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.
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 team’s 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
The regatta is one of the biggest in the country.
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.”
The continued success of this regatta, and the reason so many rowers keep coming back, can be broken down to a few basic elements: community support, exceptional timing and not letting mother nature take control.
“We have great volunteers who have been doing this for years; we find a way to be very organized but find a way to have fun and not take ourselves too seriously,” Chase said. “The community embraces it. Whatever you’re trying to do, it doesn’t matter what sport or event, we fill every hotel from Lake George to Albany. When the community comes out to support something, when people come here, they feel that.”
A race is almost never called off. “Our water is bulletproof,” Chase said. “I don’t want to jinx myself, but in 19 years of hosting regattas, we have canceled three days. There are some places that you go and three out of five years, the water can’t handle the wind … most people that come here realize that we rarely get blown out. It’s a good bet that you’re going to race.”
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.
The competition at this regatta expanded far beyond the typical Section Two contingent — there were crews from all over New England and some from Canada.
“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, finishing in 12th place.
“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.”
The trio has 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
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.