The Volunteers HOCR Couldn’t Live Without

By Ysabelle Kempe – Posted on October 20, 2019

(Photos by Ysabelle Kempe)

Were there no river control committee, there would be chaos in the downstream travel lane, and probably a collision or two, but most crews would probably find their way to the start. Were there no course setting committee, rowers would still find their way from the start line to the finish. But if there was no timing….?

No committee at the Head of the Charles does more essential work. Not even close.

Ten years ago, Carolyn Nielsen did something many Bostonians do in their lifetime: She signed up to be a volunteer for the Head Of The Charles Regatta. A rower herself, Nielsen wanted to work with one of her friends in the group that timed the boats as they glide over the regatta’s finish line.

But when she went to sign up, Nielsen encountered a dilemma. There were two options – the manual timing team or the computer timing team. Figuring she had a 50/50 chance of ending up on the same team as her friend, Nielson signed up for manual timing, not completely sure of what that even meant.

“It turns out [my friend] had signed up for computer timing,” Nielsen said. “But I had such a wonderful time doing manual timing. I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Today, Nielsen supervises a team of manual timing volunteers at the finish line of the race. A queue of volunteers clad in red jackets waits near the riverbank. In their hands, each has a stopwatch. They chat and shake their limbs to keep warm, but, most of all, they fixate on the boats coming in.

As each boat approaches the finish line, a volunteer walks about 30 feet to the left, toward a strange contraption. It is a wooden pole firmly stationed in the ground. An almost-invisible piece of fishing line is drawn between two curved ends of the post. The string is exactly in line with the finish line. As the boats finish their odyssey along the Charles, the volunteers crouch in ready stance and click their stopwatches when the boat’s bow passes the fishing line. In military fashion, the volunteers then turn to a table lined with so-called “scribes” who write the time down.

Behind the scribes is a large, off-white trailer. It is home to the computer timing team, which has the same goal, but completely different methods to the madness. The trailer is bare inside, with small windows looking out over the river. Two “spotters” sit off to one side, recording the bow number on each boat that comes in, as well as any defining characteristics of the boat (like its color or if the rowers are wearing hats). This will come in handy later on if the computer can’t pick up on the bow number in the image it receives.

The camera that takes the images of the boats crossing over the finish line is a gargantuan piece of equipment from the brand FinishLynx. It sits directly outside the trailer. There are seven such cameras positioned along the race route. Two volunteers, referred to as “plungers,” click a button as each boat approaches, which prompts the camera to begin taking pictures. Each frame taken is one pixel wide and captures 1000th of a second. Three more volunteers in the opposite corner of the trailer record each boat’s time and update the website.

“[The rowers and coaches] anticipate the times,” said Alex Gavriel, who has volunteered with the computer timing team for eight years. “It’s dependent on us doing our job accurately.”

Indeed, the whole race depends on the timing teams doing their jobs right. That’s why they make sure there is back up, back up, and more back up. The manual times are referred to if the computer timers lose network connectivity (which has happened before) or if the camera view is obstructed.

“It’s remarkable how consistent the results are,” Nielsen said of the difference between the computer-generated times and the manual times. “It’s usually within a second or two.”

Outside of the trailer, Nielsen leans on the barrier separating the timers from the swaths of attendees. Although it has been a decade since she first began timing the regatta, her passion is as strong as ever. She is right where she feels she belongs, in the center of all the action.

“The first time I did it, I felt like this was the best volunteer job in the whole world,” Nielsen said. “Because there you are at the finish line, and you are seeing when it’s do or die.”