Standing a mere 5’ tall (or short, depending on your perspective), I am apparently the ideal size to be a coxswain.

Considering I can’t reach the top shelf of anything… anywhere… ever, one can imagine how thrilled I was to learn this. I knew what a coxswain was, but what did a coxswain actually do? “Steer the boat,” I was told. “Motivate the rowers,” they said. Okay, I thought. It seemed pretty straight forward.

In theory, it was; but in practice, not so much.

As a novice coxswain (which, in this case, can be defined as simply a novice – with respect not just to being a coxswain, but to all things relating to rowing), my first few times on the water were spent in the launch with the coach. From there, I picked up on some very basic terms pretty quickly; and heard the coach’s feedback for the rowers loud and clear. Eventually, I started to spot some mistakes on my own and would wait to hear if the coach pointed out what I had observed. When she did, I started to feel like I had a decent handle (by novice standards) on how the rowers – and the oars – should look going into and coming out of the water, as well as the ways in which the boat should move… and would move, had all contributing factors fallen soundly into place. From the launch, I felt ready to sit in the stern of an eight and steer my teammates down (or up?) the Anacostia River, and back. But once I got in a boat, I wasn’t so sure why I had this seemingly false sense of confidence.

I could barely cox the boat out of the boathouse and onto the water, so how could I have fooled myself into thinking I could actually steer a boat in which I’ve never been and motivate these rowers – and at the same time?! To say I was nervous would grossly undermine the feelings of stress, anxiety and utter fear I had coursing through my head and my heart. Now that I was in it, how I would actually move this boat without a pair of my own oars? Where was I again – the stern or the bow? Is 1 seat in front of me, or is that 8? Which side is starboard? Which one is 1 again? WHY ISN’T 1 IN FRONT OF ME? It would’ve made more sense to have 1 in front of me. The passages under the bridge are way narrower than they seemed from the launch. WHERE’S THE LAUNCH? Am I supposed to be counting these strokes? Are they waiting on me to say something? In two? And two? Why two? What if I need more time than only two strokes allow? Why are they still rowing? Ok, IN TWO. What’d you say Coach? Oh, weigh enough. Ohhhh. IN TWO, WEIGH ENOUGH. ONE. TWO. Thank you. How do I get this boat to turn? Six and eight back? Row back or just back? Back what? Only four? WHICH FOUR? Do these boats ever tip? What happens if this boat tips? How do I avoid crashing into the dock? Wait! Slow down. This side row. What side? THIS SIDE! WEIGH ENOUGH!

“Commanding the rowers, steering the boat, rotating by pairs, even plain old counting proved to be difficult. And I’m not talking about fancy counting, just counting to eight by twos.”

It’s amazing how everything I knew just one day prior, escaped me completely once I was on the water. Commanding the rowers, steering the boat, rotating by pairs, even plain old counting proved to be difficult. And I’m not talking about fancy counting, just counting to eight by twos. Frankly, it’s an embarrassing admission. But I’ve found that being a novice among novices makes for a very forgiving coxswain/rower relationship. When I miscounted and left a pair sitting out for way too long (or even worse, left a pair in for way too long), my teammates would give me a gentle reminder. When I miscalculated a turn and asked one side to pick up the pressure, they never complained. And when I asked the boat for help, my stroke always obliged. I made coxing errors constantly (and still do, though it’s been awhile – only because of the season, not because of my skill), but was always commended for a “job well done.” Even when I felt like there couldn’t possibly be a worse coxswain – in all of the land – than myself, my teammates always thanked me. And those were some of the moments that helped build my confidence the most. So as my teammates prepare to ascend the rowing ranks, they remain to be my largest motivating factor. Because I don’t want to be the one to slow them down. And though we may have only achieved a few good, solid, collective strokes over the course of our novice season, it only takes one good stroke to know what proper, powerful rowing feels like.

Crystal Hudson is a coxswain with DC Strokes Rowing Club. She played basketball and soccer in high school. Crystal was the Director of Game Operations for the Washington Wizards & Mystics before taking a position as the Senior Marketing Officer of Entertainment & Sports Marketing at Amtrak.