How to Steer an Eight or Four

Steering is a crucial skill that coxswains need to master quickly. How you steer a race can mean the difference between winning and losing and it’s something that rowers think about when determining who they trust as their coxswain. Rowers don’t want to put all that effort into a 2k only to end up 3rd because their coxswain was drunk steering or playing ping pong with the buoy lines down the course.

Steering is by far the toughest technical aspect of coxing – a 53′ long fiberglass shell is no easy piece of equipment to maneuver, especially when you first start out, but the coaches and rowers are relying on you to steer the boat safely down the river. Steering is, above anything else, a safety issue. If you’re not paying attention or over steering or whatever, there is the potential for you to hit something or someone, causing injury to the boat, the crew, or someone else on the water.

The problem with being thrown into the coxswain’s seat as a novice is that coaches give you two pieces of advice before sending you on your way – “don’t hit anything and steer straight”. The thing they forget to do is tell you how to steer straight. Below are some basic pieces of advice that will hopefully help you decode the steering process and improve your own steering abilities. It’s a simple and complex process all in one but if you’re diligent about practicing, you’ll pick if up in no time.

Pick a point and steer towards it. Make SMALL adjustments when necessary to stay on that point. Every so often during practice (NEVER during a race) look behind you and see the path you’ve taken – you should be able to see it in the water. If for the most part it’s pretty straight, good job. If it looks like the kind of zig zag you’d see on an 80s t-shirt, lay off the strings a little.

When the rudder isn’t straight it can throw off the set, which distracts the rowers and takes their focus away from what they’re supposed to be doing. Don’t make them work any harder than they already have to. Turning the rudder also adds a bit of drag to the boat and will slow it down (something to be aware of if you need to make adjustments during races).

Keep your body centered in the seat, try not to shift from side to side. This can throw off both the set of the boat and your point, since you’re adding more weight to one side. Lean when necessary but keep such movements to a minimum. If you’re moving around a lot AND telling the rowers to adjust the set, they’re never going to know if it was their handle heights that fixed the boat or you re-centering your weight. If you’re trying to see around the rowers, sit up on the back of the coxswain’s seat for a stroke or two. This keeps you fairly centered in the boat and causes minimal movement from side to side. Never, EVER do this during a race – only during practice.

There’s a delay between when you adjust the rudder and when the boat actually turns. Depending on how fast you’re going it could be half a stroke or two strokes. Don’t over adjust thinking that the boat isn’t turning…give it time. The time it takes for your boat to respond depends on many factors, including how old the boat is. The older it is, the longer it typically takes to respond. Pay attention when you get in a new boat to how long it takes so you know ahead of time how long it takes for your boat to start turning.

When you make any steering adjustments is really up to you and what you find works best. The most common rule of thumb is that you should steer when the blades are in the water since that is when the boat is most stable and is less likely to be thrown off balance by the rudder movements. For me, I’ve found that I get a better (and smoother) response from the rudder if I steer when the rowers are on the recovery. This might differ depending on your shell, the rowers, etc. but you should find what works and is most effective for you and then stick with it. When you’re on the rudder make sure you tell the rowers since it can/will mess with the set a bit, particularly if you’re going around a long turn. All you need to say is “I’m on the rudder” and what they need to do to compensate to balance the set (lift/lower the hands). On small adjustments though this is unnecessary since one tap of the rudder is unlikely to throw the shell that far off balance.

To turn left (port), push your left hand forward. To turn right (starboard), push your right hand forward. Once you’ve made your adjustment, bring your hands back to their original position. The best way to know when your rudder is straight is to get some brightly colored electrical or duct tape and mark the center of the string (above your cox box). Do this when the boat is on land that you can move the rudder to it’s straight position before marking the string.

If you’re using the rowers to turn or point you, make sure you only use as many rowers/as much pressure as necessary. If you use more of either, you’re going to be pointed in the opposite direction that you want to go. Specify exactly who you want to row and how much pressure (ie “bow and 3, take three 3/4 pressure strokes”). Know when to have them stop rowing too. If you have them row until you’re perfectly straight, you’re going to end up over-adjusted. Row until you’re about 90% pointed and then use the rudder to adjust the last 10%. If it’s windy or there’s a strong current, you’ll need to adjust for that too.

When sitting easy in the water, use bow and 2 to get your point. For large adjustments have them take a full 1/2 pressure stroke and for small adjustments have them take an arms only stroke. (Remind them that half-pressure means half-pressure, not zero-pressure.)

Anticipate turns and bends in advance and make your adjustments as necessary. Don’t wait until the last minute – by then, it’s too late (think Titanic…). The pivot of the boat is usually somewhere around 3 seat, so the turn the boat takes might not be what you expect. Think about the trajectory of the boat ahead of time.

Always keep your hands on the strings. Never take them off unless you’re sitting easy and not moving. If there isn’t some kind of tension on the balls while the boat is moving, the water current will move the rudder around, which will cause your steering to be all over the place.

I often find that when I have both hands on the strings, I over steer. To force myself to only steer as much as necessary, I only steer with one hand. 90% of the time it’s my right, since I’m right handed, but if I’m making a particularly large turn, I’ll switch to my left. I hate wearing the mic so I always hold it in my left hand (during practice only, never races), which means I only have one hand available to steer anyways. If your coach is OK with you doing this, try it during practice one day and see if it makes a difference. It has REALLY helped me combat my over-steering, which has always been my biggest issue.

For more tips on steering, check out the “steering” tag.

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9 thoughts on “How to Steer an Eight or Four

  1. Pablo Padovani says:

    Thanks for those tips…
    It helped me a lot . I am from Brazil and I am one of the only coxwains here so that kind of information is kind of rare.

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