Head of the Charles Regatta Ham Radio Beginners Guide

The Beginners Guide can be found after the following story. I encourage you to read the story and look at the photos before reading the Beginners Guide.

Tim Carter – W3ATB


The Head of the Charles Regatta is a world-class public service event for any amateur radio operator. It all started in 1965 and it’s held in Boston, MA every October.

HOC Bridge Banner

Here’s how the organizers of the event describe it at their website:

“Since its origin in 1965, the Head Of The Charles® Regatta has welcomed the world’s best crew teams to the banks of the Charles River for the ultimate two-day rowing competition.”

I’ve worked quite a few public service events, including the Boston Marathon and if you’re an amateur operator that wants to challenge your skills, the Head of the Charles is one you don’t want to miss.

Yesterday, October 16, 2015, I worked the regatta for the first time. I was out on the wind-swept water of the Charles River in an odd open fiberglass pontoon boat as part of a three-man team. My tactical call sign was Safety Launch 3.

You can see a few of the odd open pontoon boats docked here at the MIT boathouse. A crew is pulling into the dock from an early practice on the water. Photo credit: Tim Carter - W3ATB

You can see a few of the odd open pontoon boats docked here at the MIT boathouse. A crew is pulling into the dock from an early practice on the water. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB

Amateur radio operators provide critical communications during the event in case crew members tumble into the cold waters of the Charles River and need to be rescued.

I’ll share my story of the day’s events and then I’ll provide you with invaluable tips that I wish I had known about prior to arriving in Boston.

Departure Time – 5:30 AM

While the competition is a two-day event, the hundreds of teams from around the USA and the world practice on the Friday before the event turning it into a three-day event for the hundreds of volunteers like me.

I decided to only work the practice day to get my feet wet. I’m glad I did because all volunteers need to be present for 6:00 AM meetings at the various boathouses dotting the shoreline of the infamous Charles River on the two competition days.

On the Friday practice day, that arrival time is pushed back to 8:30 AM. I decided that I’d leave my central New Hampshire home at 5:30 AM so I’d arrive in Boston just after 7:30 AM. It’s only a one hour and fifty-minute drive so I thought I’d pad in some time for rush hour.

Since I rarely drive into Boston on a work day morning, I discovered that the commuters must leave their homes at 4:00 AM to try to avoid the snarled roadways that feed into the metropolis.

Stressed out after three, not two, hours of fighting stop-and-go traffic I pulled into an empty parking spot at the MIT boathouse in the famous Basin of the Charles River.

MIT Boathouse It’s just upriver from the Route 2A bridge that spans the waterway soon to be clogged with hundreds and hundreds of the sleek sculls. I discovered I had to move my truck to a parking lot about a half mile away, but that had to wait until after the brief organizational meeting down next to the dock in the boathouse.

The boathouse was clogged with volunteers of all sorts getting other volunteers checked in. Safety launch boats and other launches were being readied for the day.

Volunteers on the Dock at MIT

Many of the launches were manned by women and men who’s job it was to try to keep the sculls from crashing into one another along the three-mile section of the Charles River where the regatta takes place.

As the day progressed I discovered these other launches would be anchored near bridges and tight turns in the river. Using megaphones the workers would alert the crews and coxswain about impending danger.

Visibility at the arched bridges that span the Charles can be limited as late in the day an eight-person scull nearly crashed into the launch I was in as we both entered, from different directions, a bridge archway.

WX – The Ham Acronym for Weather

The weather forecast for Boston yesterday was spot on. It was cloudy and windy in the morning. The air temperature was in the mid 50’s F, but there was a stiff 15 mph wind whipping across the water from the west. It felt much much colder than it was. A passing light rain shower happened just before 9 am and I was fretting being out in the rain all day.

Here are the flags that flew from a pole attached to the seat of my launch. You can see how cloudy it was and the pennants are unfurled flapping in the stiff wind. Photo credit: Tim Carter - W3ATB

Here are the flags that flew from a pole attached to the seat of my launch. You can see how cloudy it was and the pennants are unfurled flapping in the stiff wind. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB

As the morning passed, the sun made a welcome appearance and it was quite sunny until sunset. The wind didn’t let up all day although it was much stronger in the morning than the afternoon.

