Head of the Hooch 2021

This post is three weeks late because I had to be in the right head space to write it.

The week before planned departure for the Head of the Hooch, I received a call that my Grandma had taken a turn and she only had a few days left. I booked a one-way ticket to Florida, not sure what would happen next. 

Rowing isn’t like other sports. If I don’t show up, there’s no benchwarmers to rely on. My boats might scratch, impacting the races of 13 other people. I graciously found some potential subs for my boats, in case I couldn’t make the regatta. It just proves rowers are the best people because we’re always willing to step up when needed.

She hung on over the weekend. My family encouraged me to go the Hooch, so I made the decision on Monday I would go to the regatta. She passed late Tuesday night.


Travel Arrangements

ROCCS Boathouse sunrise

I reached out to the team in Inverness, ROCCS, about how they were getting to the Hooch. I’d been able to row twice at ROCCS since arriving in Florida. The other days I’d done some indoor bicycling and resistance band work, trying to stay fit in case I made the race. They graciously offered me a seat in their carpool, which was way more convenient and cost effective than the airplane ticket to Atlanta or Chattanooga I had been considering. 

We left early Thursday morning. I had my first Buc-ees experience (Cracker Barrel meets Walmart meets Speedway) and anchovy pizza. Arrived about 3:30 in Chattanooga to a mostly empty venue stacked with waiting boat trees, barges on the Tennessee, and little launches shuttling buoys. At dinner at Champy’s Fried Chicken with their team I found a photo of me racing for ROCCS in one of my first double races. I wore gloves, had my chin tucked into my chest, and a large gap between port and starboard hands. It’s proof we all row horribly at some point in our careers.

I booked a hotel for the night in downtown and hoped for a good night sleep after several days of crap. Nope, it wasn’t meant to be. All night, tossing and turning.

Friday at course

No one’s here…yet…

This is the earliest I’ve been at the Hooch. Friday was damp cold, with cloudy skies, a touch of wind. I skipped going to the course first because I had a mission to accomplish. I found the rent-a-bikes and shuttled around downtown Chattanooga until I successfully returned to the hotel to pack up my gear.

The venue was getting busy now, being 11 o’clock. Team trailers were pulling in, vendors were setting up. I stashed my suitcase under the ROCCS trailer and grabbed some delicious tacos for lunch. Waited for my teammates to arrive and/or ladies from the 8+ for our practice row. Anticipated row time was 4pm. Shopped at the vendors. Ran into some people from Sarasota who told me some interesting things about line-ups. Sat at the top of hill watching boats come and go. Went to the bridge. Froze. Generally, passing time.

Around 4 pm it was whirlwind. The GCRA trailer arrived, so I moved my suitcase. The ladies for the 8+ were arriving and we had to rig the boat at Vespoli. I made a snarky comment about them selling us a 4x that doesn’t go straight. Two of our rowers were delayed in Atlanta accident traffic, pushing back our row time. My teammates were arriving, but I couldn’t go yet. There was some back-and-forth in the ladies’ 8+ about who should row in each seat. We all had our opinions, which were clashing. I said I’ll sit any seat on starboard side.

We needed a last-minute sub to go out, as one of our rowers was now occupied with her junior team. It was nearing 5 pm and the docks close at 5:30. I called Bow-in-Chief, thinking she could at least get a bit out of the course. But she’d never been to the Hooch before and I knew she’d have no idea where we were. I stepped away to stand in the road to look for her sprinting down. The other ladies decided on the line-up while I was away. I landed in 5-seat.

No time for talk, it’s grab the boat and go. The cox’n in a local youth coxswain. Overall, she does a good job on the practice calls. There’s only time to run a circle around the island–just like last year. This time, our practice row is better than last year’s practice row. It’s a little wet and splashy on my port side.

Practice row in the 8+

Row over, it’s time to join my orange teammates on our digs. Yep, we rented a yacht! Looking upstream at the bridge we could see the boats launching, coming around the pylons and heading upriver. The sunset was gorgeous, if not cold.

Bow-in-chief and I shared a room. On the upside, we had a great view out the stern over the river. The furnace worked brilliantly; the room would make a Finnish sauna jealous. On the downside; saunas are only meant for 10-15 minutes at a time, not the whole night. I ended up turning it off. And then back on. And back off. In early hours of the morning, when the cold crept in, I gave up and googled the manufacturer’s name on the device.

I’m on a boat.

In short, another night of not-so-great sleep.


Another advantage to our yacht on the Tennessee: first notice of a fog delay. Right out the window, pea soup. I texted the women’s 8+ to expect a fog delay, and sure enough, an hour later the notice went out on Twitter.

Up side to a Yacht: close location to the race course. Down side to the yacht: you have to flip ALL the switches, especially the vacuum pump in the toilet, or you risk swamping your bathroom with raw sewage. My bad.

As the Hooch went to “another announcement in 15 minutes” mode, we passed the time playing party games, like the “guess who’s on your head” sticky note game. It was way better than freezing down at the race course, and we saw when the fog was burning off and knew when the “another announcement” became, “launching imminent.”

Who am I? Fog delay fun.

