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Peking 'dunk' team redeemed

After 2006 incident, eight finishes in 20th

One of the most-discussed events in the history of the Head of the Charles seemed an impossibility.

Despite years of oar-clashing and bridge-abutment-crashing, usually near the end of the 3-mile course between the Weeks Footbridge and Eliot Bridge near the finish, no boat had ever provided quite the spectacle as the Chinese eight entry last year.

After some bumper-boat action with the Beaver Boat Club around the Weeks Bridge, which began the delamination of its boat's hull, it was another mile before the University of Peking boat filled with water and submarined so rapidly that many of the rowers did not know what was happening and kept stroking as water rose to their chests.

As danger gave way to embarrassment - all were saved without injury - the incident became an anecdote for the ages, particularly when coxswain Amy Sun explained a linguistic miscue made under duress led to the confusion.

"When we began to sink, I asked them if they could swim," Sun said at the time, "and they all jumped off the boat."

The sinking/rescue has become one of the most frequently visited rowing entries on YouTube. Still, yesterday, the Peking team was back with seven of the eight rowers from last year and Sun still barking the cadence from the cox seat in the collegiate eights event.

Under the summery sunshine beaming on the river, the orange-clad Chinese rowers, while starting in last position (42d), powered up the river, Sun steering a tight, somewhat risky course under the Eliot Bridge to overtake the University of Florida near the finish.

Peking finished 20th in 16:09.19. A second Chinese entry, Tsinghua, finished 26th in 16.21.07.

Sun, a graduate student at MIT and a member of the boat club that rows daily on the Charles, was offered the cox seat again.

"This year we had no tense moments," said Sun, who is captured famously in a photograph standing alone in the sunken boat after the team jumped into the river.

Sun said there was some joking about last year's incident among the crew, but that no one seemed intimidated by the course, which is sometimes called the most challenging in the world.

Snaking its way upstream from Magazine Beach, the course runs under seven bridges, and when the eights - the longest boats in the regatta at 60 feet - get close to each other, there is an ever-present danger of contact.

"We had a lot of open water today," Sun said yesterday, "and I was able to row the line we wanted. We set up the way we wanted for the Weeks turn, and came up on a few other boats. We passed [the University of Florida] at the [Buckingham Brown & Nichols] dock. Everything was very smooth."

Sun, who speaks with the rowers in Mandarin, noted the difficulty the team has traveling such a long distance.

"A lot of time they don't know until fairly late that they're going," she said. "Everything they have, they have to borrow.

"It can be tough on them."

Despite the fact the sinking is often referenced as a moment of humor, the Head of the Charles safety committee did a thorough review of procedures following last year's race, and made several changes.

Even though the sinking "was a once-in-a-50-year event," according to executive director Fred Schoch, changes were needed in an event that has grown to such huge numbers.

The two biggest changes were the addition of more rescue launches, and three umpires along the course who have the authority to stop a race or keep another one from starting.

"We have always been cognizant of liability when you have so many boats on the river," Schoch said during the week. "So it was time to make some safety changes."

Since its inception in 1965, the Head has grown to a two-day event with 55 races, 1,736 boats and 8,220 rowers.

Schoch had nothing but high praise for the Chinese crew.

"This is redemption for them, a clean shot at going down the course," he said. "For 12 months they've been planning their return and this time they brought another school along. Good for them."

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