McCallie parents and crew supporters peered into the distance from atop the Walnut Street bridge Saturday afternoon. They were eagerly waiting for the Varsity 8 to travel around the bend and into site as they pulled their oars through the main stretch of the Tennessee River through the heart of Chattanooga.
"That's them," a parent with binoculars said as the eight boys in the boat and their coxswain came into view. They were taking a good line, rowing cleanly in the annual Head of the Hooch rowing regatta and looking strong from the perspective of the cheering supporters high above the river.
Their support grew louder as the boys approached and disappeared beneath the bridge. The group scurried to the other side in time to see the crew reappear. They glided toward Ross's Landing, where thousands and thousands of other rowers, their families and spectators awaited the latest in a seemingly never ending line of racing shells competing in one of the biggest rowing regattas in the world.
For the local competitors — from rowing clubs, high schools, colleges and other groups — it offered a chance to race in front of more than 10,000 people in their hometown.
"It's just really a fun, great experience for the guys," McCallie coxswain Reyan Naik said. "We come out here every year. It's one of the biggest regattas in the U.S.A., and for it to be on our home turf is just surreal."
As for the race, the boys' good line and synchronized paddling didn't equal a good result. As the boat crossed the finish line, their coach looked at his phone in disbelief. The time didn't make sense.
"Something must have gone wrong," he said.
It was an off day for the team and one of their worst showings of the fall season. They placed outside the top 20 of the more than 70 teams in their category. Teams they had beaten all season finished ahead of them, including arch rival Baylor.
Their coach, Sean McCourt, was perturbed with the result as he thought his boys may not have given their best effort. He hopes this last race of the season will serve as motivation for winter training before the team starts its main season in the spring.
"At the end of the day, it's a good way to end the fall," McCourt said. "But for us, it doesn't define our season."
The team will continue to practice some on the water before heading indoors for the colder months. The race will serve as a barometer for the team to see where they are now and where they need to be before their bigger races in the fall — including the Scholastic Rowing Association of America National Championships.
The Head of the Hooch is one of the largest rowing regattas in the world and billed as "The Last of the Great Fall Regattas" — as the rowing season comes to a close following the event.
"You can always slice and dice numbers," race director Daniel Wolf said. "But by all accounts, we're the second biggest in the country, and as far as we're aware, the second largest in North America and not unlikely to be second or third largest in the world."
The two-day event has close to 9,000 rowers plus coaches, families and spectators. The event usually sees an estimated crowd between 15,000 or 20,000 people and can get up to 25,000 during a busy year when the weather is nice. The 2,200 boats are only roughly 100 or 200 less than the largest regatta in the country: Head of the Charles in Boston.
The free event continues Sunday at Ross's Landing from 7:50 a.m. until 3 p.m.