The weather almanac shows it reached 61 F in the afternoon, but I was wearing long underwear and four layers of clothes on my body core and was just barely warm enough. You can’t bring too many clothes to this event.

Here's what the weather looked like after lunch. It was a great day on the water. Photo credit: Tim Carter - W3ATB

Here’s what the weather looked like after lunch. It was a great day on the water. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB

Puttering Along

Each safety launch is assigned a section of the regatta course to patrol. There were only five safety launches out on practice day, but on Saturday and Sunday there are usually no less than ten of the funny open pontoon boats scattered on the Charles River.

Our captain, Kevin, was an experienced pilot and this was his third year working the event. We kept to the Cambridge side of the river and hugged the shore because some lane buoys were often just 100 feet, or less, from the shoreline.

Here's Kevin checking out the launch controls before we left the dock. Photo credit: Tim Carter - W3ATB

Here’s Kevin checking out the launch controls before we left the dock. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB

We spent the day motoring at no-wake speed going up and down the river always scanning the rowers looking for someone who was in trouble. Fortunately no one ended up in the water all day. That’s what we, as volunteers, want. No medical emergencies were reported all day. That’s also a good thing.

Radio Traffic

The radio operators in charge of the event set up three different frequencies to handle the radio traffic. Two of them utilized local repeaters and the third frequency was a local simplex radio-to-radio frequency.

Signal propagation can change from day to day and hour to hour. We discovered that the Bravo – or secondary repeater – produced a much better clarity so all of us switched to it by Noon.

Here I am with wind-swept hair. The Weeks Bridge is in the background. It's just down river from the historic Harvard Boathouse. Photo credit: Patrick the BC student First Aid crew member

Here I am with wind-swept hair. The Weeks Bridge is in the background. It’s just down river from the historic Harvard Boathouse. Photo credit: Patrick the BC student First Aid crew member

I was equipped with two Yaesu VX-7R hand-held radios. Both had the three frequencies pre-programmed into the memory. That makes it easier to switch from one of the three frequencies we were using.

What it’s Like on the Water

It’s hard to describe what it’s like being on the water and watching the sculls go faster than the launch.

That’s why I taped a video. Watch it:

End of Day

The crews vacate the river after the sun sets. Each safety launch is released from duty once their section of the river is clear of the sculls.

We pulled into the dock at the MIT boathouse as twilight was deepening. I turned in my life preserver and Kevin and I walked the half mile back the parking lot where we could saddle up and head home.

He had a two-hour drive back to CT and I was headed north up I-93 to central New Hampshire.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day at the event and will be back next year. If you’re an amateur radio operator, I encourage you to volunteer. You’ll be a better person in many respects if you do, and you’ll get a handsome jacket and hat for your efforts.


The Amateur Radio Operator’s Beginner’s Guide to the Head of the Charles Regatta

If you’ve never worked the Head of the Charles (HOC) Regatta as a ham radio operator, the following should help you.


To the best of my knowledge there are just a few different assignments. I base this assumption on the assignment sheets the organizers sent out before the event.

It appears there are radio operators at:

  • boathouses on the course
  • key bridges crossing the Charles River
  • walking teams that go up and down the Boston and Cambridge shorelines
  • safety launch boats
  • event main tent – to communicate with HOC organizers about major problems
  • net control

There could be other assignments, but this is what I could decipher from the assignment sheet.

The walking teams probably are with first aid volunteers to offer assistance should a scull capsize near a shoreline. That’s just a guess as I’ve not talked with an operator who was on a walking team.

I wonder if it wouldn’t be a wise idea to have the walking teams use bicycles for faster response time, but once again, I don’t know enough about what they do to surmise if that’s a good idea.

Event Parking

Parking in Boston and Cambridge can be a challenge. The universities seem to provide parking passes for a few parking lots near key meeting locations.

I was able to park in an approved lot about 1/3 of a mile from the MIT boathouse. It was a short walk and quite safe.

If you work on the Saturday and Sunday you should never have an issue getting into Boston at 5:30 AM to make your 6 AM meeting time.

If you work the Friday practice day as I did, plan for SEVERE traffic congestion within a 10-mile radius of the regatta course. It took me an hour to go the last ten miles of my journey.

Take extra time before the event to acquaint yourself with the exact location of the parking lots and how to navigate the dreadful one-way roads in Cambridge and Boston.

