The Granddaddy Of Them All

Also published on October 14, 2014, in my column, “Row ’til You Die” at

The Head of the Charles Regatta (HOCR) is unquestionably the biggest race of the year for masters rowers, and it may be the biggest/greatest race for all rowers, if you don’t include trials, worlds, etc. Trials, worlds, and the Olympics are much more serious races – World and Olympic competition is as high as you can go in our sport. There is no professional rowing (thank God). It may be the last truly amateur sport left, as David Halberstam famously pointed out in The Amateurs – one of the best rowing books ever written. So yes, if you are an Olympic champion, that is a much bigger deal than being an HOCR champion.

What makes the HOCR (also known as “The Charles”) so great is that it combines so many elements of rowing into one. It features every competitive level, every boat configuration, and every possible age group. You literally can race ‘til you die in this regatta. It is the largest two-day regatta in the world, and, as such, it draws top competitors in every level of the sport from all corners of the earth. You see, even those Olympic champions I just mentioned want to race in this regatta, along side juniors, middle-aged people like me, and “Veterans” category rowers in their 70s, 80s and beyond.

But why? Why indeed. 50 years ago this year, the brain trust at Cambridge Boat Club came up with the idea of bringing an English-style “head” race – a three-mile (ish) time trial – to the Charles River. It immediately attracted attention and has turned into the Fall Festival of rowing. That’s putting it mildly. It is Christmas, New Year’s, and Mardi Gras all in one. It’s the Super Bowl of rowing.

What started small now offers up “over 9,000 male and female rowers, youth, collegiate, master and veteran age groupings, representing more than 500 clubs, colleges and universities worldwide” (source: But the thing is, they did something with this race that has never been done before. They turned it into a spectator sport. And friends, that is no small task. For non-rowers, rowing is decidedly not a spectator sport. It is hard core – the only people who are really into it are rowers, and we are still, compared to Nascar and football, a relatively small, obscure group. Okay fine, the historians among us will note that rowing was a huge spectator sport back in the late 1800’s. And that is true, because people were a) bored (there was no TV, Internet, movies…Hell, people went to lectures just to get out of the house); and b) betting money – a LOT of money – on the outcome. But that was a long time ago.

Let’s say you have a son or daughter who rows in high school or college. Your friends’ kids play on teams, in games, where you can sit comfortably for an hour or two and watch them play and compete, and it’s a game, with a score, and stuff happens that keeps your interest. But no, your bright young teen chose rowing. So you, being the good parent, dutifully attend their “regattas.” You drive for hours to some place in the middle of nowhere. There is endless preparation for your budding athlete, but for you, this means waiting – a lot of waiting. Finally the time comes for the race. You stand in the cold rain or drizzle…waiting. Then it happens! They row by! You scream “Go Billy go!!!” “Come on, Susie!! Pull that oar!! Move that boat!!” Or whatever you’re supposed to say. The whole thing is over in 30 seconds to a minute. You wait around for another hour or two, and then finally make the 3-hour drive home. This is the typical rowing spectator experience, and if you, the parent, are not or were not a rower, it’s just that much more…I hate to use the word boring (Tedious? Esoteric?). Okay boring works.

But at the Head of the Charles, they attract hundreds of thousands of people. Yes – you read that right – this year, they are expecting more than 300,000 to line the river over the course of the weekend. From 8:00 AM Saturday morning (when my race starts) through the end of the day Sunday, a boat will cross the starting line every ten seconds. There is constant activity. You don’t even need to worry about Billy and Susie because there’s a massive whirlwind of activity on the river all the time, all weekend long. You’re having wine and cheese, or a lot of beer, or a couple of stiff bloodys! You’re meeting new people! You’re meeting old friends! Who cares about Billy or Susie! And if you really want a good show, stand at the Eliot or Weeks bridges – the two tightest turns in the race, which also feature immovable bridge abutments – and watch boats getting tangled up together. Now this is fun! And on the banks, there’s food, vendors of every kind, music and lots of other crazy activity. People are drawn to this. I suspect that at least half of the 300,000 are non-rowers. They’re just coming to see what all the fuss is about. To enjoy being outside in the crisp fall New England air. Watching these weird boats with all these insane athletes huffing and puffing down the river. People seem to love it, and the HOCR geniuses managed to figure out how to make that happen. So for non-rowers, it’s kind of a big deal. I mean, there’s even media hype (WBZ TV is a sponsor this year).

