To Yield or Not to Yield? Racing the Hooch


My favorite sight. My favorite sight.

Thank goodness for wigs, because this year’s Head of the Hooch was beyond frigid.

After a sleepless night on a charter bus, my juniors’ team arrived to quickly declining weather. Clouds and winds rolled in as I finished rigging the 4+ and 4x’s with the novice Scullers and switched mindsets–and headsets–to my women master’s 4x.

IMG_0388Despite the bleak skies and gray river, the atmosphere around the venue was festive with costumes and silly hats galore. Our master’s 4x joined in, donning horns and a neon green mohawk wig for our practice row. Row2k snapped this shot of me getting ready to go.

For our practice row, the launch/recovery area was busy but not crowded. There were some other 4x’s, 2x’s and 8+’s heading out. Once we arced back north through the bridge and got my first look upriver, the first round of nerves struck. With a flotilla chasing us, and a flotilla ahead of us, and the gargantuan concrete bridge spans dwarfing us, I said, “Well, this is different.”

“Yeah, it’s daylight!”

I chuckled and chilled out.

We rowed all the way up the course, skimming the rocky shore. I kept an eye for buoys, for other boats. Some fishermen were casting lines near the turn, but they sat in a vessel similar to a referee boat so the queue was heading towards them–including me, following the course set by an 8+. Smart decision guys–fishing! They didn’t even bother reeling in their lines.


Setting out for our practice row on the course.

By the time we reached the marshaling buoys, the course was calm but windy. We swung around into the starting chute, which was longer than I remembered or expected. We practiced our first 500 before I decided to run a “McMo Special” down the course–on/off every buoy, partially to force me to keep an eye out for every buoy. Near the curve I couldn’t find the next course marker, so I headed for the red channel buoy and ended up missing a buoy that was tucked into the course. I made a special mental note: top of curve, inside buoy, don’t miss it! Stay closer to the shore than you think!

Some cheeseheads in a double nearly ran us off course along the outside of the turn–I’d decided earlier to pass them on the port side based on their course, but they continued to port instead of turning into starboard during the curve. I called a power 10 just to put space on them before they rammed our stern. Through the bridge we practiced a finish, but we fell apart. Our timing was non-existent and the winds had churned up the water, making our last 500 meters a splashy teeter-totter. A blister formed and popped on my left thumb. I hoped that no one had watched our final strokes, although the neon-green wig did call plenty of attention to us. On our walk up the recovery hill, I spotted one guy outright laughing and pointing before snapping a picture. By then the temperature had dropped considerably and my mohawked head was the warmest part of me.

The run through set me up mentally. I had an idea of the course I wanted to take, especially through the final bridges, and I’d coped with the boat traffic on the course. Now I just had to survive until 11:30 a.m Sunday.

IMG_0383Saturday Sucks

Just after the alarm, I rolled up the hotel shade and peeked out towards the Doubletree. Rowers huddled in the entrance, wrapped in blankets and sweats, hiding behind the support beams. The flag whipped out straight. Conditions for the morning’s racing didn’t look promising.

Downstairs the whole team, plus two other rowing clubs, crowded around the bagel bar and breakfast area. The first postponement had been announced. The day would continue downhill from there as we first huddled around our tables anxiously refreshing our social media, awaiting 10am’s revised schedule, then shoving lunch down the 8+’s before rushing them out the door, only to walk them back, to figuring out: what do we do with 60+ cooped up athletes who just had all their races canceled?

Conditions at the finish line on Saturday. Conditions at the finish line on Saturday.

I did take a group of stir-crazy rowers down to the venue to peruse the vendor area, purchase their t-shirts and marshmallow shooters, and get a sense that yes, it’s really cold outside, and no, you probably don’t want to be rowing. I wore four layers plus hat and gloves to survive the biting wind. At least by the time we walked back, they were appropriately chilled out.

That evening I explored the quaint other side of the Tennessee river, strolling the pedestrian bridge, taking a backroad tour of the mountain houses, and eating dinner with El Capitan and her friends.

Race Day

IMG_0512Dawned cloud-free and miserably chilly. I walked down with the second wave of junior rowers, regretting wearing one layer less than the day before. The Weather Channel app declared a feels-like of 28. The wind was more than I’d expected, and my toes began to freeze as I sat on the waterfront with the other coaches waiting for our first boats to come across the finish line.

Between trips to the port-o-lets, thanks to non-stop sucking of my water bladder, we had to keep moving to stay warm. The wind eventually died off, and the sun melted the frost off the boats, but it didn’t feel any warmer as launch time ticked closer.

