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    Getting Ahead at the Head Races

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    Few things embody life imitating art quite like coxing a head race in the fall. You’ll likely never get this close to replicating Mario Kart in real life (at least not legally), which is how the Head of the Charles felt for me the first time I raced it. That’s part of the fun, though, and grasping the nuances of head racing only heightens the thrill. 

    Look at the course before you arrive.

    Google Maps and Google Earth are valuable and underrated resources for familiarizing yourself with the venue and racecourse before you arrive. Race maps aren’t always available publicly nor do they always make it out of your coach’s inbox and into your hands. Frustrating, yes, but it’s also an opportunity for you to take the initiative and pull up the course on Google in the days before your race. This will give you just as good a look at the turns, bridges, landmarks, and geography (how much room there is to navigate around turns and through bridges) and will help you plot where  to execute certain moves.

    Don’t count on being able to do your usual water warmup.

    Making your way to the starting line, especially at big regattas, tends to be a crowded affair. Sometimes you can row barely above half pressure or by anything less than all eight, which can make going through your standard warmup a challenge. To combat this, make sure you’ve got a land warmup that the crew is invested in so that when you’re on the water you can focus on getting from Point A to Point B without the distraction of having to call a detailed warmup and the crew can get into rhythm, establish swing, and focus internally. You still can get in a good warmup, though perhaps not as intricate as you’re used to. Communicating with the crew in advance about this is key.  

    Establish your rhythm early.

    Your priority coming out of your high strokes should be on lengthening to a sustainable pace and establishing your rhythm. To facilitate that, work your tone of voice and use your calls. The sooner the crew gets into rhythm, the better. You don’t want to be figuring this out when you’re eight minutes into a 3.5-mile race.

    Plan ahead. 

    This is where knowing the course and having studied it ahead of time will help you. In a head race, you always must be thinking one bridge or turn ahead, which means knowing where the buoy line is and whether you need to be on the outside or inside of this turn to get a better, faster, or more effective line on the next turn. 

    You’ve probably heard numerous times that the inside line is the fastest, but that isn’t always the case. The best example of this is the stretch between Weeks and Eliot on the Charles. Eliot is a bigger, more important turn than Anderson, so coming out of Weeks (a turn to port) you should line yourself up on the outside of Anderson (a turn to starboard), so that coming out of that one you’re lined up automatically on the inside of Eliot (a turn to port). This minimizes the number of crews you have to tussle with to get that inside line and has been my go-to strategy for nailing the Eliot turn for the last several years. Nothing boosts your confidence quite like seeing the rowers of the four in front of you realizing you swiped the better line right out from under their coxswain.

    Steer competitively and aggressively.

    You have to be smart, because your steering can make or break you. Patience and forethought will help you navigate 50 percent of the situations you’ll encounter. It begins with holding the cables correctly. You know the phrase “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” Look at steering the same way; the placement of your hands on the strings and gunwales is the initial step. 

    Know what the wind is doing and how that may impact you. If it’s a crosswind on your port side and you’ve got buoys on your starboard, give yourself some space so that if a gust hits you at just the right time it’s not going to push your bow to the wrong side of the line (this nugget of wisdom stems from a humbling experience at HOCR coming through BU Bridge a few years ago; I didn’t get a penalty but I did get an ego check.)

    Be objective about your steering ability. If you’re still working on fine-tuning your skill, don’t get cocky about putting your oars over the buoys. The minuscule amount of time saved is not worth the risk of getting nailed with a penalty, and there are other things you can focus on that can have a much bigger effect on your final time.

    On the flip side, while taking the scenic route is lovely for a weekend drive, you don’t want to be the coxswain the announcers call out for having your crew closer to the Cambridge shore than the Boston shore when going around the Eliot turn. This applies to any turn on any course unless you have a legitimate strategic reason (such as avoiding a collision or traffic jam). Don’t be so far off the buoy line that you put your crew at a competitive disadvantage.

    Communicate with your bow/stroke.

    I’ll say it again for the people in the back who didn’t hear it the first 8,000 times: Not yielding during a race because you didn’t see the other crew, didn’t know they were there, didn’t hear their coxswain yelling at you to yield, etc., is not an excuse and you deserve every second of the penalty you incur. 

    I get that you’re looking forward and you can’t see what’s behind you, blah blah blah, but your stroke/bow can and they should know (either through their own common sense or because you’ve discussed this with them beforehand) that they need to let you know in some way that a crew is behind you and you need to yield.

    Maximize your time in the straightaways.

    When you’re in long straight stretches, this is your best opportunity to pass a crew or make up time by steering laser-straight. Way too many coxswains fail to take advantage of this because they’re focused on unimportant stuff, such as the crew that’s four and a half lengths of open in front, or unaware of where they are and what’s happening around them.

    Work the crowds.

    If you’re neck and neck with another crew and you’re near a heavily populated spot on  the course, bring all that energy from the crowd into your boat. Use it to reignite your crew if the boat’s beginning to feel a little heavy or to add some extra fire to the start of a move. Make your crew think that all that cheering is for them and then harness that to help you move through the other crews, even if that means taking only a seat or two. Sometimes that’s all it takes to change the tone of a race.

    Know what logistics need to be handled, and then handle them.

    Figure out all the little things that might trip up an unprepared coxswain—heel ties, bow numbers, top nuts, subtle differences in rules—and take the initiative in handling them. Discuss this with your coach so you know beforehand your priorities once you get to the course.

    Better safe then sorry (always).

    Your most important job as a coxswain is to keep the crew, equipment, and yourself safe. Everything else is a bonus. Whether it’s on the water, walking to and from the launch site, or loading and unloading the trailer, your focus has to be on the safest course of action. There is obviously a risk-reward calculation when racing, but often there’s a fine line between taking a sharper turn to move ahead of another boat and putting your crew in jeopardy. Erring on the side of safety isn’t always popular, but better to annoy a few people for a short time than infuriate a lot of people for a long time. Not to mention staining your reputation indelibly. 

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