But for rowers? It’s beyond a big deal. It is THE deal. People train all year for this race, and I count myself among them. And if I’m not actually training all year for it, I’m pretty much thinking about it all year long. The rowing calendar revolves around this race.

30 plus 20 equals 50

They say there’s no such thing as a coincidence, unless you’re a math geek who happens to be an atheist. Without getting into personal beliefs – I’m so not going there in this forum – I’ll just say that I believe that believing in something is good for the human soul. I missed last year due to injury and went away for the weekend, not being able to be here for the action (too depressing). So getting an entry this year is pretty magical for me. It’s my 30th year of rowing, and it will be my 20th appearance in the HOCR. Which, interestingly adds up to 50, and it just happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Head of the Charles. Coincidence? I think NOT.

So I have some history with this race, and I’m very fortunate to be able to say that. People come from all over the world at great expense and inconvenience to race in the Charles. I walk my boat down the ramp at Riverside Boat Club. It’s heaven. Still, like most masters rowers who tend to take the sport very seriously, I get pretty wigged about the regatta. I obsess about the weather, the competitors in my event, my bow number, etc. And mostly I obsess about the training. Have I done enough? Did I start early enough? The answer is always no. You can never do enough – there’s always something more you could or should have done. But on race day, when you’re paddling up to the chute and your

Racing at Green Mountain Head

Racing at Green Mountain Head

HOK 1 2014

Head of the Kevin


Textile Regatta – Lowell, MA

the wolf

The Wolf

stomach is an unholy mess of turmoil, none of that matters. Only the strokes you take from start to finish make the difference.

I don’t get quite as wound up about the Charles as I used to, which is one of the benefits of still being alive at my age (I’m 54, and my brother died at 53), not to mention having more years of HOCR race experience under my belt. I just don’t have the energy to get that wound up. I get as psyched as I am able, given my 54-year-old existence, which is still pretty psyched. I’ve had other experiences that put things into perspective. But man. Did I used to get wigged for this thing. I couldn’t even look at the list of competitors in my event without getting major butterflies. One year in my early 40s, about a week before race day, I was walking around the financial district in my dress-code suit & tie (I work in the financial industry). I was at the corner of Franklin and Federal streets on a gorgeous October day, and I started thinking about my race. I immediately got butterflies so bad that I came very close to throwing up, right there on Federal Street. That’s not keeping things in perspective. That’s just a tad nutty.

I also used to get my infamous “Week-before phantom injury.” A week before my race, something would snap and I’d be a physical and, to a much greater extent, psychological disaster. Holy Hell, my back is killing me. I have a tweaked upper lateroid in my inner scapula. Or some crazy thing. It would hurt all week and I’d get more and more flipped-the-hell-out over it each day. I’d be eating Advils like M&Ms. Then race day would come, I would have a decent race, and the injury would magically disappear. That’s also just a bit wack-job.

So this year, and for the past few years, I’ve somehow mellowed out about the race. Yes, I still train like a lunatic. Yes, I still wonder how much headwind there will be (I’m 6-1, 158 with legs like toothpicks. I hate headwinds). I still get mad at myself in the races leading up to the Charles for doing stupid things – like bad steering, which has plagued me this fall (and I still refuse to get a mirror!). I feel like I don’t have that optimal combination of power and conditioning that will result in…The Perfect Race.

But I feel pretty damn good. Sean Wolf, two-time U.S. National Teamer and my friend and training mentor, has taken up my cause this year. Actually I coaxed him with cash over some burritos at Rudy’s in Somerville in early August. After doing a few pieces together – I think he was bored – I said, hey, if you let me follow you around and do your workouts with you, I’ll give you some money! Sean said “Money? You’re on!” And that was that. So he has very graciously let me piece with him since early August, providing some excellent guidance along the way. And when I’m not close to throwing up after the pieces, it’s actually been fun. But the best part, not including having someone really good to train with, is just not having to think about it. This is what we’re doing today. Okay – got it. No thought. Just do it. Wake up and show up. And in addition, I’ve done a ton of racing this year – also part of Sean’s plan. Textile, Green Mountain, the Kevins…even some obscure 8k up in Hooksett New Hampshire. I have raced almost every weekend, and that has been awesome. It gets you into race mode. Each time you race, you learn something, and you get into the routine of racing. So when you’re on the starting line, you can think, “Yeah, I’ve done this…I can do this…” As opposed “Oh My God I’m going to FREAKIN’ DIE!!” I’ve certainly been there enough times.

