Head and Tail of the Gorge

I was supposed to go to China; that’s why I was in Victoria, BC.  This past weekend had two big regattas scheduled for Vashon Island:  the Head of the Charles in Boston, and the Head and Tail of the Gorge in Victoria.  My step-daughter probably would have gone to Boston with the rest of the varsity junior women’s quad, but that crew had an opportunity to go to a special regatta in Beijing.  They were going to let me tag along as the photographer, but the whole thing ended up being rescheduled and then cancelled outright due to interference from the Communist Party of China.  That’s how we ended up at the Victoria regatta while the other half of the Vashon Island Rowing Club went to Boston.

The weather was crummy, and the water was roiling.  We heard it was in the 70’s and sunny in Boston.  Not so in Victoria.  It was raining and cold and windy pretty much the entire time.  Here you can see the tide disagreeing with itself as the water flows in two directions at the same time.

The Head of the Gorge races took place on Saturday.  The course started almost as far south as Victoria Harbor.  Due to a very narrow point in the course, where only one boat can pass at a time, all boats had to launch at the same time (so there was no two-way traffic).  This was a mess of a traffic jam and took forever to accomplish, but the real hardship was on the rowers who had to wait at the start until their scheduled time.  Some of the rowers had to sit in their tiny, uncomfortable boats for up to two hours just waiting.  They sat there in the rain and cold and tried not to cramp up.

After about 2Km of rowing, the boats came to the narrows.  With rocks on both sides, and a stone bridge overhead, it was a treacherous passage.  A man called the angle of the narrows stood with a loud-speaker, telling the crews how to navigate.  In spite of this expert help, several boats ended up on the rocks.  When incredibly expensive, fiberglass oars and racing shells smash along big, sharp rocks, it makes a distinctive scraping sound.  It sort of sounds like tearing a cardboard box open, about 100 times louder. Fortunately, none of the Vashon boats suffered this indignity.

One of our junior women’s double boats was impacted by another boat being on the rocks though.  They were behind an eight that got stuck on the rocks and had a hard time getting unstuck.  The eight spent so much time stuck in the narrows, that our double, that was right behind them, actually had to stop and wait, right in the middle of this timed race.  Vashon ended up with a second-place finish in that race, because of this stoppage.  Not bad at all for the two girls, but they were still kind of robbed.

Have I mentioned yet that there were exactly zero coaches along on this trip?  They were all in Boston at the Head of the Charles.  For this regatta, a small collection of dedicated parents and masters organized the transportation (international transportation) of all the rowers and the boats off of one small island (Vashon) and onto another, much larger island (Victoria).  These same parents, with a lot of help from the masters, managed the lodging and feeding of the junior rowers and even managed to get them to the races on time.  We got them all out on the water and then packaged up again without leaving one rower, boat or a single oar behind.

It would have been a challenge for the rowers to negotiate the narrows under calm weather conditions.  Remember, this was at a point where the water was flowing in two different directions at the same time.  It wasn’t easy just keeping the shells upright, let alone perfectly between the rocks.  I was just trying to keep my lens clean, but these athletes were actually in a small amount of danger.  As a bonus, later in the day, the bridge overhead flooded and let a cascade of water fall down onto the already soaked rowers.  It was wild.

Above you can see some of the boats launching for the afternoon races.  Several of the crews dressed up too, as is tradition.  If you look closely, you can see Wayne and Garth rowing a double.  It was nice to see the kids honoring something that was popular when I was in high school.  Party on guys.

Nothing in life really prepares you for seeing eight Marge Simpsons rowing by in a downpour.

. . . or Marilyn Monroes (MonROW?) going past you in the rain.

That Marilyn Monroe boat is followed by a rainbow.  It took me awhile to figure that out.  If you watch the clip, you can see how several boats follow one and other into the narrows.  If any of them had a problem, the next boat would also have a problem.

Dressed up only as the champions that they, themselves, are, here is the varsity junior women’s quad from Vashon Island.  This is the crew that would have gone to China.

The Tail of the Gorge races took place on Sunday.  It was a different course than the Head.  It was further north, going southeast and contained no narrow passage.  Still, all the boats launched at the same time.  After carrying their oars for them, I was able to get this picture (with my phone) of the junior women’s quad as a rainbow came out.  We were promised better weather on this day.  Although there were some sun-breaks, it was still cold and rainy, with the added feature of strong wind gusts.

Here is the women’s quad in action, right at their catch.  If you look closely (or follow the link to a full-resolution version of the image), you can see that the boat’s name is Passport to Pain.  Appropriate for rowing to be sure, but it is actually the name of an annual bicycle race on Vashon Island that the rowing club organizes.  It’s a major source of income for the club and helped with the purchase of the boat that bears its name.

For the Tail of the Gorge, my shooting position was on an overpass bridge.  I looked forward to shooting directly down at all the boats, but the bridge spanned a fairly wide spot on the water.  I had to look across the road to see where the Vashon boats went under the bridge (usually easy to spot with our bright blue oar blades) and then guess where they’d come out on my side.  I was never directly on top of our boats, so everything is at kind of an interesting angle.  Here we have the master women’s quad.

The overhead bridge view was a pretty cool vantage point.  This time I was almost perfectly in line with the junior men’s double sailing underneath.  This is right after their release, midway through the recovery stroke.

Below is not actually a racing shot.  These boats are launching for the afternoon races.  It looks pretty, almost like nice weather.  But the sunshine was brief, and it was never what I’d call warm.  Again, the crews had to wait near the start for an hour or more.

Launching all the boats and then having them all row to the start seems like it takes forever.  Once they all get up there, some of the officials check the course for . . . I don’t know, sharks?.  That’s how we know that the race is about to start and that I need to get over to the other side of the bridge.

Here’s the junior men’s quad, at the beginning of their drive stroke.  I think the bow seat knew I was taking their picture.

This might be my favorite shot of the day (except for that rainbow launching shot I took on my phone).  There’s just something impactful about seeing this mixed masters quad powering through the rain and wind.  I know all these people, and some of them even volunteered as instructors for my learn-to-row class over the summer.  Hell, I could be down their next year.

Here’s one of our junior women’s double boats, looking sleek as they shoot out from under the bridge.  For every other regatta I’ve shot this season, I always wanted more reach than even my 500mm lens affords.  For this race, on both days at both shooting positions, I used the widest lens I have.  I was so close to the rowers, I could have high-fived their blades.  It was also the most I’ve ever worried about dropping my gear into the water.

Vashon’s last events of the regatta were both women’s singles (an open and a masters).  These poor women had to sit up at the start for almost two hours before getting to row 3Km in the rain.  This is not a sport for the weak-willed or casual competitor.  All of these athletes are dedicated rowers.

UPDATE:  The Vashon Beachcomber’s article about the Head of the Charles regatta

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