By the time I arrived at the trailer for the 8+, the announcement, “the first boat has entered the chute,” (ironically, a composite with one of our team members) echoed through the venue followed by and the cheers.

Women’s Masters 8+

First hustle was on the oars. I headed down to help change the gearing. We made the mistake of measuring and changing inboards before measuring total length of the oars. That meant redoing all our work, and hustling through as the first call for the Women’s 8+ was made. We still had two to measure and tighten, with only one screwdriver between us.

Second hustle to the launch. I slid the last collars into place, and then ran to the restroom. Quick strip as the sun was out warming up the venue. Swapping of the gear. Hands on and away we go.

Mic drop in 5

The current’s still pretty fast and the water levels low. The path up to the start is rather slow going. There’s lots of splashing going on at the catch. I’m just warmed up when we reach the marshaling 8+ pack around the bend. The marshals are trying to play catch-up, and so all the boats are jostled together from buoy 3 on down. No gaping between races.

The going is slow now. I got cold. As always, I’ll be starting the Hooch not warmed up or ready for maximum effort.

We’re the first boat in the event, and rowing the under 50 division. We are called across first, given a minute to gap our races, and then it’s into the chute, extra long this year with the course change, and a distant, “MARK” to begin.

I remember the cox’n calling, “we’re one minute off the start,” and thinking NOOOOOOOOO do not call us minute by minute!

I’m getting soaked off the front end and back end of the port side.

Each stroke, my focus is on hanging on, but the ride is a little messy. Somewhere around the power lines I nearly crab, the oar caught feathered under the wave. But I pop it out without slowing the rhythm too much. Internally, berating myself, embarrassed.

As we made the lazy turn to port and the competition becomes clearer, it’s evident Atlanta, our chasing boat, is making a slow but steady move on us. Push away, becomes my new mantra. Every stroke, push away.

The cox’n called a power 10. Our most solid 10 in the boat. Her calls are rather muffled–my headband? The boat?

Atlanta hasn’t gained big ground, but they’ve inched into our space as the first bridge passes overhead. Every stroke, push away.

Our course zig-zags a bit. Stroke is commanding at the cox’n, someone yells about the buoy line, and it straightens back up.

The cox box has died.

There is about 600 meters to go.

Nothing to do but focus, push hard off that footplate, be as clean as possible. Use Atlanta, shove them away, every stroke.

It’s not a clean finish, but it is a solid finish. Some ladies disagreed that Atlanta walked on us, but I felt sure they had. Not significantly, but definitely moved on in. On shore, the results showed yes, they did inch in, but with our handicap the Women’s 8+ still prevailed.

Women’s 8+ under 50 winners

I’d see many of these women again in the 2x and 4x later on. Immediately after, I had to scoot away. I was drenched on port side, it just wasn’t evident thanks to wearing all black. Even though it was sunny and around noon, the temperature was still in the low 50’s. I had to change immediately before getting too cold, so back to the yacht.

Women’s Masters 2x

Women’s Masters 2x so clearly under 50. Also taken Sunday post racing because we forgot Saturday.

I had a decent gap between the Women’s Masters 8+ and the Women’s Masters 2x. Actually, this was my first time racing a Women’s 2x at the Hooch. A teammate offered to let us row his private boat, a generous offer and appreciated. I’d take a Fluidesign 2x over our club’s heavy Kanghua midnight any day.

The only downside was we had no practice row in it, so I had to guess the settings.

For this row, I thought it would be nice to commemorate the ones we’d lost. Bow-in-chief had lost her grandmother earlier in the season, and so had our coach. My Friday mission was to find an elephant for her and a monkey for me. The flower earrings, the closest thing to a peony I could find, I’d sourced Thursday at Buc-ee’s. We brought these into the boat with us, extra weight be damned.

There were so many boats, as per usual. Bow-in-chief had the added pressure of this being her very first row on the Head of the Hooch course. In the marshaling area, we tried bunching up with the other boats in our pack, but boats way down in the event kept bunching up with us. We were the eighth boat in our event and we had numbers 15-20 behind us.

At the top of the course, I knew a lot of the people, either from rowing in the Women’s 8+ or from rowing elsewhere. There was some friendly teasing about who exactly was going to pass who.

As we waited, the sun dropped below the tree line on our side of the river. Without sunshine, the temperature plummeted and we started getting cold fast. I began tucking my hands between my knees and under the arm pit when we weren’t tapping to stay in place.

Finally, movement, but from a dead cold. Another race of rowing into it. Across the river, around the red buoy, and into the chute. And we’re off.

My first personal goal was to push off the boat chasing us. I wanted to open some serious space on them, and we did. By around 1000 meters, we had a large margin on the field behind us, lots of open water. We also closed in and passed our first boat, a women’s 2x from the prior event.

Bow-in-chief did amazing. She kept us right on the fastest course, right up on the buoy line. There were two near-misses, but she caught them and moved us back into course right in time. No hits whatsoever.

The air was so dry I was breathing through a desert. I went to make a call and couldn’t form the words because there was no moisture in my mouth. I opted to stay internal, put all my energy into being an engine, and only speak if necessary. It was hard to breathe.

