The 51st Head of the Charles – Men’s Youth Eights

The Head of the Charles is a massive two-day event held in Boston in the USA, and is home to some of the best crews in the world at this point in the season. Not only is it a chance for all the top American club crews, junior crews and University crews to face off, but also national teams often get involved in all boat classes, and every year ‘great eights’ are fielded, comprising some of the top sweep and sculling oarsmen in the world in eights; and indeed last year, the sculling great eight, containing the Sinkovic brothers, Mahe Drysdale, Ondrej Synek and Olaf Tufte to name but a few, won the event outright. It’s an incredible event, and one that is getting more and more popular, fortunately, for junior crews in the UK. It’s always interesting seeing British crews taking on everything America has to offer – it really is an event that sees all the top US crews attending. Certainly for the past few years, St Paul’s have been the school to get within touching distance of the top spot, but the only British junior crew to ever win it was Eton during their period of domination in 2009/2010. This year, there are a fair few British entries, but it’s worth also touching on the top American crews entered here, as this race can serve as a form guide even for Henley – crews that do well on the challenging Charles course will always make a strong showing come the summer.

In this preview, I’ll look at what I consider to be the top five entries in the youth eights this year, as well as all the British entries and any others that might make a strong showing.

Oakland Strokes

Oakland Strokes is a Californian program that draws on high schools across the California Bay Area, and has since its inception in 1974 built itself into one of the premier clubs for Juniors in the country. It has one countless national medals, and consistently sends athletes to international regattas – most notably, of course, the 2015 season was dominated by Oakland, after a tight win over Marin and St Paul’s at Head of the Charles in 2014 led to a much more convincing victory in the flagship event for all US Junior Crews in the country – the USRowing Nationals. Because, obviously, the States is such a large country, there isn’t quite an all-encompassing event for every junior squad, like NSR in the UK; rather, there are regional events, such as the SRAA and NSRA Regattas or the Stotesbury Cup, and only the best of the best compete at the Youth Nationals. This should put in perspective how good this eight was last year; out of every junior crew in America, Oakland Strokes’ 1st VIII was the fastest. They will, then, inevitably pose a serious challenge to the Head of the Charles. Oakland aren’t necessarily a club for building throughout the season – they start as they mean to go on, and it’s worth noting that these guys will have been training for this race for longer than the British crews have been, most of whom I’d imagine have only been in their eight for a few sessions. There is, however, a glimmer of hope for the other crews in this category – it remains to be seen how many guys Oakland graduated last year, and therefore how many returners they’ll have this year. I would suggest, looking at the Head of the Charles lineup from 2014, that they’ll have lost a fair few guys in key positions, and according to RegattaCentral, the average age of the Oakland crew is 16, which would suggest it’s full of younger guys. This could suggest that Oakland is purposefully putting out a younger eight for the sake of experience; this would seem unlikely, however, as I’m sure they’ll be keen to take the headship again. Therefore I’m forced to assume that Oakland have indeed graduated several of their 1st VIII from last year, which will be a big loss for them. The boat was filled with some great talent, and they’ll need to work hard to live up to the results of last year. However, at this point, I can do nothing but suggest these guys are probably favorites. They’re a fantastic program, and I think they’ll do very well on Sunday.

Marin Rowing Association

Marin have been at the top of US Junior rowing for a fair while now, and they’re a force to be reckoned with. It’s a well-established club in both the junior and senior scene, but it’s certainly most well known as a platform for Californian juniors to really excel. With a tough admission system, the squad is built of really talented athletes, and Marin is characterized by real physical strength – it’s a common theme throughout their junior crews, and they’re certainly an intimidating opponent for even the most accomplished junior crew. They’ll be eager to get Oakland back for last year’s race, as well as the Youth Nationals where Marin were actually beaten into fourth place. They will have been smarting from this result, and given Marin’s historic results at the Head of the Charles, I’d say they’ll have a strong shot this year. They’ve lost a large number of guys, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they’ll have any dearth of talent, and the added incentive of getting revenge for last year will mean that they’re really gunning it down the Charles course. I won’t say much more about Marin – they’re actually a very similar club to Oakland Strokes in terms of structure, so I’ll just suggest to watch out for these guys – they’re strong every year, and I doubt this will be an exception.

St Paul’s School

St Paul’s is almost certainly the best of the British junior eights entered here, and they’ll also be hungry to take the win away from the larger American clubs. St Paul’s performed well at the Charles last year, losing out to Oakland Strokes by just under 2 seconds, and then proceeded to have a very successful season in the eight – albeit always one step behind Westminster, until of course, they turned it around at Henley. St Paul’s is a really strong program, and they’ve got success across all yeargroups. They also haven’t lost many guys to University – although they did lose some key members of the 1st VIII, including six man Arthur Doyle, who is now studying at Harvard. They do, however, have six guys in the boat who were in the Henley Eight last year and seven who’ve represented GB. It’s a really strong lineup, and I fancy that they’ll be very strong even at this time of year. Their results at pairs head were encouraging, even if they didn’t manage to scale the lofty heights set by Westminster’s Plaut twins and the Stocker/Artz-Jones double, and they should take a great deal of confidence from this. With a really strong row, I think that St Paul’s could take the win here for the first time in the school’s history. If they manage it, it will certainly stand them in very good stead for the rest of this term, and for the season to come.