So my practice times have been decent and my race results pretty good. I’m certainly not going to brag about it (a seasoned rower knows better than to brag anyway, lest he or she be forever damned by the Unforeseen Karmic Hand Of All That Is Good And Sportsmanlike). I actually feel pretty good going into Saturday.

But there’s still time – six days to be exact. Wait a sec – I think I feel an injury coming on… and the ten-day forecast is calling for a head wind. Crap – I feel a sore throat coming on. Holy @#$!, I have to race against Greg Benning and Peter McGowan!! My buddy David Gray didn’t get in this year. That is a real shame. For him. Tunnicliffe is always brutal. Trevor “The Flying Dutchman” has been crushing it the past few years… Is Crazy Bob Eldridge going to beat me again? He got me at Green Mountain and Textile. What about Bohrer and Cataldo? Wait – they’re doing a double! PHEW! Damn it all, I think I’m gonna lose my breakfast.

Whooooaaaa Nellie, Keith Jackson! It’s The Granddaddy Of Them All.

At Long Last – The Epic Rowing Road Trip Post Mortem

Also published on on August 19, 2014. Please check out my column “Row ’til You Die” on row2k. Thank you!


People say I’m chronically late. I kind of am. I’m usually late for pieces on Tuesdays and Saturdays – or just barely in time. I took a train to NYC a few weeks ago and they shut the door right after I got on. Maybe I was born late.

I promised this last article to Ed Hewitt in the weeks after my trip ended, but as life unfolded, things got in the way and it never got emailed. I did, however, write stuff down, and, reading it over, it’s fun to look back. I’m glad I did a final accounting – and even more glad I saved it. Besides, I promised Ed the article. A good rower never breaks his (or her) promise.

So here it is, sports fans: Some interesting tidbits from The Epic Rowing Road Trip. Which, if you by any chance purged it from your memory, took place from October 27 to December 8, 2012.

In no particular order, the highlights and factoids are as follows:

Number of states in which I was physically located: 26, or half the number in the Union. Not bad for six weeks. In order, they were:

On the way out, starting in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

On the way back, starting in Newport Beach, California: Nevada, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. (Then back home through New York and into Massachusetts, already counted.

Miles traveled: almost 11,000. And other than a headlight replacement and an oil change, the VW Passat Wagon required nothing but gas and lots of TLC.

Number of speeding tickets: “Only” four. New Mexico, California, and two (he says, shamefaced), on my LAST day – yes, two in one day – in New York State. They’re not too crazy about people speeding in the Empire state (those cops are mean). In California, on the other hand, they encourage it. At $600 a pop, it’s the one thing keeping that ill-budgeted, overspending state from going completely under

Items lost:

  • Left my beloved Tempurpedic pillow in the Quality Inn in Roanoke, Virginia on the second night of my trip. Never should have brought it with me.
  • I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco, but I left my slings at Johnny Cash’s lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Improvised for the rest of the trip. You don’t really need slings.
  • Closet full of clothes, left at the Cobblestone Inn in Carmel, California. They graciously mailed them back to me (waiting on my porch in Cambridge when I returned). I should have figured out this strategy earlier – a good way to lighten my load.
  • Nuts holding down the right-rear U-bolt on my Van Dusen car rack – loosened and jiggled off, somewhere in The Great Plains on the way home. Drove another 1,500 miles or so with only three U-bolts. Never even noticed, and the boat held steady.

Things I never used:

Ten paperback novels. Never touched them. Many evenings, I would read a few pages of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Heart of the Buddah’s Teaching” before crashing. Also brought Tim Riley’s biography of John Lennon – half read – which I didn’t open, but having Lennon looking at me during the entire trip somehow gave me comfort. Also never used the $30 Walmart tent I bought inphoto2 San Antonio. Nice tent though. Gave it to my son for Christmas.

