and preparation took over. My stroke ratings hovered around 28 for the body of the race but by the time I reached Eliot bridge I was overwhelmed by the collective effort of staying warm and racing--and my splits suffered. I got railroaded wide by passing boats on all the turns one must take on the buoy lines, and a sculler from Undine collided with me, grunting madly when I chopped his bow ball with my port oar. I heard friends cheering for me--it was all worth it just to hear them calling out to me.


I came in last. I'm not unhappy about it, though. I think I proved on Sunday that in such challenging conditions, even if you come in last you've still won somehow.

My friends helped me with my boat and ushered me to the big vendor tent to help stop the uncontrollable shivering. I enjoyed the awe of many of my Austin rowing peers who understood what it was I just went through--and I gave what encouragement I could between chattering teeth to the Austin RC women's four and the two men's quads who were launching as I arrived at the trailer.

A feeling I will never forget is the memory of standing in the parking lot, screened from onlookers by a circle of friends, changing clothes among the trailers, naked from the waist down, bare feet covered in nearly frozen mud, rain stinging my eyes, and knowing the experience was over. I was glad to be there, suffering with everyone else. We're all going to have good war stories from this one.

kourt.dehaas.com writings