Bow calls for a tempo change. I opted not to row with my stroke coach, so I assume I’m too high. Lengthen out.

We passed another women’s 2x. We are cruising. Internally, I count 50’s, each “1” an extra push for five. As we make the tight curl to port, internal a reminders to stay strong. Push away the power lines. Island.

I hear bow-in-chief call we’re catching, and then nothing. The first bridge. Around 1000 to go, I see them now way off course on the port side, floundering. Bow starts to drift off the starboard buoys towards the port, just like you’re supposed to.

I see the monkey and think, give me strength.

Bridge. I finish the 50, close my mouth to moisten it, then call “UP.” About five strokes in I realize I’ve made a mistake–it’s just the second bridge, there’s still one left. “Too early–my bad!” I yelled. But it helped, added a pop as we come to the final bridge. The focus is all on the legs. Lots of noise from behind us, and we’re a bit wider off the port buoys. I see boat trail.

Photo: Row2k. See monkey.

Last bridge. This time up, for real, and all in the legs. Pushing every stroke. I hear my name, and I also a crew from our race on our port side. And then another boat. Two boats right at the finish line. Granted, in the over 50 division so they still had lots of handicap on us, but still fun to catch.

Overall, we had a good row, I think our best together yet. We were 6th overall in our division (no handicap) but 3rd in the raw time. I believe we qualified the boat for next year, which was the goal.

After that, it’s back to the yacht for a rinse, fresh clothes, chicken and noodles, and kicking back until tomorrow.

Saturday yacht life


The heater finally worked properly in our room, but that didn’t help my sleep woes. Another rocky night of sleep. The time change also meant I was up way early. No fog delay today, just bright pink skies over the Tennessee.

Our Women’s 4x was near the end of the racing, so we spent the morning rigging the boat, watching the singles on the bridge, and discussing line-ups. I really felt hopeful we could medal in this event. Three of us medalled at Nationals, and we had a strong woman with us who I’d medalled with twice before in the 4x.

We had to hot seat (or priority launch) as they called it this year. Our 2-seat was coming off the water in the Mixed Open 2x right into our boat. We staged the 4x under the bridge, and luckily, there was a bathroom. I know I would’ve wanted one between races.

We stole some help from Lake Lure to position, but it worked out. We got right on out with the other Women’s 4x. Again, lots of people I knew in this race either from the 8+ or past teams.

At buoy one, we were warned for “moving up early” although we were just following another boat. Yesterday the marshals were constantly egging us to keep moving. This day it apparently was the opposite. And as soon as they warned us, the ref turned around the told the first ten boats in our race to come on up.

We get in order. We’re being chased by a Sarasota Crew/Dallas composite I knew was extremely fast and the most probable event winner. My whole goal: not let them pass.

Off we go. It’s good they are chasing us, because I am hammering on the legs doing my darnedest to hold off Anne that I see in bow seat. Slowly, they are creeping on us. I keep wondering if we are going to yield, but we never move over, so I keep hammering away. We are trading courses. We pass a boat, us first, then them.

As the course starts to move to port, the SC boat goes wider. And then I hear, “CRAP, STARBOARD!” I look over. There’s the giant red channel marker, and the course marker off our port. We’ve missed it. Okay, potential penalty–if they’ve seen us. Historically, the Hooch has not been good at catching buoy penalties. More starboard! We slide just past the next buoy on the correct side of the course. We correct to port. Back on line.

Women’s 4x

The error cost us some space on SC. Sarasota County’s boat after them has also moved on us.

All I can think is Don’t let them pass. Make them work for it. My eyes stay on them over stroke’s shoulder all the way along the island and under the first bridge. My energy is on the footplate.

We make it first to the finish line, successfully holding them off, although bow and stern nearly overlapped. If the course had been another 500, we probably would’ve gone across together.

I know bow-in-chief feels horrible about the course mess-up especially after steering so beautifully yesterday. But everyone has steered a bad course, even here. I’ve hit buoys in the quad and the single. Then I steered wide and lost serious time. The results come out, and we’re third with the buoy penalty. Without it, we would’ve been second, but that’s how racing goes.

Women’s Masters under 50 🥉

Post-Hooch Fun

Butter pecan moonshine

Now racing’s all over, and since we didn’t depart until Monday morning, we had some Sunday afternoon fun in Chattanooga and on our yacht. This includes traditional post-regatta cupcakes and some Hooch for the Hooch. I think the photos speak for themselves.

Cupcakes since 2012

In the two-three weeks since the Hooch, I’ve mostly been off. I went out twice rowing Inverness, both on some crazy foggy mornings. We had three days of driving, a funeral, and a wedding.

Lake Henderson Row, super fog

Family kept asking how many medals I’d won this year, and I didn’t actually know. So I broke them out when I got home. I’d say 2021, my first season back on a team, was a very good year.

Ar, matey, thar be bounty .

20 total races. 15 medals. 11 wins. Three places at Nationals, two at the Hooch. Raced the new 1x twice; won at Cuyahoga. Crushed it a bunch in the Women’s 2x. Had an awesome Mixed 8+ going.

Head of the Hooch 2021

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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