Stern 3 row as I take a few deep breaths to squash nerves. Photo: Cynthia Kemp Stern 3 row as I take a few deep breaths to squash nerves. Photo: Cynthia Kemp

We lifted the Fluidesign quad off the trailer and into slings for a triple check on gear. The oarlocks were stiff. Warm-ups came slowly, in layers–mountain climbers, followed by a jacket. Jump squats, then a pair of pants. Jogging to the bathroom; rowing shoes. Pin the bow number 2019 on the back and shrug on extra sleeves. Extra weight gone.

The dock is busy enough that there’s no time for thinking. Skip over oars, walk it down, roll it down, oarlocks open, gear down. Get in, push off. Look left, right, watch the other boats. Down river and around the arch. The nerves didn’t hit until we turned upriver surrounded by the other women’s 4x. I called for stern 3 to row just to get personally centered with a pep-talk. A camerawoman stood on the bridge span overhead; I told the ladies to smile for the camera. Then it was time to go.

The warm-up to the marshaling area is a blur. I do remember getting a full-body water dosing off one stroke. Talk about an ice bucket challenge! I shrieked and called out 2-seat. (She didn’t splash me again, the entire row–thank you 2-seat! Love you!) We didn’t have time to do a full up-piece, because as we navigated around the curve, the river opened up into a massive flotilla of anxious racers.  We joined the masses, stopping 750m short of Marshaling Buoy #1, right in line with quad 2020.

“We’re going to be late,” One of the quads expressed. “It’s 12:56 and we’re supposed to be at the first buoy!”

I peeked backwards at the army of 8+’s bobbing ahead of us. “Look around you. We’re all going to be late together. They’re not going to disqualify us.”

From there, it was slow going. Tapping water, alternating with some rowing strokes, angling into the breeze. Avoiding the Texas quad 2035 that kept shooting the pack despite being quad 2035 and fifteen boats behind everybody else moving forward. We worked ourselves into a good position, staying with the 2020 we’d found right away, and eventually locating 2017 and 2018.

Unfortunately, by the time we reached buoy #1, we’d completely cooled down from our warm-up row. Even with my extra top and double-layer socks, my toes and hands had gone numb and I’d begun shivering. My black thermal compression shirt didn’t seem to be absorbing the sunlight at all. I feared going from 0-to-race pace; it’s shocking on the system.

“El Capitan, we’re going to have to row into it,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Our secret weapon (3 seat) asked.

“We’re cold. We’re going to have warm up into the race. Get faster as we go,” I said.

Now our group was called to #2. I waited until the others started rowing before joining in, as we were the final boat in our group. Here I pulled off my extra top. My fingers curved around the handles as frozen popsicles, devoid of all feeling.

The marshal began calling us to row up one-by-one and across the channel. “2018, all four!” The blue boat slid away from us. “2019, proceed.” I called stern pair to row. “2019, all four.” We joined in and within four strokes were right on 2018’s stern. I had to drop us back out.

That’s when I knew we were going to be fast.

Their boat began whining, “Don’t worry, girls. We’ll disqualify them in the chute because you’re not allowed to pass.”

I thought, “Chill out. I won’t pass you in the chute. I’ll pass you right off the starting line.”

We stopped rowing halfway across the channel as 2017 collided with the starting marshal boat. Already at super light paddle, there was zero chance of warming up as we proceeded rowing again. Still, I had to call half slide or risk colliding with 2018.

And then we were in the chute.

The Head of the Hooch

“Stay at half slide. We need to open up some space on this boat.”

Every few strokes I glance left to look. Buoy slides by. And another. We’ve got several boat lengths of open water now.

“Three-quarter slide.”

Now I have to time our start. I study the water trail under the chute buoys. I peek at the distance to the starting boat. I look back to 2018. To the upcoming buoy trail. Back to the start boat. I make a snap judgment.

“Flying start on this one!”

It’s fast–1/2, 1/2, 3/4, lengthen, lengthen! Silently counted. We’re not at the start boat yet and I instantly know I’ve called it 2-3 strokes too early. It’s too late now, as we enter our first high 10. The start horn is a dim blow as we slide by.

The rocks are too close on our port side. I adjust the toe. I look back to 2018. We’re closing fast. Back left to the buoy line–we’re back on track. Five strokes and check again–2018 is on the buoy line.


“Already?” 2-seat calls. We’re barely 200, maybe 300 meters into the head race. It’s exhilarating to bellow it. I look again and they’ve moved over. We make quick work of sliding by, on a solid course.

The first 1k is quick. We’re sailing. I already see we’re going to catch the next boat, but it’ll be some work. “Catching,” I call when we’ve closed some ground. We’re approaching the curve. I look–clear course, good point–row another 10, look–we’re about to miss the buoy!

