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Revenge of the Bowloader

Having bicycled down to the starting line at Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester to follow some of my crews in their heats, I stood and watched as heat after heat of coxed fours accelerated away from the stake boats. In all, 120 boats screamed off the start, wound it up, and dreamed of a place in the finals. And surprising to no one at all, every single shell was bow-coxed.

I remembered back to 1980, the first year that I coached a crew at this New England Interscholastic Rowing Association regatta. In that regatta, my boys first boat was the only bow-coxed shell. I had arrived at Groton in March because the head coach, Todd Jesdale, was taking a sabbatical from coaching rowing. It wasn’t a happy separation; he was upset by the lack of support from the athletic department and walked away to coach baseball. I was hired to fill in. Among the many legitimate grievances that Todd had was the fact that he had ordered a bow-coxed four from Schoenbrod and the school’s business manager, not an oarsman himself, had tried to cancel the order, calling it “an experimental boat” that had no place in high school rowing. The boat arrived at our boathouse about the same time that I did. It was exciting to have the first lie-down shell, but the design was also a bit disappointing. The whole cockpit was open and there was a tall back support at a 45-degree angle for the coxswain; the coxswain wasn’t sitting up, but neither could he lie down fully.

A former coxswain myself, I was suspicious of the new boat. How would the coxswain do any coaching? Todd asked me, “When was the last time you heard a high school coxswain doing valuable coaching?” I listened carefully to my coxswains in the stern and heard a lot of motivating, a lot of counting, and a lot of calls like, “Get the timing! Get the timing!” and had to agree; there was not a lot of valuable coaching going on.

What is the thinking behind a lie-down cox? If a coxswain can be prone, then his or her weight can be right down on the hull; it is ballast, helping to stabilize the boat. There is also probably some aerodynamic benefit from not having a body sitting upright. In stern coxed boats, the coxswain swings fore and aft with every stroke, adding instability.

The first boats to feature a lie-down cox were pairs, developed by Georg von Opel in Germany in the 1950s. They were immediately successful. Within 10 years, the bow cox had spread to fours.

There is one clear advantage to a bow coxswain, of course. Finally, he or she can see. Try coxing an eight sometime; they are virtually always stern coxed, and you will discover how little vision you have. It’s near impossible to see over your rowers; looking around the bodies in front of you is as challenging as getting stuck behind an eighteen-wheeler while needing to pass on a two-lane road. Since converting to bow-coxed boats, our coxswains rarely hit stumps, floating debris, or bloated animal carcasses anymore.

Are bow-coxed fours definitely faster? That’s a hard thing to prove because nowadays stern-coxed fours are so rare. It would be a challenge to arrange a race between the two types. In one of the most famous coxed four races ever, at the 1972 Munich Olympics the bow-cox East Germans raced down the course with the West Germans in a stern cox. The West Germans, dubbed the Bulls of Konstanz for their musculature, caught the “Easties” in the last 100 meters by rowing in the forties. People who were there describe it as the most frenzied, loudest crowd ever to cheer for a rowing race. It was the last time a stern-coxed four won a major international event.

At this year’s NEIRA regatta, I heard a rumor that one prominent college coach was ordering some fours but on one condition: they had to be stern-coxed. What do modern coxes think of doing their job in the bow? I asked Piper Higgins, my superb varsity coxswain this year. She has coxed a lot of eights and fours over the past four years. “I definitely prefer to be in the stern,” she said. “I can see the blades; I can see the puddles; and I can communicate with the stroke. In races, I can see the field much better, too. It’s quite difficult to look around and see behind you when you are lying down.” She warmed up to my question and made me aware of several other drawbacks. “The worst thing is that with a tall guy in the bow seat, I get hit in the head on every stroke. And the oarlocks are so close to my ears that I can’t hear much else. Plus, if the coach is behind the shell and says something, it’s hard to hear.” Those are legitimate reasons why she is excited about moving into eights in college, but I don’t expect that any fours coaches will be persuaded that they outweigh the vision, stability, and aerodynamics of the bow cox. These boats are here to stay.

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