The Bowdoin crew team stroked their way to the top at this past weekend’s Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, with the men’s first varsity boat placing fourth out of 41 boats in the men’s collegiate 4+ event and the women’s first varsity boat coming in 13th in the women’s college 4+ out of a field of 36 crews.
The men’s fourth place finish was the second-best finish at the regatta in the men’s program’s history, second only to a third-place finish in 2014. This year’s crew finished the 5k race in a time of 16 minutes and 34.6 seconds, more than two minutes faster than the 2014 crew’s time of 18 minutes and 59.7 seconds.
Bowdoin entered a historically high eight boats in the regatta—one in the women’s collegiate championship, two each on the men’s and women’s collegiate fours, two in the men’s club fours and one in the women’s club fours.
The regatta, which is the highlight of the team’s fall season, is one of the world’s largest two-day rowing events, drawing over 11,000 high school, collegiate, professional and masters rowers from around the globe.
Both the men’s and women’s finishes represented an improvement from 2018, when the men’s first varsity crew finished 14th in its event and the women’s first varsity crew finished 19th.
“From the recent past, [the performance] was a jump up,” said Head Coach Doug Welling. “Bowdoin crews have been on the medal stand in past years … but any year you can come away with medals is pretty incredible, especially considering the size of the schools we’re competing against.”
The men’s crew, composed of Walter Gadsby ’20, Jack Tarlton ’20, Matt Donnelly ’22, Kenny Lamm ’20 and Andy Bolender ’21, finished behind teams from the University of California, Los Angeles; Orange Coast College and University of California Santa Barbara.
“You’re racing against the best of the best … it says a lot for a small club program to finish up with those [teams,]” said Assistant Coach Ry Hills.
The Head of the Charles is unlike other regattas that the team competes in, said Welling. As the world’s largest collegiate regatta, the HOCR attracts a higher standard of competition than the smaller regional regattas that the team normally races in. The stakes, as a result, are much higher: every year, the banks of the Charles River and the bridges that span it are lined with upwards of 300,000 spectators.
“The HOCR has a reputation. Everybody knows its grand reputation, and anyone who’s been involved in rowing knows what they’re going into, but then actually stepping into it is eye-opening,” said assistant coach Ry Hills. “We talk about what it’s going to be like, we talk about the distraction on the shore … but the eye-popper is when you get there and it’s like, ‘woah.’”
Beyond dealing with the crowds and spectacle of the event, the HOCR also presents one of the most challenging courses for crews and coxswains to navigate. Unlike typical courses that follow straighter and unobstructed paths, the HOCR’s 4.8 kilometer course on the Charles includes hairpin turns and tight squeezes under the many bridges that the boats pass under.
“It’s a coxswain’s race,” said Bolender, the coxswain for the men’s first varsity crew. “It’s staggering how much time a solid line through the course can save you. The fact that the boats turn super slow and there are a lot of sharp turns on the Charles that are really hard to execute on their own makes it really hard.”
“Often, the sign of a good [race for the] coxswain … is that you don’t really notice [them,] but this race course is totally different,” said Donnelly, one of the rowers in the first varsity boat. “You can feel the effect that the coxswain is having, and if they have a good race, you can absolutely make up time and make up distance.”
Bolender stressed the importance of coming into race day with a plan for how to navigate the course while also remaining flexible in the face of the course’s numerous surprises. For example, he described how he had to react to the boat ahead crashing and seize the moment to overtake them rather than get caught in the bottleneck.
The regatta was a special one for the team off the water as well as on it.
On the Friday before the regatta, team members attended a dedication ceremony for a new trophy honoring Henry Zietlow ’22, a member of the crew team who passed away last winter. The ceremony was held at the studio of William P. Reimann, the sculptor commissioned to create the trophy.
“Funds were raised by many people, including a significant number of our Bowdoin rowing team members, and [the trophy] is a stunning piece of art [depicting] Henry standing and holding his oars on top of a walnut base,” said Hills.
The trophy will be awarded to the men’s singles champion at the North West International Rowing Association Junior, a regatta that Zietlow himself competed in. The North West region covers the upper midwest and central Canada, including St. Paul, Minnesota, where Zietlow grew up and where his parents live.
“It was a time of remembering and talking about Henry … it was nice for his parents, too, to see the devotion that this team has to him,” said Hills. “He will be forever a team member.”
According to Welling, the weekend was especially meaningful to the team, since the HOCR was one of Zietlow’s favorite events.
“We first met Henry at the HOCR when he was a junior athlete after he competed in a single. And, of course, last year he was rowing for Bowdoin at HOCR surrounded by family,” said Welling. “It’s just amazing to get to see all of the people that were so touched by Henry even before we took to the water—both family and a lot of friends from the Minnesota area.”
“There is not a day that goes by that we don’t think about him,” said Welling. “Every day at sunrise.”