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Last can be so rewarding

Eighty-nine is a lucky number.

I wasn’t thinking that was the case a week ago Sunday.

Claude Bergeron and I made this early morning trip to Boston many times before. We had it down. At 5, there are few on the road and we knew we could be on the banks of the Charles by 6:30. That would give me plenty of time to sign in and queue up for the start of the Ernestine Bayer Race on the Charles at 7 that has preceded the Head of the Charles for decades.

And that Sunday, not like the one this past week, was perfect for rowing. Early morning temperatures were in the high 40s. There was no wind and, as we drove on Memorial Drive. The lights of chase boats—already slowly cruising the river prepared for the day of racing to follow—were reflected in the river’s black waters. There were no shells on the water, although I was certain they would emerge with the first light of day.

This would be the last Ernestine Bayer race. After 37 years, organizers of the Head of the Charles have decided to scrub the race that was run by the Alden Ocean Shell Association and later taken over by IROW. No matter the pleas, it appears the decision won’t be reversed although its logic is incomprehensible. There is no explanation but this made the occasion special. I wasn’t going to miss the last race.

We were on schedule.

The instructions were identical to last year. Registration and launching occurs upstream from the start. We would offload the boat and make out way in the dark to the river’s edge. Other competitors would be doing the same thing. Some would be carrying flashlights, their beams errantly lighting excited faces. There’s nothing quite like the shared adrenalin of a pre-race. Then the 80 or so rowers gather for a skippers’ meeting. The etiquette of passing other boats would be reviewed and everyone would be reminded that safety is a priority and, should another rower be in distress, we abandon the race and come to their assistance.

That’s what I imagined. It didn’t.

As Claude pulled into the parking area, a uniformed officer appeared from the dark.

“Parking,” he inquired.

Parking is at a premium during the Head of the Charles. No, we explained, we were just offloading the boat. He wasn’t sure what to say.

A woman appeared in the glow of the headlights. With authority, she asked if we were there for the Ernestine Bayer race and then instructed us to go to the Boston University boathouse. In my 16 years of doing the race, we never launched there. But who was I to say?

Claude headed back in the direction we had come, stopping at the BU Boathouse. No one was there; the place was locked tight.

Although I had pre-registered, I still needed to sign in and collect may assigned bow number – 37 – to race. I couldn’t just launch the boat and paddle to the start.

The sky was brightening. Competitors were now visible, lining up for the start.

Claude suggested the next boathouse; we had seen some activity there.

Collegiate crews were on the docks, but nobody looked like part of our band of recreational rowers. My assessment proved wrong for, in addition to the college crews, there were about eight competitors in the adaptive division. Some were being helped out of wheelchairs to their boats. Imagine being transferred from the security of a wheelchair into a craft barely two feet wide and 20 feet long. And I was worrying about making the start of a race. Their boats were outfitted with pontoon outriggers for added stability. Nonetheless, they were on the water.

Others, some rowing in doubles, were already on the water.

Gary, the man in charge, informed me that we had been at the right place to start.

“You don’t have enough time to get back there. You better put in here,” he said.

But what about a number and informing the committee I would be in the race?

Gary pondered that.

“Let me get these guys in and we’ll figure it out.”

I ran back up the dock to find Claude and my boat.

We waited as those who had been aiding the adaptive rowers rolled wheelchairs up the gangway.

Then it was a matter of finding Gary again. It was 6:50. Time was running out.

Gary had a plan. Get a number, any number, row to the start and inform the timer who I was and this would be my new number.

That was better than nothing. Better than watching, rather than rowing, the race.

But numbers don’t just appear, even at boathouses.

I searched for a scrap of cardboard, paper, plastic, anything to write 37 on.

A coach from one of the college teams knew his way around. He opened a workbench drawer revealing multiple numbers.

“Take this, you won’t need to return it,” he said handing me number 89.

I didn’t quibble. Sun etched the tops of Boston’s tallest buildings. A mist rose off the Charles. The river was coming to life. But there was no time to take in the beauty.

Claude cleared me of the dock. I leaned into the oars, sprinting for the start a quarter mile up stream. As I was told, I found the man wearing a black t-shirt, stopwatch in his hand, sitting on a dock and facing the starting line.

“Are you Mark?”

“That’s me.”

Although I had 89, he advised me to position myself between boats 36 and 38.

“They’ll call your name. We’re about to start.”

I got cold stares as I paddled my way to the boats numbered in the 30s. When I found 36, I had my slot.

“I’m really 37,” I explained.

36 took one look at my number and probably figured I’d had too much to drink the night before. Anyway, there wasn’t time to chat. The race had started; boats were being called to the line in sequence.

Thirty-six was called, then 38. They had skipped me.

Befuddled, I returned to the dock and Mark.

“Oh,” he said suddenly remembering, “You’ll be the last boat.”

I went for my second start. With nobody behind me there was no chance of being passed. And, of course, there were plenty of boats ahead.

I passed my first boat barely two minutes into the race. Then I came alongside a woman I recognized as being helped into an adaptive shell.

“You’re looking great,” I said. She pulled harder. Then there was a double with the forward rower keeping a steady pace while that in the aft rested between strokes.

“That a way,” I yelled. The aft rower had been one of those in a wheelchair. I could see his smile.

There were more adaptive rowers on the three-mile course. With each pass, I cheered them on.

I would have never seen them as 37. Being last had its advantages although as I approached the finish, the announcer was at a loss as to my name.

Perhaps if those who run the Head of the Charles had the fortune of being 89 they, too, would realize a race is not always a matter of limiting competitors to the most proficient, or fearing the liability of involving those not blessed with the capabilities we take for granted.

Maybe they will reconsider. Maybe there will be a 2012 Ernestine Bayer on the Charles race.

If there is, I want to start last. There’s so much more to gain.

Note: With a time of 28:58, about four minutes slower than my best time, I finished in the middle of the fleet and first in the 70-79 years old division. But then, there were only three rowers in my division.


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