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Head of the Charles Regatta: After pandemic hiatus, rowers celebrate Boston return

Members of the Radcliffe women's heavyweight crew team train on the Charles River on Oct. 21 in Cambridge, in preparation for the Head of the Charles Regatta. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Members of the Radcliffe women's heavyweight crew team train on the Charles River on Oct. 21 in Cambridge, in preparation for the Head of the Charles Regatta. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The first day of racing at the Head of the Charles is in the books.

The world's largest rowing event is back in Boston and Cambridge this year after a pandemic hiatus.

That has the Charles River coming alive again with the sound of crews trying to win — or, at least, avoid crashing into the bridges that make the winding course so challenging.

Johanna Beyer's boat finished fifth, but she was hardly disappointed. The native of Austria has trained in Boston for years and is happy to see one of the city's marquee events return.

"It's great to be back, right? And seeing all the people come back in," Beyer said. "The atmosphere at Head of the Charles is always just great."

Friday morning marked the first official competition in a decade for Littleton resident Lisa Russell, a para-athlete who's been recovering from serious injuries after she was hit by a car.

"2018, I was on crutches walking the course, had to like, be careful of how far I walked to make sure I could make it back to the car," she said. "It's a wonderful moment to think about how time heals and hard work pays off."

Russell said she's happy with her second-place finish in the mixed para inclusion doubles competition.

Off the water, spectators will see some notable differences this year. Longtime sponsor Brooks Brothers went bankrupt and has been replaced by Vineyard Vines, for example. And because of pandemic travel restrictions, organizers say the regatta will have more American boats than usual.

Still, Head of the Charles executive director Fred Schoch said he's "over the moon" about the return.

"We did a virtual regatta last year that was very successful. But there's nothing like being in person and racing down the Charles," he said. "We're just thrilled to be pivoting and having a normal event again."

Schoch said all crews report being vaccinated, but it's not mandatory. All of the more than 1,800 volunteers on the other hand must be fully vaccinated.

Spectators won't face a gauntlet of COVID-19 precautions given that they're outdoors and can spread out along the river bank, Schoch said. Crews also travel in "pods" and stick to their respective boats, which helps rowers distance from one another.

This is the first year the Head of the Charles is sharing the month of October with that other signature local sporting event, the Boston Marathon. The two competitions are being held within days of each other after the pandemic forced the marathon to move from its traditional April start to the fall.

If you're planning to attend the regatta Saturday or Sunday, take note: Memorial Drive from the Cambridge Boat Club to Western Avenue will be closed. Spectators are strongly urged to use public transportation or ride-sharing to get to and from the event.

With reporting from WBUR's Paul Connearney and Dave Faneuf.

Related:

Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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Jack Mitchell Twitter Associate Producer
Jack Mitchell is an associate producer in WBUR's newsroom.

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