Although rowing races occurred regularly on the Des Moines River in the late 1800s, the modern-day history of the Head of the Des Moines Regatta goes back to 1983 when would-be rowing enthusiasts tried to stage a regatta in spring but had to cancel because of snow and ice and high water.
The event was rescheduled to fall, the last Saturday in September, and was turned into a Head Race, a 2.87-mile row from our Botanical Center (now known as the Botanical Garden) upstream to Prospect Park. A tradition was born and we have held our event on the last Saturday in September ever since, come heat or high water. This year marks the first time ever that our event will be rowed downstream.
The weather for the Head of the Des Moines Regatta is typically mild, a crisp fall morning with leaves turning colors, followed by a partly sunny day. But there have been exceptions. In 1993 and 2008, our 10th and 25th anniversaries respectively, we experienced severe flooding and were evacuated from our river boathouse for most of the season. In 1993, we actually had to move the event to Easter Lake. In 2008, we returned to the river, as the city repaired badly damaged Prospect Park docks just in the nick of time. But most years, our river is held at a constant ideal rowing level by the Saylorville Dam 10 miles upstream.
Crews and clubs typically come to compete from all of our surrounding states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and even Colorado. Over the years, we have hosted rowers from beyond those borders, such as Harvard and Radcliff, Philadelphia and overseas. The rowers from Harvard commented on how they felt our course was similar to the Head of the Charles in terms of bridges (we have several) and curves, only they liked the more natural feeling of our river.
A hallmark of our regatta has been the artistic talent in the club. Every year, the regatta features a new design and color theme that a plays throughout our posters, programs, t-shirts, and even our medals. When we bring our past year’s posters out on display, they call to mind each distinct and wonderful year of our colorful history. We hope you can come and be a part of that history this year.