Add in enough time to walk from the parking lots to your assigned meeting place.

Don’t trust Google Maps to provide you with the correct location for any names and/or addresses of the places the ham organizers tell you to be at for morning meetings. Google Maps sent me to the wrong MIT boathouse down river from the correct one.

Request from the communication team leaders satellite maps from Google Maps like the one below that has an annotation oval or arrow showing you the exact meeting places / parking lots / etc.

MIT Boathouse


I’m told past regattas have ranged from hot to snow, sleet and driving rain. Only a tiny handful of radio operators would be under any sort of cover for the day.

If you’re out on the regatta course, you’ll have NO COVER. The safety launch boats are wide open like a row boat.

If it’s raining, plan that you’ll be out in the rain all day.

If you get wet and cold, you’ll be useless to the crews in the sculls.

Wind is an issue. It cuts like a knife coming across the water.

The seasoned workers I saw had some or all of this:

  • highly water-resistant ski pants / jackets
  • rubber boots to keep feet dry
  • special fisherman overalls to keep legs and body core DRY
  • many multiple layers
  • waterproof shoes or work boots
  • knit hat
  • gloves
  • sun glasses

Whatever clothes you bring must fit in a backpack you can carry all day. Store extra clothes in waterproof bags inside the back pack. There’s plenty of room on the safety launches for large backpacks if that’s what you want to carry.

Food / Drink

Lunch is provided by the HOC event organizers. It was delivered to those of us who were out on the water. I suspect the same held true for all the other land assignments.

Bring snack food.

Bagels and doughnuts were provided at the early-morning meetings. I took two extra bagels and put them in my backpack. I was glad to have them as I had eaten breakfast at 5 AM. They made for a great mid-morning snack.

Radios & Gear

Hand-held radios work fine for this event.

I brought two of my expensive Yaesu VX-7R radios on the safety launch. That was a risky gamble in case there was a catastrophic accident aboard my launch.

It might have been smarter to bring two Baofeng $30 radios that could sleep with the fish at the bottom of the Charles River in the event I and the radios tumbled into the water.

Losing a favorite high-performance HT overboard would not be a pleasant experience.

I should have brought one of my Baofengs to see how well it performed. My guess is it would have had no trouble hitting the two repeaters.

Test your radios as you walk from the parking lot to the morning meetings to ensure you have programmed in the correct frequencies and settings.

BRING YOUR RADIO MANUALS or download a digital copies into your smart phone.

If you’re on a safety launch, attach a flotation pillow or put some bubble wrap inside your backpack. You want it to float in case your backpack ends up in the Charles River. Be sure there’s a name tag on your back pack.

Store your secondary radio in a sealed zip-lock freezer bag so it’s waterproof. Put some air in the bag to help your backpack float.

Speaker microphones come in handy.

Do NOT use VOX.

Check your radio to ensure it’s not sending out the 1750 Hz burst tone.


It’s very important for you to know where you are at all times. If there’s an emergency, you can bet the first thing net control will ask you is,”WHERE is the EMERGENCY?”

If you’re on a safety launch, ask the pilot if he knows the names of all the bridges. The pilots are given very detailed maps of the regatta course and I’m certain the maps show each bridge name

You need to know the names of the bridges if you’re on a safety launch. You need to know where you are if you’re on a walking team.

You need to know distances. How many feet or yards are you away from a bridge? Always be aware if you are up or down river from a certain bridge.

You need to know what side of the Charles River you’re on, or the nearest shoreline. It will either be the Boston or Cambridge side.

If you provide the wrong location for where the emergency is, precious moments could be lost that could make the difference between life and death for a crew member.


Bring a great attitude with you and soak up the excitement of the crews and the many sculls on the water at once.

Remember always that the crews and event organizers are quite aware of your presence even if they don’t say a word to you. They appreciate your efforts to keep them SAFE.

They realize you’re there to HELP them in the event something goes wrong. Don’t expect anyone to thank you, but if it happens it’s icing on the cake.

Respect the operators at net control and keep the frequencies open at all times as you never know when a full-blown emergency can happen.

If you have questions or if you’re a seasoned operator who’s worked this event, please ask questions in the comments below or provide MISSING INFORMATION or TIPS there.

Thanks and enjoy yourself when you work this event in the future.

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