For two days at the end of October, the Schuylkill is transformed. White tents are hoisted along the river, slender boats fill the water, and athletes and spectators assemble on the dappled banks.
“It’s almost like Brigadoon,” said Ellen Carver, president of the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta, set this year for Saturday and Sunday. “This whole city gets built for the weekend, and by Monday morning, it’s like nothing ever happened.”
The Head of the Schuylkill Regatta, hosted by University Barge Club, boasts nearly 9,000 competitors from 29 states and 10 countries. These competitors are diverse in age and background; in the past, competitors have ranged in age from 14 to 92, with high school students rowing the same course as Olympians.
For non-rowers, familiar only with the illuminated gingerbread view of Boathouse Row from I-76, the Head of the Schuylkill is a chance to get a closer look at the Philadelphia landmark and learn about its culture and storied history.
Rowing was a popular betting sport in the 1800s, drawing thousands of spectators and large wagers. The savagery associated with the professional races — think boats sawn in half — led to rules for amateur rowing, written in Philadelphia by the Schuylkill Navy.
Although rowing for sport first became popular in England, Philadelphia was an early adopter. Once the dam was built on the Schuylkill in 1821, the calm, deep, wide river became the perfect place for sculling.
It was during this time the boathouses began to be built for rowing clubs, though the houses have changed both inside and out over the years, and not just through renovations. The sport and Boathouse Row have become more accessible and inclusive.
For example, women weren’t allowed to join the rowing clubs even well into the 20th century. Instead, they formed their own, the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club, in 1938.
When two University of Pennsylvania graduates started the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta in 1970, there were 180 participants, only 12 of whom were women. Today, at least half of the competitors are women.
“What I have found are the social changes that took place on Boathouse Row mirrored what happened in the U.S.,” said Dotty Brown, author of Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing. “It makes the row a real piece of Philadelphia. It’s a piece of the fabric of this city.”
Organizers want the regatta to become a popular Philadelphia tradition, like the marathon. They have made an effort not to just drop the massive event onto the Fairmount neighborhood, but to engage the surrounding community.
For one thing, there won’t be extra activities because they would rather visitors check out the Smith Memorial Playground or the museums along the Parkway, all near the river. They hope people will have dinner at Fairmount restaurants, and even have printed posters for local businesses to hang up that welcome rowers to the city.
“We want people to realize it’s not just about rowing … it’s about being a part of a bigger community,” Carver said. “We all share the Schuylkill River and Fairmount Park.”
At the very least, it’s a great excuse to hang out by the river and enjoy the crisp air and backdrop of changing leaves, said Jennifer Wesson, executive director of the regatta.
“I think that’s the allure of rowing,” Wesson said. “You’re usually doing it in an amazing setting.”
Tips for regatta novices
Don’t know much about rowing? No problem. There are plenty of things to enjoy at the regatta, from the colorful oar designs to the rowers’ technique or unison “blade” (oar) work.
- Organizers recommended walking the two-and-a-half mile route along the river to get a feel for the course. (Rowers cover the course in 15 minutes or less, to give you a sense of their speed.)
- Check out some of the features along Kelly Drive, from the historic boathouses to the sculptures at the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial and the temporary Big Bling installation. Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery is near the starting line.
- Unlike the sprint races, which end near the grandstand north of the festival area, the head races run the whole course. The starts are staggered, and the race is won based on time, so watch for boats passing one another or look for the sequential numbers on the bows to see who is winning.
- It’s much harder than it looks. Watch the rowers collapse with exhaustion at the finish lines.
- The rowers are focused on the race, but feel free to cheer them on, anyway. Onlookers shout and bring cowbells and air horns.
Head of the Schuylkill
Races run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 28 and 29. The course begins north of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and ends just above Boathouse Row.
The festival tent, where vendors will set up and awards ceremonies will take place, is located at the “Playing Angels” sculpture on Kelly Drive.
Parks on Tap will have a beer garden between the Railroad and Girard bridges.
Kelly Drive is closed to through traffic. Offsite, paid parking is available by following the detours to Mount Pleasant and Dell East Music Center, off of Dauphin Street and Reservoir Drive. Free shuttle buses will run between parking areas and the regatta site. Visitors can also ride bikes or take SEPTA.
The event is free to attend. For more information, visit hosr.org.