Boston College High School

Rowing Logo (2)
Last year, Boston College started the season with a very strong performance at Head of the Charles, that saw them really pushing the likes of St Paul’s all the way down the course. They had a promising time throughout the regatta season, generally asserting themselves as one of the top scholastic crews in the USA. One of their top guys, Alex Hively, is now rowing at Harvard, and they certainly had no shortage of excellent rowers last year. However, at Henley, after a strong performance against Canadian champions Shawnigan Lake, Boston College were pretty easily beaten by Radley, really demonstrating that the top British scholastic crews can really hold their own against their American counterparts. So, Boston perhaps didn’t perform to expectation at Henley; however, I fancy they’ll put in a strong performance here. It’s their home water, and knowledge of the course is absolutely imperative at the Head of the Charles, where the line that a crew takes is absolutely paramount, and can make the difference between first place and tenth. As long as Boston keep their composure, they might just have a shot at taking on the might of the top three. However, they’ll have their work cut out for them, given the fact that Marina and Oakland have many times the number of athletes to draw on, considering they take students from all over California.

Community Rowing, Inc.

CRI is a Boston-based club that draws on a large number of athletes in the Boston area, with a focus both on developing beginners as well as fielding exceptional racing crews. Last year, CRI had a really strong first eight that actually managed to beat Marin at the USRowing Youth Nationals, getting a bronze medal. It’s an exceptional result for the Boston club, and I fancy that they’ll be very strong this year. Like Boston College, this is CRI’s home water, and they should have a significant advantage based on this. While of course it will be a question of how many guys have returned from the eight last year, having seen CRI out on the Charles a few weeks ago, they’re looking like they’re in top form, combining style and substance effortlessly. They’re an efficient bunch of guys, and I’d say they might do very well on Sunday. The average age of the crew is 17, so it’s sure to be an experienced group of rowers, so I’d suggest that CRI would definitely be ones to watch.

That’s all for the top five; now onto the other British entries:

Shrewsbury School
I’ll say it now – Shrewsbury will be strong this year. They were close last year to medalling at NSR, and their results through the season showed a crew that was really coming together for the first time in a few years. However, they didn’t manage to continue this for Henley, where they lost out to Hampton on the Wednesday. They lost a fair few guys coming into this season, but they’ve already racked up some good results at Pairs Head and Chester Long Distance Sculls. There’s a certain amount of buzz around the crew – they’ve been training at Lake Vyrnwy in preparation for the race at the Charles, and while rowing on the millpond-flat conditions may not prepare them for the often choppy Charles course, they performed strongly last year and I fancy they might go even better this year. They’ll be eager to put in a good performance against St Paul’s, too, if they want to really have a hope of aiming for the top end of the British schoolboy circuit later in the year.

Westminster School
While it would be very exciting to see a matchup between the St Paul’s and Westminster 1st VIIIs this early in the season, this isn’t actually Westminster’s top eight – this is actually an eight made up of last year’s J16s, with the senior squad entered into different small boats classes. While Westminster’s J17s will be strong – they certainly were last year (although not nearly strong enough to challenge the likes of Eton) – they won’t be able to take on the likes of St Paul’s and the rest of the top five, or indeed, Shrewsbury. They should, however, take this race as a fantastic bit of experience, and they should aim to finish as high up the order as possible in order to secure a position for a Westminster eight entering for the 2016 Head of the Charles.

King’s College School
KCS are entering for the first time, and I’m interested to see how they do on Sunday. They aren’t as well established as SPS, Westminster or Shrewsbury, but they consistently perform decently in Champ Eights, or very well in First Eights, and this year might well be a bit of a turnaround for them. They’ve got some strong guys in the top year, and a decent contingent of J17s, and they’ve looked incredibly tidy out on the Tideway – if perhaps lacking slightly in the power department. I think that their style will suit this race well, however, and they’ll be looking to get within touching distance of the other British crews competing the event.

Other crews to watch
America will produce a lot of very good crews that will populate the top 20. Saugatuck have been performing very well in local heads, and they’re looking pretty quick at the moment, so I’d fancy they’ll vastly improve on last year’s result. Gonzaga High School, after a strong performance at Henley Royal Regatta in the summer, will also be looking for an improvement on last year. I don’t think they’ll get in the top 5, but a top 10 position is certainly well within their grasp. St Benedict’s College will also be coming over, and they’re rumored to be moving very well, and of course, a great staple of Australian schoolboy rowing, Scotch College, will be making an appearance, and I fancy that they’ll be strong. They’ve produced some really stellar athletes in the past, and I fancy that they’ll put in a good performance on Sunday.

So, that’s it for the Head of the Charles preview. I can only hope that it grows in popularity for British schools over time; it’s a fantastic race, and it produces some incredible contests.

Good luck to all crews!

Five Man

Five Man