“Buoy!” I yell, jamming the toe to port. “Starboard!” I check again–we won’t miss it, but collision is unavoidable. “We’re going to hit! Keep rowing!” The boat instantly tips down to port, making room. The orange ball slides right up the starboard side, under the riggers, not catching. There’s no time to be angry with myself–at least I’ve avoided the penalty–now I need to avoid the other buoys and navigate around this next boat.

We’re closing in on them as we start the curve. “YIELD!” I yell with a boat length to go. They don’t move. It’s Rocket City Rowing. “YIELD!” again, spying a marshaling boat as we fly by the next buoy, hoping the ref will flag them with a penalty. They stick fast to the buoy line. Now stroke seat’s joined in bellowing “YIELD!” at them, but they still refuse to take the outside. I don’t have a choice now. I have to take the outside. The rules briefly flash through my mind: I remember reading something about taking the outside course.

Photo: Cynthia Kemp Photo: Cynthia Kemp

We row through them on the port side. I make sure to cut my course back in a little early, forcing them into the buoys. If I hadn’t been rowing so hard, I would’ve had an evil grin as they smacked a buoy, but the next boat was in sight.

The power lines slide overhead. We’ve come halfway. My lungs burn as do my hands, which I still can’t feel gripping the oar. The only way I know they’re working is my oars slide in and out of the water. Everything hurts but I remind myself it’ll be over soon. Rowers from earlier in the day had said the course through the curve was rough, but it’s smooth as we approach the island. The next boat is dark in color with navy tanks. This time we’re closing ground quickly. I check often to gauge their course. They start turning into the buoy line.


And unlike Rocket City, the boat immediately corrects to port, giving us a clear shot. Near 1500 meters, we fly by boat number three.

The bridge is in sight. I spy the next boat, a yellow shell, a solid six-seven boat lengths ahead. We’re gaining, but with 1000 to go it’s unlikely we’ll catch them before the finish line. My focus goes forward. The pain is surreal now, my jaw aching like my teeth will pop out, lungs heaving. I’m counting 10’s–for breathing, for posture, for legs, for arms away. I check left, then right, toeing for our last line.

The yellow boat is closer but we’ll definitely not catch them. It’s 500 to go. We scream under the pedestrian bridge. I hear “Go SCRC!”

I take a last look back. Our way is clear and we have a straight line to the finish. I pick a forward point. “On your call!” I command stroke seat. I have no idea if she calls “up 2,” I can’t hear her. I just follow, thinking sit up straight. I don’t bother to follow the buoy line anymore but keep the toe straight.

Ross’s Landing is in view. Cheering rises from the bank–who know if it’s for us or not? I can’t tell. The airhorn blows, but it’s too soon. “Not us! Keep going!”

Another buoy slides by. The finish must be soon. I look right, for anything–the hut? The boat? Where is it? Where is the finish?

The horn buzzes and the yellow triangle slides by.

The Head Race Aftermath

We paddle a few strokes then weigh enough for the crews behind us. I pump my frozen fist in the air three times, feeling exhilarated. Sure, my blood is raging, my heart fiercely throbbing from the sudden intense effort. All sensation is still absent from my chilled hands, but we’re finished and we passed three boats, closing on a fourth. No boats were harmed during the race and I’m thrilled to have survived bowing.

Rowing damage. Rowing damage.

Our exhilaration is tangible as we row into recovery. I shoot a thumbs up, tongue out, at the reporter snapping shots at the recovery dock. Back at the slings, we roll the boat and share high-fives and hugs. 3-seat points out my mangled hand–still so frozen I can’t feel the oozing gashes raking my knuckles. I have no recollection of whacking my hands.

Once our boat’s de-rigged, oars collected, and photos snapped, we journey together first to the results board. On the way I secretly hoped for a great finish–maybe 3rd? I tried not to get my hopes too far up. I know in master’s racing those super old handicaps are nearly impossible to overcome on a 5k course and we only had 24 seconds.

IMG_0515I’m first to the results board and do a quick scan down. 1, 2, 3, nope, nope, nope–can we really have done that miserably?–and there’s my name: 7. SARRC/SARRC (Casey McKenna-Monroe.) We’re top 10, and seven places better than our last finish, but the first word through my head is again? Do I have a seventh place Hooch curse? Our women’s 8+ was 7th, too.

On the bus ride home, I calculated the raw times and found we were the 4th fastest boat on the course. First place had a 112 second handicap.

But in the meantime, the women’s quad celebrated our Hooch experience with tradition: super yummy cupcakes in the parking lot.

Night Crew ready to mow down on some non-gluten-free cupcakes post-race. Night Crew ready to mow down on some non-gluten-free cupcakes post-race.

Now it’s back to rowing in the daylight, thanks to the time change, in pursuit of our next challenge.



About camckenna

I write; I row.
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