For competitors, coaches, and spectators alike, the Head of the Charles Regatta is a spectacle. For one weekend each October, it is hard not to feel energy on the Charles River as crew teams from around the world flood its waters with hopes of victory. Some crew diehards, like Harvard men’s lightweight head coach Billy Boyce, have the opportunity to see this scene from multiple perspectives. After taking part in the HOCR as both a rower and a coach, Boyce experienced the regatta from multiple points of view while establishing himself as a key figure in collegiate crew, both in and out of the boat.
Boyce’s illustrious crew career began when he walked on to the team at Cornell University in 2004 with limited rowing experience under his belt. He was placed in a First Freshman Eight at a time when Cornell had not won a championship in over a decade. The upperclassmen were determined to lead Cornell’s comeback in the Ivy League and set the tone by encouraging discipline and organizing training sessions outside of scheduled practice. Boyce embraced this intense culture as a walk-on.
“We had a chip on our shoulder, and we were determined to out-work a league that didn’t expect much from us,” Boyce wrote in an email. “We developed a fiercely competitive dynamic between our top two eights that pushed both boats to Sprints wins [at the IRA National Championship Regatta] in 2006, despite coming in poorly ranked. After that, Cornell went on a run that hasn’t been matched since.”
After this surge of momentum, Cornell went on to win two more national championships, amounting to three IRA championships in total during Boyce’s time as an undergrad. However, despite its success in national competitions, Cornell never medaled at the Head of the Charles while Boyce was a rower; instead, the team used the race as motivation for winter training.
“I raced Head of the Charles a couple of times and remember it as exhilarating, if not a bit chaotic,” Boyce recalled. “I only remember a few controversial moments from races – for example, a crew in front of us failed to yield and started swearing at us, and pushed us to the outside of a turn. As athletes, we used it as fuel through the winter and kept it in mind when we raced them in the spring.”
Nowadays, as a coach, Boyce has a similar attitude towards the Head of the Charles. Without diminishing the significance of the regatta, Boyce is very aware of the fact that the HOCR is merely the first race of the season and should not be used as a bellwether for the spring season several months down the road.
“Teams must be careful not to let a good result breed complacency; nor can they let a bad result discourage them,” Boyce wrote. “The important thing is to keep grinding, keep developing and to be ready for the real season in the spring.”
But the unpredictability of rowing is exactly what Boyce loves about it. He compared crew to the MLB, where a team’s success can dramatically change from year to year. Luck can change quickly in collegiate rowing, depending on the dynamic of the boat and the work ethic of the team that year. As a result, each person in a boat provides a crucial component to the team’s success, and no one star can carry a team to victory.
“Lightweight rowing is a beautiful sport because the margins are tight and the unexpected can and often does occur,” Boyce wrote. “This all amounts to what I find so compelling about the sport – a crew can be greater than the sum of its parts and do something nobody expects.”
Once Boyce graduated from college, his enduring love for the sport prompted him to intern at his alma mater. From there, he served as an assistant coach at Yale before coming to Harvard as an assistant coach for the heavyweight squad for five seasons and eventually ascending to his current position.
Under Boyce’s leadership, the lightweight team won the points title at the IRAs and finished with a 9-1 dual record before a three-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Upon their return, the squad’s varsity four boats finished second in the grand final at the IRAs.
One highlight of Boyce’s time at Harvard is the crew he coached to an IRA gold, the heavyweights’ 2nd Varsity squad. Boyce credited the rowers’ collective strength, rather than any of their individual times, for outpacing their opponents in the final leg of the Sprints.
“It was a crew that gave me heart attacks but was also fun to be around because they were so confident, knew their abilities and knew how to execute,” he wrote. “They always found a way to win.”
This year, Boyce and the lightweight squad have high hopes for the season and look forward to using the HOCR as a springboard for the spring season.
“We’re excited to race this weekend, but I tell our guys it’s a small step on a much longer journey,” Boyce wrote. “Whatever the result, we’ll get back to work next week, grinding, keeping our process going and shaping our competitive mindset to be able to execute with confidence come Spring. We get it right and we’ll be able to race with anyone in the league.”
—Staff writer Alexandra N. Wilson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @alex_wilson2023.