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[Revised 10.10.17]

My first time at the Head of the Charles, back in 2010, I was cocky and under-prepared (see post HOCR 2013: In the Driver’s Seat), making botched calls and steering a less-than-stellar course. My goal since then has been to learn something new each time I get out on the Charles River. Check out my top 5 things every coxswain should know… so you don’t make the same mistakes I once did.

Study the Course to Steer the Most Efficient Line

Confidence only goes so far. It requires more than a passing glance at the HOCR map to be ready to compete in Boston. Over 3 miles you’ll pass under seven bridges and make five sweeping turns. Sure, you could just follow the crews in front of you, but you should never trust another coxswain’s line.

Check out these resources to prep for the race:

Know the Rules, Regulations, and Penalties

BUOYS: Stay between the orange buoys on port, and the green buoys on starboard. Oar blades may go over the buoys but the hull of your boat must stay inside the buoy line. If the hull crosses the buoys, you’ll be assessed a 5-second penalty for the first buoy, and a 10-second penalty for any additional buoys passed on the wrong side.

BRIDGES: Passing through certain arches is off limits. Study up, because an infraction will result in a 60-second penalty in addition to any buoy violations incurred by doing this.

YIELDING: If your boat is being overtaken by another crew, you need to give up your line and let the passing boat take the course they want. If they’re within a boat length, start moving over and be completely out of their way when they are within a 1/2 boat length. If you don’t move out of the way of a passing boat, you’ll be assessed a 60-second penalty the first time, 120 second penalty the second time, and a disqualification if you fail to let three or more boats pass.

COLLISIONS: If in the process of passing or being passed, a collision occurs, the crew that causes a severe collision may be assessed a 60-second penalty.

UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT: In the thick of it, when things get exciting, we all like to drop an F-bomb. But swearing at other rowers, coxswains, or (very stupidly) officials, is a sign of disrespect that can get you a 60-second penalty.

Check out the full set of general responsibilities and rules of racing on the HOCR website.

Be Prepared for any Kind of Weather

October in Boston can be sunny and clear in the morning, windy and cold by the afternoon. Wear layers in the boat – if you’re coxing a bow loader, wear a water resistant jacket and pants, you’ll be much happier. A hat and sunglasses are important, and possibly even gloves if it’s chilly enough.

Call a Great Race

There are going to be standard calls you make no matter what boat you get in, no matter who the rowers are. Calls for big legs, quick hands, and quiet bodies. You’ll ask your crew to take ten to move through a boat, 15 to push away from a bridge, or heavy strokes from port/starboard to make a turn. All of these are important, but they are only a piece of the puzzle. Plan in advance for a few special calls by knowing your crew …

Know Your Crew

What motivates your crew? Why have these athletes chosen to be rowers? What do they love about the sport? About racing? What are they insecure about in the boat? You don’t need to have them fill out a survey, but you should throw these sorts of questions into casual conversation. Their answers can give you gems to work with on the course.

A few years ago year, one of my rowers said he had butterflies in his stomach the day before the race, so I made a “It’s going to burn, and it’s going to be okay” call that, once we were back on land, he said knew was for him. Confidence boost? Check!

One of the rowers in my MM4 one year says “whatnot” a lot. Used in a sentence: “I have to make sure to double check my rigger nuts, washers, and whatnot…” It’s become a running joke, and during tough practice pieces and races I’ll give a “Bring the whatnot!” call to motivate him to empty the tanks.

Have fun
If you’re not having a good time, your crew’s probably not having a good time. When things go right in the boat, let the rowers know: “Good set! Just like that! Do it again.” Keep it positive, otherwise there’s potential for a downward spiral into self-doubt, fatigue, and frustration.

A final note

Notice I didn’t mention memorizing the names and locations of all the bridges and boathouses. If you can do this, super (I still can’t …) If your rowers can do it, well la di da. But I’ve found that communicating “first bridge coming up in 10 strokes!” or “pushing away from bridge 3!” seems to work just fine. It’s not a quiz – if you forget the name of a bridge, it doesn’t impact the outcome of the race. I also sight off the buoys and arches and have yet to use a landmark on shore for steering (probably from years of sighting buoys from in the water for triathlon swims), so memorizing boathouse names won’t help me.“Sweet! I’ve got my line into the center arch. Get there!” gives the crew all the information they need.


Do you have HOCR tips or stories to share? Email me at rachel@rowsource.com to join the conversation.