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As the Coxswain Turns

BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Next step in the rowing calendar: head races! It seems that once again we can enjoy exciting long-distance races this fall after most of them were canceled last year. Some of these races are rightfully called “coxswains’ races” since a great performance by a steers-person can make a huge difference, especially on winding courses. The most well-known of such races is the Head of the Charles Regatta. Its challenging turns undoubtedly contribute to its appeal not only for rowers but also for spectators who can thrill to the excitement normally lacking in side-by-side races on buoyed courses.

Perfect coxing requires plenty of preparation and must be done in close cooperation with the coach and the rowers. First, you have to find information about the regatta. This can be done by checking the event website, of course, but the best way is to talk to a rower who has raced the course and can explain the challenges and how to navigate them best. If your coach cannot help in this regard, coxswains need to find a knowledgeable person outside their club. Fortunately, rowers are notorious for helping each other.

The ideal is for coxswains to be able to ask good questions about the specifics of the course.  To do this, they need to get an idea about its layout, which is provided in the regatta’s official information. Additionally, it helps to study the course on a map, which is easy to do nowadays online. Such sources will provide a general though possibly deceiving idea since turns may look more gentle than they really are. The notorious Weeks Bridge turn on the Head of the Charles course is an example. A map gives the impression that it is just a turn, but the bridge abutment and the reduced lane width and change of direction pose a major obstacle that can cost valuable seconds if navigated improperly.

This is where only experience can help identify the challenging parts of a course, along with tips on how to attack them. After coxswains gather all the necessary information, they need to know how their boats react to sudden and sharp turns. They have to be sure they can change direction when required. Some boats turn more easily than others, and most normal rudders are not designed for severe course changes. Sometimes it’s necessary to install a larger rudder, and the coxswain needs to experience how the boat reacts with this new equipment. The larger rudder may help make sharp turns but it reacts more sensitively to small deflections on straightaways, which not only costs time but may also upset the boat’s balance.

The coxswain should learn landmarks on the course that set the best direction as well as markers for tactical and motivational purposes. Some regattas offer special coxswain sessions where experienced rowers go over the racecourse in detail and offer pointers to navigate the race successfully. With all this information, coxswains can now prepare for the race by visualizing the entire regatta–the warm-up, assuming the proper position at the start line, steering the fastest route through all the turns and straightaways.

Having adapted to the right kind of rudder, coxswains need to learn how to approach a turn properly, which involves setting themselves in the correct position. In race-car driving, when a direction change is initiated, it’s called the turn-in point. In rowing, it’s the moment when the coxswain first lays the rudder. This turn-in point must be at the proper distance from the apex of the turn, which is the spot where the oars are closest to the bend of the course.  Being laterally closer to the turn reduces the horizontal distance to the apex but requires a much sharper course change, which may result in not making the turn and being pushed far to the outside. Similarly, being laterally farther from the turn makes the course change more gentle but moves the turn-in point horizontally away from the apex and necessitates covering a longer distance. Coxswains need to practice each turn to find the sweet spot that optimizes the distance traveled, the radius of the turn, and the best position thereafter.

In an actual race, all this decision-making can be complicated by other crews approaching the turn at the same time. To mitigate this, coxswains need to be able to judge the position and speed of all the crews in their vicinity, including their own. When a stronger competitor is on your heels and both boats are approaching the turn at the same time, not only is it fair to give the faster crew the right of way but also it reduces stress on your own crew and avoids possible panic and even a collision. In a case like this, anticipate the approach of the faster crew, choose your proper line to the turn while giving way to the overtaking boat, and use it to motivate your rowers to stay even as long as they can.

If you are the faster crew and you can see that you and the crew in front of you will reach the turn at the same time, make sure that you set your course long before the turn so that the slower crew can anticipate where you’re going and adjust their direction accordingly. In such an instance, it’s advisable to set up a CoxBox speaker in the bow facing the direction you’re rowing so you can inform the crew in front of you where you plan to head. Such a setup should never be used to intimidate or swear at the leading crew. If you expect them to be fair, you should set an example and be the same. Also, be aware that all your commands can be heard outside your boat. If the slower crew, for whatever reason, fails to yield the right of way, it’s better to accept the loss of a few seconds and focus and relax your own rowers so they can jump into action after the turn, instead of creating anxiety and causing an accident that may cost valuable seconds and damage your boat.

The final task is to draft the best race plan. Head racers need a lot of encouragement to stay focused and confident. Great coxswains make a huge difference here and can shave off seconds. Athletes need to know what’s expected of them on all the calls, and coxswains need to stay positive at all times, even in difficult situations. One can find recordings on the internet of top coxswains during races that provide excellent examples of exciting coxing. Coxswains, however, need to find their own way, one that translates best to their crew.

Obviously, the most important task of coxswains is to guide their boat over the course safely. Whatever the circumstance, the coxswain must work to ensure the welfare of every single rower in the boat.  With conscientious preparation, sensible anticipation of every contingency, and contagious enthusiasm, the coxswains fulfill their difficult roles, helping their crews achieve their best performance and making the race experience enjoyable for spectator and competitor alike.

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