Things I’m really glad I brought:

  • Cereal bowl, silverware, butane stove, saucepan for boiling water, 2 lbs of Peet’s coffee (ground for French press) and, most of all, the French press. I could, and did, make a cup of gourmet coffee in the middle of nowhere many a time.
  • Butane stove, on which to boil water for coffee.
  • I could, and did, keep milk and cream cold for days and days. I could, and did, have my obligatory bowl of cereal any time I wanted, anywhere I wanted.
  • Dansk sugar bowl and teaspoon – kept in large Ziplock bag. For the obligatory bowl of cereal.

Number of times slept in car: Three. Northern Virginia campground (never make a fire before bed – everything smells like smoke for days); truck stop, 30 miles east of Houston; Morro Bay campground. Morro Bay was by far the best. It was like waking up in heaven.

State with the nicest people: So many. People are nice everywhere you go, as long as you’re nice to them.

State where random people were mean for no particular reason: Texas.

State with the stupidest people, based on drivers and random people encountered: Iowa – no question. But then again, I was in a hurry and in a bad mood.

State with the best drivers: California – Southern. Hands down. They drive fast (so do I), but they know what they’re doing.

State with the worst drivers: Iowa. No question. Illinois truckers a close second.

Bane of my existence on the road: Truckers. God how I hated them. I’m convinced that they are bored and like to mess with you. A line of 4-6 trucks are moving along in the right-hand lane. As you approach, the one farthest back moves over to pass the rest of them, and takes forever doing so. He sees you coming, and he waits until you get there before moving over to pass. Then you watch as your $10,000 carbon-fiber boat gets whipped (“bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap…!!!!!”) from side to side as a result of the crazy wind from being behind the truck at 80 mph (er, I mean 65). Yes, people, this happened dozens and dozens of times. Over, and over and over. How I hate truckers. And my boat survived. Van Dusen makes a great single scull.

photo5Comments about boat on car: Way too many to count. Every stop, every fill-up, almost every person in sight. “Wow. What is that thing? Is that a boat? I told my wife it was a boat. Tell me something, how do you keep from tipping over in that thing? Wow that is one long canoe. Is that a kayak? It looks like a kayak. Kinda long though.”

Best comment about the boat: Driving through New Mexico, just after dusk, near El Paso, U.S. Border Patrol had a routine road block – stopping every car on the highway, drug-sniffing dogs, cops, guns, the whole thing. Big deal. When I got up there, the two armed, uniformed guards looked at me, the boat, the car with Massachusetts plates – the whole package. One of them cracks a half smile and says, “You’re gonna poke someone’s eye out with that thing!” The other one, half smiling, says, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” I said yes. “Go on…” He smiled. “Get outta here.”

photo3Best rows: too many to count. So many highlights: Nashville, Sarasota, canal in New Orleans (complete with alligators), Austin, Newport Beach, Morro Bay, San Francisco Bay.

Scariest row: Lake Kaweah outside of Vasalia, California. Storm moving in. Lots of rocks. Big waves and strong, gusty wind. Scary. The alligators were a close second, but I wasn’t really scared until I gave it some thought later that night.

Coolest human encounters: Again, too many to count. But meeting and hanging out (however briefly) with two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Susan Francia, who let me take several selfies with her, was pretty damn cool. Another top contender was Tulane Coach Bob Jaugstetter, who, upon insisting that he take me to dinner AND show me around the French Quarter after already being so gracious about letting me store my boat and row out of his facilities, said, “You don’t understand – this is New Orleans. THIS IS WHAT WE DO.”

Races: This wasn’t a racing trip, and it certainly wasn’t a training trip, but it was somehow fitting that the first thing I did on the journey was to race at the Head of the Schuykill in Philly, and the last thing I did was to race at the Christmas Regatta in Long Beach. I highly recommend both.

photo4Worst part of the trip: Coming home. After the wonderful “Heroes Welcome” I got at my beloved boat club (Riverside) wore off, I realized that I was still unemployed, still broken up with my girlfriend, and that I could no longer live the dream of driving around the country with a single scull on my car saying to random strangers, “Hey, can I put in here?”


2014 – A Comeback Year … Again??

Also published on September 25, 2014, in my column, “Row ’til You Die”  at

So this is kind of a comeback year for me, after a shoulder injury sidelined me in 2013. But wait a second – it seems like déjà vu all over again (thank you Yogi Berra). I’m ALWAYS having a comeback year, or I’m always in the midst of recovering from some kind of injury or other. Welcome to masters rowing. The Geezer Group. You’re not as old as you feel – actually, you ARE as old as you feel. The older you get, the faster you were. Never show up to a regatta without being fully armed with an arsenal of excuses. Ratings caps during pieces? To hell with that. If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.

