BOSTON — For America’s best rowers, winning gold at the Head of the Charles Regatta is the ultimate late-season achievement. Kent County native Deb Davis led a women’s eight-seat shell to victory over the grueling three-mile course in October, her second Head of the Charles win in three years.
Davis set a blistering rowing pace from start to finish and led her Chinook Performance Racing teammates to victory over 36 boats in the highly competitive women’s Senior Masters event. Each crew’s average age was at least 50, and at 58, Davis was the oldest rower in her boat.
A Kent County native and former head of emergency medicine at the hospital in Chestertown, Davis has been a standout rower since her freshman year at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Del., and during her four years at Trinity College in Connecticut.
With Davis in the stroke seat, face-to-face with Lesleh Wright, Chinook’s Canadian Olympic team coxswain, the crew rowed a powerful and perfect race — perfect, that is, except for a heart-stopping pause when a Marin Rowing Association boat from California refused to let Chinook pass in mid-race, at the difficult approach to the Weeks Footbridge.
The result could have been catastrophic.
Early-season Masters regattas, for rowers 21 and older, are straight-lane 1,000-meter sprints that last about four minutes, but 5,000-meter head races take about 20 minutes to finish. They are tests of fitness and grit that follow river bends and nearly always require rowers to weave their way through bridges. (Rowers in singles, double and some fours do this without a coxswain, facing backward.)
Head race boats cross the starting line one at a time and race the clock, so no one knows who’s winning until every boat is done.
On flat water and under sunny skies Oct. 21, first-seed Marin started the race about 12 seconds ahead of second-seed Chinook.
Wright and Davis followed their race plan and took off fast at 40 strokes per minute, bent on passing Marin as soon as possible.
Chinook followed Marin under the Boston University Bridge and around a curve to the right, then gained steadily on Marin as the boats raced the length of a mile-long straightaway.
Near the end of the leg, with Marin in the center of the river and Chinook to the right, Chinook closed to within a half-boat length of Marin’s stern. At that point, Wright called to Marin to claim her right to pass; the Marin cox would have to yield to the overtaking crew.
But in spite of Wright’s hail, Marin steamed toward the Weeks Footbridge, with no apparent plan to give way to Chinook.
“I was to her starboard,” Wright said later' “However overtaking is overtaking and they are obligated to slow down and let me through.”
Scores of spectators lined the footbridge, watching the gamesmanship unfold, as the two 62-foot-long eights turned left toward the Weeks center arch.
Marin would not yield. Still to the left and only half a boat ahead, the California cox shifted right to claim the water directly in front of Chinook, and Wright had no choice. If she was going to avoid a collision, her crew would have to stop rowing.
“Now pause … on THIS one!” she calmly ordered. Instantly, Davis and the others froze, blades poised in the air, waiting for 10 agonizing seconds for Wright’s signal to go.
The instant Marin was a safe distance ahead, Chinook was at it again. Marin’s crew cleared the bridge with Chinook on their tail, in overdrive.
Davis’ team burst through the Weeks arch with Wright screaming at Marin to move out of her way: “Get over Marin! Get outa’ the way! Move! Get over! Move over! Get outa’ my way!”
Though neither team knew it at the time, officials penalized Marin a full minute for failing to yield to an overtaking boat. All the Chinook crew knew was that they had lost 10 precious seconds.
“My only option was to pause and fire it back up,” Wright said. “In the end it didn’t hurt us. Heck, maybe it motivated everyone to push harder.”
And push they did. Chinook’s women blew past Marin after the next bridge and raced the third mile at a powerful pace. On the straightaway to the finish line, Wright called for a final sprint and Davis responded, pushing her crew to 36 and a half strokes per minute for the final 30 strokes.
At that point, the only thing the crew could do was wait for the results after every boat finished.
“I was exhausted,” Davis said later. “I felt we had rowed an aggressive race, so we thought we might have won. After Weeks, I could see behind us that the next two boats got tangled up in the Weeks turn, and after that, the gap between us and them got wider.”
Davis needn’t have worried. Her team set a new record with a finish time of 17 minutes, 22.89 seconds — nearly a full minute ahead of the nearest competition.
Lake Union Crew from Washington state placed second with a time of 18:21.654 and Masters Coaching came in third one second later.
With the one-minute penalty, Marin dropped to 16th.
“Doc and I are a bit of a package,” Wright said of Dr. Deb Davis and herself. “I know that she is best up front, taking the crew to the edge. She is no stranger to a stroke rate of 42, which is well beyond what most Masters are capable of. She is wickedly fit, persistent, aggressive, tenacious and one of the kindest, sweetest people I know.”
Davis returned the praise: “Lesleh is an ultimate competitor and she loves to be able to rise to the occasion in a case like this. People who think that coxswains aren’t competitive should think again.”