BY MOLLY CONGDON
The sky was as gray as the murky water of Fish Creek, but that didn’t stop over 160 teams from putting their best oar forward at the 2015 Head of the Fish Regatta on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
Umbrellas of innumerable colors and patterns lined the sides of the Saratoga County Veterans Memorial Bridge as spectators got a higher vantage point to cheer for their teams’ success.
Once closer to the racing area, it’s organized chaos. The music is pumping, boats are being carried in and out of the water, steaming food is consumed and hands are clasped around paper cups filled with hot beverages. You could be walking along and suddenly hear, “Heads up!” Stepping to the side or ducking your head was not optional, unless you wanted to get smacked by a boat.
That’s right, one of the biggest rowing regattas in the country that takes place right here in the Capital Region. If you don’t believe it, you should have tried to get off the Northway at Exit 14 or witnessed the line just to park at the event.
This race first took place in 1986. “It was Tom Frost and a couple guys [seven or eight] who started it,” said Chris Chase, organizer of the regatta since 1989 and founder of Saratoga Rowing. “If you asked them why they started it, they would say it was because they needed beer money but they were all rowers and this was a big deal to them. If Dave Matthews and The Grateful Dead came together and started a regatta, that was their regatta; there were no rules, if you complained you got kicked out — it was one of those fun, end-of-the-year, carnival kind of things.”
This year there was a total of 2,138 boats, according to Chase.
Not every participant came from afar. Shenendehowa’s boys and girls crews from the modified level and up, made the short drive north to be part of this roundup of racers.
Of course, the competition at this regatta expanded far beyond the typical Section II contingent — there were crews from all over New England and some from Canada.
As Billy Fuccillo might say, this race is HUGE!
“It’s my first season coaching them, so hopefully everything will come together,” Shenendehowa girls varsity coach Mike Gilbert said while checking his phone for the latest update on the last race. “I’m hoping for lots of top 15s and a couple sneaking into the top sevens.”
A few Shenendehowa seniors — Michaela Strangia, Sarah Christopher and Taylor Palmer — have been rowing together since the modified level. This race marks the end of their last fall season as Plainsmen.
“It’s really sad!” the three cried in unison after just racing in the eight, finishing in 12th place. The team has meant so much to them, very much like a second family.
“We’ve had a solid group and we are all very close,” said Strangia, who is the four seat — the powerful middle of the boat.
“We stick together,” said Christopher, the coxswain. “It’s a good security blanket.”
These girls have been influential both in and out of the boats. “They [have been] crucial in the sense that they helped me transition into a new group,” Gilbert said. “They helped play translator between what we are trying to get done and what the younger kids hear. It’s exceptional for them to be able to accept a new style, run with it and make progress right from the get-go.”
The weather didn’t seem to bother them.
“We race in the wind, but [usually] not the rain; we practice in the rain but [usually] not race in the rain,” Strangia said. “I think it’s an advantage for us, because we are so used to it and we’ve been practicing with the weeks leading up versus other teams who were up at the start in no clothes and we were warm.”
“It pushes us to go faster,” said Palmer.
The team they always are out to beat is Saratoga. “This winter we need to get manly!” Palmer said while flexing her muscles at her coach.
Perhaps this spring, they will hit the water with more muscle and top their senior spring off with the win they want most.