SARATOGA SPRINGS — Plaques with real fish heads will once again be given out as trophies, during the 28th annual Head of the Fish regatta, which gets underway this weekend.
This year’s event has about 1,860 boat entries—down from last year’s 2,095 entries.
But the decrease in boats was part of a concentrated effort by the Saratoga Rowing Association, which will actually be hosting more rowing teams this year with hopes of an even higher quality experience.
“It’s actually a good thing because last year we were lucky,” said SRA girls varsity coach Eric Catalano. “We just don’t have enough time in the day to get too many more than that. We were nearing capacity and time for the perfect number to continue improving the experience for the athletes. I think the 1,800 range is probably our best range. There’s more clubs, but they’re not entering as many, so there’s growth but in a different way.”
In comparison, when the Head of the Fish hosted 2,095 boats in 2013, the Head of the Charles in Boston, the biggest regatta in the world, hosted 2,083 the week before.
The SRA is coming off yet another successful weekend in Boston, as the Head of the Charles celebrated its 50th anniversary, highlighted by the girls varsity eight, who placed fourth.
The varsity eight consists of Abbie Albright, Margaret Allen, Catherine Pazderski, Haleigh Sammons, Margaret Gregory, Grace Mastrianni, Helaina Howe, Martina Grant and coxswain Tara Eaton.
The high finish continues the recent tradition and success of the program at the Head of the Charles. Last year, the varsity eight girls medaled in two separate events for the first time. Two years before that, the girls varsity eight took the SRA’s first gold at the event.
On the boys’ side, the SRA four of coxswain Grace Meehan, and rowers Andrei Rench, Christian Cianfarani, Liam Millens and Nicklaus Meehan, finished in 19th place.
“The Charles is one of our favorite regattas and one of the best in the country,” Catalano said. “It’s a big challenge because it takes a while to get to the front.”
Getting a guaranteed bid to the next Head of the Charles, as well as future positioning, depends on the previous performance, so it takes years of strength to get the top—something Catalano has recognized with his girls as well as the SRA boys.
“This year was a great year for our boys,” Catalano said. The boys four guaranteed a spot next year, getting in the top 25 percent (19th), so they’ll be starting closer to the front next year.”
Other top SRA performers last weekend were the SRA girls four (Mary Laniewski, Claire Murphy, Alessandra Smith, Olivia Richards, Emma Price), who came in ninth place out of 85 entries.
Also, the SRA women’s masters eight (Jessica Prashaw, Theresa Dagle, Lisa Towne, Heidi West, Chrissy Goodness, Patricia Hasbrouck, Carla Richards, Carol Fisher, Wendy MacPherson) raced to 14th place.
The boys eight (Maddie Sayer, Cameron McKenna, Blaise Wichrowski, Jack Gaba, Daniel Shaw, Daniel Dalton, Peter Loyola, Sam Blackington, Reece Napierski) took 42nd place.
As for this weekend on Fish Creek, the SRA and other teams that competed in Boston will make the transition from a 3-mile course with multiple bridges and turns to the Head of the Fish’s 2 miles and one turn.
“The Charles is a long race with a lot of turns,” Catalano said. “There’s a lot of strategy involved and you need an excellent process to feel it and avoid contact from all the other crews, and you need some real endurance. The Head tends to be around 12 minutes to finish and the Charles is around 18 minutes, so there’s a pretty good difference between the length of those races. Ours is the last race of the season, it’s shorter and it can be treated a little bit more like a sprint race.”
With more strokes per minute in the shorter race, Catalano compared the preparation for the two races as gearing up for the pace of a 5K compared to a marathon.
The surrounding atmosphere is also something that is unique and different at both venues.
Where Boston has 300,000 fans cheering on the river’s shore and people on the six overpassing bridges, the Head of the Fish will be relatively quiet until the crowd erupts toward the end.
This weekend will also bring its fair share of rivals—from both local areas and afar.
This year, the Albany Rowing Center has shown to be a strong program.
“They’re really challenged us this season and I’m extremely thankful that they’re pushing us to raise our game,” Catalano said. “They were right behind us at the Tail of the Fish and they’re looking to be pretty darn close this year, so I think we’re going to see some good competition from them.”
Community Rowing, Inc. (CRI) will also return. Based out of the Charles River in Brighton, Massachusetts, CRI has developed a rivalry with the SRA that tends to sway toward whoever has the home water advantage.
“We’ve been holding on to the Fish Head for the first eight and second eight for several years and our goal is to defend that and keep the Fish Head coming back to Saratoga,” said Catalano.
Another upside for the SRA is the youth of the program for both boys and girls. With a very small senior class, Catalano added there’s a “pretty special group coming through.”
For instance, the girls eight, which raced to the fourth place finish at the Head of the Charles, has no seniors.
High school, middle school and adaptive rowing will compete Sunday. Aside from Saratoga Springs, local teams also include Burnt Hills and Shenendehowa.
Saturday is masters and collegiate rowing. The Head of the Fish has seen the likes of big Northeast schools such as Boston College, Syracuse University and the University of Connecticut in the past.
Fans can watch the races from the 9P Bridge or Lee’s Park along with thousands of other crew fans as the boats hit the water from about 8 a.m. to just before 5:30 p.m.
Races with five or more entries are eligible for the Fish Head prizes, which the SRA still makes after the model of original creator Tom Frost.