“Expect the heaviest headwind at the start,” says Chloe Thacker, the coxswain for an MIT boat competing in the 52nd Head of the Charles Regatta. Eight rowers in the lightweight women’s rowing program are preparing a shell for launch. The number 39 is stenciled on the bow and its white oars feature a maroon T. “Take advantage of the crosswind in the powerhouse stretch before the Weeks Footbridge. At the curve toward the Eliot Bridge, as we close in on the finish line, it’ll get choppy,” says Thacker, a second-year student.
Weather conditions are unpleasant for the largest two-day regatta in the world. The day started in the mid-40's (Fahrenheit), and winds on the Charles River are blowing at 15 miles per hour, with gusts up to 30. White-capped waves fill the expanse of the river in front to the MIT boathouse. Head Coach Claire Martin-Doyle comes by to rally the group. In her 11th season at the helm of one of MIT’s four crew programs, the only Division I sport on campus, her team regularly ranks among the top 10 in the nation. A longtime rower, she waves an arm as she shouts over the din of the visiting teams converging on the boathouse: “You just got to row tough. Be on task, be on target, and go hard,” she says.
Start time is fast approaching. The young women in the Varsity 8 lineup look confident. Dawn and dusk practices and deep camaraderie have paid off. On the water, the team is a powerful force. The 39, in fact, will soon be one of two lightweight women’s boats to make program history. Bow 29, with a total of four rowers, all first-year students, will be the other.
By mid-afternoon, the MIT boats are by the Boston University boathouse, which is the starting point of a 5-kilometer course that ends by the Eliot Bridge. Senior Prianca Tawde, the coxswain for 29, leads her “young boat” in a ritual collective fist bump. “You are ready for this,” she says to the crew on the verge of their first collegiate race on the Charles. “Row clean and row well.”
Thacker’s voice raises to a shout as her rowers build to race pace and cross the start line to the official yell: “ROW!” Among the third-year students in the boat are Michelle Lauer, Annika Rollock, and Sylvia Sarnik. They share a singular focus. The crew is family, the boathouse a second home, and this race, for the next 18 minutes, is the only thing in the world.
Earlier in the day, the three chatted with Tawde about why the grueling training is worth it. At practice, they say, you leave everything on land and enter a different state of being. “It brings a clarity of mind. Out on the water, solutions come to me,” says Lauer. Indeed, they feel rowing can be transcendent. “I love when it’s nighttime, and the water is like glass, and you just feel like you are flying along effortlessly,” says Rollock. Sarnik jumps in: “It’s like the boat just moves on its own.” Tawde smiles, and quips, “For me it does.”
Bow 39 is passing the Riverside Boat Club. “Stay calm and stay aggressive,” shouts Thacker. The crew is racing at 34 strokes per minute, led by seniors and co-captains Priya Veeraraghavan and Sharon Wu, who set a powerful rhythm from the stern. They are competing against eight boats, including crews from Boston University, Harvard University, and Princeton University. Sarnik, in the bow, is giving it her all. She wants to execute well, as the coach says, and meet her own potential. And it wouldn’t hurt, she thinks, to beat Princeton.
As bow 39 nears the Weeks Footbridge, the crowd erupts. Rachel Osmundsen and other members of the crew team not competing this afternoon had timed a run from the MIT boathouse so they would be on hand to cheer. They join relatives from the U.S. and Canada — grandmothers, parents, cousins, siblings — and channel goodwill and energy into a single phrase: “Go MIT!”
Just ahead flash the orange and black oars of the Princeton crew. Bow 39 is gaining steadily. Their strokes are strong and even. “There is a weird difference between being in synch and really being in synch,” Rollock says. They are really in synch now. At the final stretch, Thacker screams, “Get us across the finish line!” And the 39 pulls by Princeton, crossing the finish line at 18 minutes and 34 seconds. The Engineers place third, the highest ever finish for an eight-rower boat in the lightweight women’s division at the Head of the Charles in MIT history. Lauer, to her own surprise, bursts into tears.
The crew in 39 wasn’t the only boat to make history. In their earlier race, the women in bow 29 pulled from fifth to third place in the final 500 meters, securing the best finish for a four-rower team in program history. “We walked up during the last stretch despite the weather conditions,” says Tawde. Same for 39, says Sarnik. “In the final stretch, as we passed Princeton, we had it all together,” she says. “It didn’t even hurt to pull literally as hard as I could because I knew we were all in it together.”