8,000 Miles From Home, South African High Schoolers Love Boston

By Jenna Ciccotelli – Posted on October 22, 2017

St. Benedict’s College, a South African high school, has sent crews to the Head of the Charles nine times before. But for 17-year old Andrew Kapp, this was not only his first trip to the Head of the Charles, it was the first time he had ever traveled outside of his home country. Most of his teammates were likewise first-time visitors to Boston, and, like most first-timers at the Head of the Charles, he came away impressed. Many of the teenagers expressed their delight at meeting the “kind people” and using public transportation that “actually works,” their excitement surrounding the Head of the Charles’ atmosphere was evident.

“Our biggest race, we only get like 4,000 spectators that come,” said 16-year-old Brad Leipsig, who rowed in the Directors’ Challenge boat. “Here it’s like 500,000. So just a little bit more.”

And with the Regatta now over, Kapp feels elated, and a little bit let down.

“It actually feels like there’s this giant weight that feels like it’s been lifted off our shoulders now,” Kapp said. “For the last five, six, seven months, about, we’ve been hyping up this regatta and this tour and this state and now it’s over.”

The Bennies, as they are affectionately known on their entry cards, hail from the all-boys St. Benedict’s College in Johannesburg, South Africa. The rowing program, started in 1987, quickly catapulted to the largest in the country – a direct result of the success they’ve enjoyed throughout their existence.

“The sexiness makes it a lot easier for people to join,” said Man in Charge (in South Africa this is what they call head coach) Darryn Roff. “They want to be part of a winning team.”

St. Benedict’s has finished as champions of both their provincial Gauteng Schools Championships and the national South African Schools Rowing Championships for the past 24 years. The team also won the men’s youth eights at the Head of the Charles in 2002. They placed 11th and sixth in the same event in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

Bennies’ crews traveled to Boston from 2000-2005 and again in 2013 and 2015 and are now looking to compete biannually. Eighteen oarsmen of the program’s 130 joined Roff and two assistant coaches to make the trip to the United States. The journey, which began with several days in New York, included a stop at the New Hampshire Championships regatta Oct. 15, where the Bennies finished first in both their races.

Bennies were represented at the Head of the Charles in two events in addition to the youth eights: the Directors’ Challenge men’s quads and the men’s youth coxed quad. All three were rowed in boats Roff borrowed from Harvard.

“They look better now than they did in training,” exclaimed Roff’s assistant, coach Dominic Kester suddenly as the coxed quad passed Harvard’s Newell Boathouse earlier than expected.

“I think we did quite well,” Kapp said. “The conditions caught us a bit by surprise but that’s all in experience. It’s a new course, new boat. Up at the start the conditions are completely opposite to what they are down here. There’s a nice tailwind up at the start, but down here it swaps around to a headwind.”

Several St. Benedict’s rowers also expressed a newfound fondness for New England rowing culture.

“We really like the competitiveness here,” Kapp said. “It’s such a high standard of rowing here.”

As they waited for their teammates to gather their oars and return the boat to inside Newell, a group of Bennies boys studied the crowd cheering on the Anderson Bridge and pointed with glee at the two South African flags hanging toward the river.

“Just tell America we’ll be back,” Bakker proclaimed.