When the Head of the Charles first threaded its way through Boston's beloved dirty water, Bobby Orr wasn't yet a Bruin, Larry Bird was 9 years old and the Patriots still hailed from Boston. It was 1965 and Harvard University sculling instructor Ernest Arlett thought it might be a neat idea to host a little head of the river race in town, modeled after those held in his native England. This weekend, 46 crisp falls later, Arlett's modest local race will draw more than 8,000 elite athletes and as many as 300,000 fans to the banks of the river Charles.
"It's going to be one of the most memorable Heads of the Charles in the last decade," said Frederick Schoch, the regatta's executive director. "Between the weather [forecasts call for highs of 60 and plenty of sun both Saturday and Sunday], the level of competition, and the sweat equity that went into planning it, we could be looking at a record-breaking turnout. We've got the Patriots on a bye week and the Red Sox are done for the year, so I wouldn't be surprised to see north of 300,000 fans over both days."
The 2011 race begins Saturday morning, with the boats going off near Boston University's DeWolfe Boathouse and slicing upstream for 3 miles before finishing at Herter Park on Soldiers Field Road in Brighton. The two-day event boasts 61 different race events, 1,953 boats and rowers of all levels -- from novices and top collegiate rowers to world-class club teams -- hailing from nearly 20 countries and ranging in age from 14 to 84.
Participants race not against each other, but against the clock. Each boat starts sequentially 15 seconds apart, and any penalties are added to the boat's final time upon finishing. Because of the timed starts, the best way to track a boat's progress during the race is to focus on its bow number, the large numeral positioned on the front of every boat. A boat that pulls ahead of one with a lower number has at that point rowed the course faster by about 10-15 seconds.
Schoch encourages casual fans to pick up a program at one of the vendor stands stationed along the river for an introduction to the ins and outs of the regatta.
"The first thing to do is buy a program and pay attention to the world-class rowing on display this weekend," Schoch said. "We have almost 20 countries represented here, with hundreds of elite athletes. So [casual fans] should look at the program and talk to someone well-versed in the sport and get the inside scoop. They should also just enjoy themselves. They should walk the banks of the river, one side and then the other, and they'll have a really special experience."
Schoch, who has served in his executive director role since 1991 and is a trophy-winning rower himself, said he prefers to watch the race from one of the seven bridges that straddle the Charles.
"Any of the bridges are very popular, because you can look down at the crews as they row under you," Schoch said. "The Eliot, the Anderson and the River Street bridges are all awesome places to watch from."
Schoch also recommends checking out the Rowing & Fitness Expo, located near the finish line at Herter Park, which will play host to various vendors offering products that promote a healthy lifestyle. Other retailers, including Brooks Brothers, one of the race's principal sponsors, will have shops set up along the riverbanks.
There will be plenty of action for die-hard rowing fans, too. Saturday kicks off with the Grand-Master Men's Singles (50+) race (8:00 a.m.), which pits returning champion Peter MacGowan, in Bow 1, against Bow 2's John Tracey, winner of the 2003 Men's Senior Master 1x. In the Master Women's Fours (2:07 p.m.), course record holder Minnesota Boat Club is back in Bow 1 and trying for their fifth straight win. Three New England schools -- WPI (Bow 1), Wesleyan University (Bow 2) and the University of Massachusetts (Bow 3) -- will vie for the Collegiate Men's Fours (3:15 p.m.) title, while Brunswick, Maine's Bowdoin College (Bow 10) will hope for an upset victory over last year's champ, Emory College, in Collegiate Women's Fours (3:27 p.m.).
On Sunday, the centerpiece races begin with Championship Men's Fours at 2:10 p.m. USRowing is the favorite in Bow 1, but they'll have their hands full with strong collegiate squads from the University of California (Bow 2), Stanford University (Bow 3) and Harvard (Bows 4 and 6). In Championship Women's Fours (2:40 p.m.), Brown University leads the field in Bow 1, with Riverside Boat Club (Bow 2) and New York Athletic Club (Bow 10) also in the hunt. University of Washington (Bow 1) will attempt to become the first back-to-back winners in Championship Men's Eights (2:31 p.m.) since Navy in 1982-83, but they'll have to contend with a talented Harvard crew in Bow 2. Finally, in Championship Women's Eights (2:46 p.m.), Princeton University (Bow 1) will look to retain its 2010 title, which was the first Women's Championship win by a college crew (rather than a national or international team) in 10 years.
Other highlights include the inaugural running of the Trunk/Arms Double (Sunday, 8:18 a.m.) in the adaptive racing division, and the relatively new Alumni Men's and Women's Eights (Saturday, 10:55 and 11:10 a.m.), which feature alumni crews from colleges across the country and have become, as Schoch said, "cutthroat events for bragging rights among the universities."
But ultimately, rowing fan or not, what this weekend's Head of the Charles really offers above all else, with its autumnal hues, festival atmosphere and brisk winds gusting off the water, is a quintessential New England experience.
"A combination of factors make it a special Boston event -- a treasure, if you will," Schoch said. "It's both a festival and a very serious competition. The competitors view it as something that's on their bucket list. Put it this way -- we turned away 1,000 entries this year. From a competitor point of view it's a challenging course in front of the largest audience, frankly, that any rower will compete in front of. The national championships and Olympics pale in comparison. And then there's the fact that the city really opens up and welcomes visitors. All in all, it's just a wonderful way to spend an afternoon in Boston."
Tom Lakin is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.