I once said to my dad upon greeting him, “You look great!” He said, “Son, there are three stages of life. Youth, Middle Age, and “You Look Great!” You actually DO get to the point of feeling like, “It’s just nice being out here.” Even if you are competitive as all get-out, like some people I know (who me?). To quote Keith Richards, quoting George Burns, “It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere.”

I don’t understand people who don’t get injured. Sean Wolf, my friend and fellow Riverside club member, never gets injured. I don’t know of anyone – anyone – who has trained with the intensity and consistency that he does, all year ‘round, and does not get injured, and I’ve known him for 14 years. Now there are those at other clubs – Benning, Bohrer, Cone, etc. (you guys know who you are) – who are in the same league in terms of always having it, year in and year out, but I don’t know their history as well. But The Wolf is a mystery. These guys (and gals – Hello CB, Linda Muri, Ellen Kennelly…!) have something going on that I sure as hell don’t have. I know that things happen to Magnificent Masters such as these, but you’d never know it by the way they row. It’s awe-inspiring.

*          *          *          *          *

The season usually starts out innocently enough. After barely doing any winter training, I get on the water some time in late March (or mid-April last year, thanks to The Winter From Hell). It’s cold and I’m rusty. But I’m all excited to be on the water, and I feel my competitive juices coursing through my veins. I do something stupid – like too much pressure in a strong headwind – and KABAM. Something goes. Hamstring, back, intercostal, knee, toothache…something happens that isn’t quite right. And it’s early in the season, so you don’t want to mess with it. You take it easy. Then by the end of June you realize you only have about 100 miles. You’ve taken it a little too easy. So you have to play catch-up, thereby risking yet another injury. It’s pretty much the typical story of a typical season for me.

Then there are the atypical seasons. Last year was one. During one of the massive blizzards in Boston in January of 2013, I was out shoveling snow, and there was a LOT of it. I live in the city, so you have to do your driveway, your car, the sidewalk, and then keep doing all of the cement-like sludge in front of your driveway that the plows keep filling in right after you just finished (and they always seem so happy about it – that’s what gets me). I was acting a bit too macho (i.e., stupid) and was trying to turn it into a “workout.” So I’m shoveling like a madman, getting all sweaty and feeling all manly. And afterwards, my shoulder hurt, in a way that was definitely out of the ordinary. For the next several week and months, it kept hurting and became less and less mobile. Of course, I didn’t go see a doctor, because that would mean admitting something was wrong, and the rowing season would be starting soon. So I get out there on the water, and it hurts. Not good. Sigh…I didn’t even have the chance to do anything stupid during a rowing workout! My stupidity preceded the season! So I try and take it easy, reducing my rowing, and just doing steady state when I did row. It only got worse. I finally had a doctor (a very good one, thanks to a reference from Kane Larin at Community Rowing) – Matt Provencher at Mass General. Not only an orthopedic surgeon, but the Chief of Sports Medicine at MGH and Medical Director of the New England Patriots. Hey, if he can’t fix me, no one can! The diagnosis was “frozen shoulder,” which pretty much is what it sounds like. It only takes a few years or so to heal – no big deal. So that kind of put the kibosh on the rest of the season, and I went my first season in 28 years (it would have been my 29th) without racing. Sigh. But I did PT, stayed off it, and lo & behold, I’m back.

I could bore you with my other injury stories – a nasty two-year bout with plantar fasciitis in my right foot in 2006 (I like to call it plantar fascist, the Third Reich of foot problems); the hamstring injury that kept me out of NSR in 2002 (and the rest of the season); all the things that got in the way of Major Glory!!! But that might put you to sleep. Hey! Wake up!! Oh yeah. That’s the other thing about injuries – you feel compelled to talk about them with anyone who will listen. You approach your friends and start talking about it, and they all move away slowly. “Um, I just remembered I have an enema scheduled…gotta go!”

So I will spare you the rest. This year I am fairly injury free. But wait, I am kind of feeling some of that plantar stuff going on in my left foot…my hamstrings are kind of tight…my back doesn’t feel quite right… Yeah, it sucks getting old. But it’s better than the alternative!