By Hannah Harn
BU News Service
The Weld Boathouse at Harvard University is quiet. One recreational rower, an older gentleman, jaunts downstairs.
“Hey, Kevin,” says Glenn Beauchemin, assistant recreational coach at the Weld Boathouse and the Women’s Club Coach at MIT. “I see you’re in your winter gear?”
He gets a laugh. The rower is in short shorts and a bright tank top.
Beauchemin can remember what rowing on the Charles River was like when he first started.
“You’re just rowing along and all of a sudden you see toilet paper and tampons and it smells really bad but you just try to ignore it,” he said. “Now that I think back on it, it seems sort of absurd, but at the time you just accepted it…So we’re all thankful now to not have to deal with that.”
As Oct. 19 get closer, Boston’s 55th Annual Head of the Charles is expecting more than 2,300 entries and 800 teams. Today, debris and runoff are usually only an issue after heavy rains.
Swimmers are infrequent, said Priscilla Livingston, director of operations for the Head of the Charles Regatta, and when people do capsize, the built-up toxic sediments on the river floor are avoidable.
The river has maintained its report card well, staying within the As and Bs over the past 20 years. However, back in June, the Charles’ grade on its water quality report card dropped back down to a B for 2018, meeting most boating standards, but only some swimming standards.
“Way back before they did all the work on the sewer separation and storm drain separation, after we had a big rainstorm the river was absolutely filthy,” Beauchemin said.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1995 that the Charles received its first report card. It got a D, meeting boating standards only 39% of the time. Regardless, rowers don’t seem to be bothered.
“You’re gonna find that the rowing population is pretty fearless,” said Dan Boyne, director of recreational rowing at Harvard’s Weld Boathouse. In college, Boyne’s team rowed on the Harlem River in New York. They could smell the oil in the water, and when they pulled their boats onto the dock the hulls were covered with it.
But for Beauchemin, that dirty water is simply part of a rower’s life.
“We won’t be able to do this sport if we’re bothered by it,” said Beauchemin. For him, it’s risk-reward. “If you really love something you’ll take a few chances.”
“People weren’t as freaked out as people seem to be now about things like waterborne diseases that have come to the fore and have been monitored more,” Boyne explained. As monitoring of the water quality has gone up, he’s seen concern rise as well. “But it wouldn’t stop the rowing community unless it was just unbearably bad.”
This year, the Head of the Charles will be hosting more than 11,000 athletes.
“Hopefully,” said Livingston, “everybody stays in the boat.”