You’re on Your Own Getting to the Finish...

…But Getting You Safely to the Start is Their Job

By Avery Bleichfeld – Posted on October 20, 2019

(Photo by Avery Bleichfeld)

On a gravelly patch along the sunny shoreline, Christina Williams calls through a megaphone at the scullers rowing by. Their whoops and cheers echo and fly around in the arched shade of the underside of Eliot Bridge.

Williams is here for her eighth or ninth year as a member of the River Control team, a group of volunteers dedicated to making sure traffic is moving and the shells are safe.

“We’re moderating the traffic so that boats don’t collide and we’re noticing behavior,” Williams said. “If they’re going too fast we want to slow them down, because we know what’s ahead, they don’t always know.”

Mark Hochman, another volunteer with the River Control team, compared it to keeping an eye on cars on the road.

“It’s the same as needing traffic lights and traffic cops on a road,” Hochman said. “You’ve got traffic and the boats need to be directed to stay safe.”

The volunteers work under the oversight of the River Control Operations Committee, based out of the Pierce Boathouse at MIT. Together, they and their volunteers are in charge of any boat that is not on the racecourse, they’re not allowed to make any comment about rowers in the race.

Cindy Larson, a member of the committee, said that each member of the committee has skills in approaching River Control that fills out what the team needs.

“We all have our little specialties and we all love what the other person does because we could never do it,” Larson said.

Each member of the River Control Operations Committee oversees a different portion of the course, from the basin, to the Cambridge Boat Club and Eliot turn area, to the finish area. One volunteer runs the River Control command center from MIT, Larson is in charge of the volunteers.

Of all the areas that boats row outside of the race, Larson said that the turn at Eliot Bridge is one of the most challenging.

“The Eliot turn, there’s a lot of action up there and so one person focusing on that to make sure we fine-tune things when things go wrong,” Larson said.

Williams, who volunteered to stand by Eliot Bridge says the s-curve in the river makes the portion challenging.

“We want to make sure they’re safe, that they don’t have any kind of interaction with other boats, and we’re trying to give them this heads up to say ‘there’s a really tough corner ahead, so start your turn now, keep closer to shore’ just so they’re aware if they can be — if they want to be — what’s ahead,” Williams said.

The bridge too can make the area busy, Hochman said.

“You’ve got bridge arches here and the boats coming downstream have to fit through the arches. You’ve got the racing traffic going upstream, and they’re all racing for the arches, and they aren’t that far apart,” Hochman said. “You have to be certain you’re keeping apart the ones going downstream … from the ones going up, and at the same time, while you’ve got that kind of condensing, you’ve got boats crossing the river, launching from Cambridge Boat Club and Buckingham Browne.”

The concern about congestion is especially present on Friday, Williams said, when teams are practicing, and boats are coming down the river in a mix of sizes.

“Friday, on the race side of the river, you could have eights, you could have fours, you could have singles, you’re having so much interaction between the types of boats because there’s not a race,” Williams said. “I mean, they’re racing themselves, but they’re also encountering all these other boats.”

But the volunteers are ready for the challenge; everyone on the River Control team is required to have experience with rowing. Larson says that comes in many forms, from coaching to long-time rowing, but it all is important to be able to successfully keep traffic moving.

“Someone without experience couldn’t tell an eight, to drop two oars or to go faster,” Larson said. “They couldn’t tell them or direct them how to move their boat in the way that it has to move. … They’re like ‘turn right’ and it wouldn’t work.”

The volunteers also call it fun. For Hochman, it’s a chance to stay plugged in with rowing, and his experience gives him a special understanding of what the scullers are feeling.

“I have a really clear sense of what’s going on in each of the boats,” Hochman said. “I know how tired I am at this point and I know how tired they are, so when I see somebody row past that and row straight and strong, it’s impressive. I sort of feel it in my gut.”

It’s also a way to be close to the races and enjoy the sport. Williams spent her first year volunteering with Timing and found the experience stressful.

“You really had to make sure you click the clock the minute they passed the line,” Williams said. “I didn’t enjoy the races that much, because I was so focused on the finish line.”

With River Control, she has had a whole different experience.

“Here, if there’s breaks you can see the races, you can see the rowers,” Williams said. “I think you’re more part of it than some other spots. This is my favorite spot.”