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America loves to watch people suffer.

Boxing matches. Home videos of Dads getting whacked in the nuts by their kids’ whiffleball bats. Craning our necks to see just how awful that car crash is on the highway.

In 2014 a video of “carnage” on the river during East End Rowing‘s Snowflake Regatta popped up online and made the rounds on pseudo news sites like Deadspin, Reddit, E Online, and the Daily Dot as a simple gawk and snicker piece. (The women behind the camera, Mary Kay O’Shaughnessy has since closed her YouTube account and the video is no longer available). Crashes. Young rowers and coxswains making poor decisions. Parents on shore making snide remarks.

As a coach, it makes my stomach churn. No one talked about what actually happened, the flaws in the system, and why it should never come to this again at a regatta.

1. YOUTH COXSWAINS

There are plenty of successful youth programs that train their new coxswains well, ensuring that they understand steering, right of way, basic coxing commands, and even decent race calls. The Snowflake carnage video showed a massive lack of education (and confidence) on the part of the coxswains and rowers alike.

Veering off course into a pier or tall reeds on the shore line is a clear indication that the coxswain cannot control the boat. Whether it’s a lack of knowledge about steering or an inability for a small coxswain to look around their rowers to see what’s coming up ahead isn’t clear. Coaches need to assure coxswains that safety always comes first, even during a race. If a coxswain can’t steer their crew out of a dangerous situation, they should never hesitate to call “Weigh enough!”

[Read more about coxing …]

2. YOUTH ROWERS

Rowing teaches young athletes how to listen to their coxswains and follow directions. But if the coxswain is incompetent due to lack of training, someone else in the boat needs to be able to take charge, ideally the stroke seat, when boats get into a sticky situation.

Forty seconds into this video, a crash occurs between a non-racing W4+ sitting perpendicular on the river and a W4x racing in their lane. For the next minute and a half we watch the rowers and coxswain flounder, exasperated. There are half-hearted attempts to take strokes and untangle oars, but we see one stroke seat let go of her oar and flail her arms in a distress call for help from shore. Her coxswain becomes so distraught that he buries his head between his knees.

The situation gets even dicier when a third boat – another W4x – apparently racing in the next event, rows directly into the melee.

Most, if not all, of the athletes involved in the initial crash, appear to be completely panic stricken, with no idea of how to change the situation. That two rowers in the 4+ or one rower in the 4x didn’t have the wherewithal to commit to backing out of the way is a dead give-away that these young rowers have a lot to learn and confidence to gain.

Admittedly, unrafting from another boat is likely not on most coaches’ lesson plans. [Note to self: add this to the novice program lesson plan.]

3. RACE OFFICIALS

Why are races being sent off when it’s obvious that novice crews are sitting crossways to the course? And secondly, why aren’t there official safety launches flagging down the boats to warn them of an impending collision?

This video seems to show a “race at all cost” mentality, with a steely desire to keep the regatta moving on schedule rather than make sure that these juniors rowers are safe.

It also appears there’s a lack of volunteers, which is often the case for relatively small regattas. For a head race (Snowflake is 3500m), officials at the start line should be communicating via radio with officials at least at the mid-way point and others at the finish line.

4. PARENTS

At forty three seconds in, just before the impact of the crash between a W4+ and a W4x, listen closely. A Dad yells “Assholes!” Followed up by a callous Mom who shouts “You ruined it for them!” At 3:02, after managing to get themselves off of a buoy, a W4x is implored by a Mom to “Move out! Move out! … If you don’t know how to row, don’t row.”

Seriously? Not “Oh no! Are they all okay?” or “Ooh, that’s unfortunate.” But instead, in an overly-competitive frenzy, all these parents can muster are disparaging remarks that make the competition feel ashamed and guilty?

Based on the quality of rowing in this video, I’m guessing most of these kids didn’t even know what an oar was a few months ago. Sports provide an opportunity to teach our youth about fair play and sportsmanship, but can often allow talented athletes to act like bullies.

Rowing is a very challenging sport, and we rarely use the word “fun” when talking about it. We “play” football. We play basketball. We play baseball. Play is fun. Rowing is work. For a program to be successful, coaches aspire to develop their athletes’ technique and fitness, but also should provide an environment where young rowers can have fun.

Parents play a vital role in helping their aspiring athletes understand the true meaning of sport. There are innumerable life lessons to be learned through participation in a rowing program, and I implore parents to help make the regatta experience a positive one.

  • Encourage fair play
  • Demonstrate good sportsmanship
  • Applaud teamwork
  • Keep your emotions under control

Let’s hope East End Rowing, the coaching staff of crews that participated in the Snowflake Regatta, and all rowing clubs reevaluate preparation for youth racing in the future.

  • Prepare the athletes with more knowledge, more confidence building activities, and basic safety lessons.
  • Ensure a safe, successful regatta by employing a large volunteer contingent, and the appropriate number of race officials.
  • Talk with athletes AND parents about sportsmanship and implement changes to your crew programs that promote positive reinforcement.

“Maybe this can be used as a teaching tool for young kids [to learn] what to do when you get in a situation like that,” Mary Kay O’Shaughnessy told the Riverhead News-Review. “Or, you know, what not to do.”


Prepare for swamped or capsized boats. Download a poster from USRowing to hang in your boathouse.

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