For the past 15 years, the Head of the Hooch, one of the world's largest rowing regattas, has attracted thousands of competitors and spectators alike to the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga. But this year, come the first weekend of November, the typically packed banks and bridges will be empty.
In early August, Head of the Hooch officials announced that the annual event was going virtual due to the pandemic.
"I was definitely disappointed when I first heard the news," says Chynna Knight, 19, varsity rower and team captain of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga crew.
Knight began rowing as a high school freshman in Maryville, Tennessee, after she was recruited by her school's coach.
"He called me out of the crowd in gym class and asked me to come sit on the rowing machine — probably because of my height," Knight says. "I'm 6'1. I've always been a tall girl, and height is definitely an advantage [in crew]."
The next day, Knight attended her first practice, which took place on the Tennessee River near Knoxville. She remembers how the team welcomed her and how beautiful it was to watch the sunset on the water.
"The sport and I just clicked," she says.
At age 14, Knight attended her first Head of the Hooch. This year's would have been her fifth regatta.
"There is nothing like being on the water with your teammates, hearing your coxswain yelling at you and seeing your competition all around you, " says Knight.
Head of the Hooch is Nov. 7-8. For more on the race and how to watch, visit headofthehooch.org.
In lieu of the on-the-water event, Head of the Hooch competitors will race remotely this year via an online venue using their own indoor rowing machines.
Organizers hope to simulate the real experience as best as possible. To do so, they've partnered with virtual reality experts HereNow to develop a 3-D rendering of the Tennessee River, complete with landmarks such as the Walnut Street Bridge. Athletes, racing in real time, will connect their machines to the virtual course via Bluetooth while spectators watch live from their mobile devices.
Though Knight says she'll miss the in-person camaraderie and the community support, she's trying to stay positive. The virtual event, she says, will make the regatta accessible to more competitors.
"It's an opportunity for more people to participate that maybe couldn't afford the trip to Chattanooga," she says. "It won't be the same, but it will still be fantastic."