Coxswain Bags, pt. 2: What I carry in my backpack

Part 1

I grew up with my dad always talking about Boys Scouts. He was involved in it as kid, eventually progressing to the rank of Eagle Scout, as was my brother who also recently achieved his Eagle Scout rank. The Boy Scout motto is perhaps one of the few, if not the only motto I know – “Be prepared.” My backpack isn’t so much a regular backpack as it is a veritable treasure chest full of everything you could possibly ever need while out on the water and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t represent the Boy Scout motto better than anything else I’ve ever seen.

A question was once asked of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement, that said “Be prepared for what?” His response?

“Oh, for any old thing.”

I’ve often been told by fellow coaches that I remind them of a Boy Scout because I am quite literally prepared for anything that might happen on the water. As a coxswain, it’s your job to be in control and to be prepared for whatever situation might arise. Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. You have to anticipate these circumstances and make sure you have the necessary tools available should you need them.

Below I’ve posted photos that show the contents of my bag. Since I’ve started coaching it’s transitioned from just a coxing bag to also include some of my coaching tools as well. It might seem like a lot of stuff, but I promise you, every single thing has a purpose. Some things I use all the time and others I only use every few months. The important thing is to always have what I need on hand in case a situation comes up where that particular item is necessary.Previously (and for the last 10+ years) I’ve been using a black Nike drawstring bag for practically anything and everything – school, crew, travel, life, etc. When I started coaching, I decided that I wanted something specifically for crew so I wouldn’t have to take everything out of my Nike bag when I wanted to use it for something else. Specifications were something that had ample amounts of space to store stuff so I wouldn’t have to dig to find what I needed, black, and waterproof. I found this cross-body backpack on eBay and asked my brother to get it for me as a month and a half early birthday present. Below you can see what it looks like from the front and the back. On the front strap, above the pink ribbon and slightly obscured by my hair, is a pouch for your cell phone. When I’m not on the water I keep my phone in there (it’s the perfect size for my iPhone 4.) Here’s the front:And the back:And no, before anyone asks, I don’t expect my little yellow floater to keep my backpack above water should it ever fall in. It’s just there for decoration, as are the two pins on the front pocket (one from CRI and one from Head of the Charles). That picture has everything I carry with me in the bag, so you can get an idea of what it looks like when it’s full. It really doesn’t look or feel any more bulky than your average backpack. So far, I’ve had it for about 9 months and it’s been amazing. Knock on wood, I haven’t had any problems with my stuff getting wet when I’m out in the rain or when I end up sitting in a few inches of water in the boat (which actually happened, thanks to a particularly hurricane-esque morning on the Charles back in May). It has sat in 4 inches of water in an 8+ before and my stuff inside stayed perfectly dry, which I took to be a true test of it’s waterproof-ability. I don’t recommend doing this, but at the time I didn’t have any other options, so I was pleased that my stuff stayed protected.

The backpack itself has four compartments – two on the front (one small, one medium), a small one on the side, and then the large main compartment. I’ll start with the front pockets and work my way up.No self-respecting coxswain goes out on the water without Hot Hands. I carry these with me all the time, even in the summer (sometimes the mornings can still be a little chilly at the beginning and end of the season). They’re great to keep in your hands, obviously, but on particularly cold mornings I’ll even put some under my ear warmer to keep my ears warm. In addition to Hot Hands, I also recommend the Hot Hands heated insoles for your shoes. I wear my Hunter Wellies once it’s too cold to wear sandals and usually have a pair of the insoles with me just in case my toes are extra cold that morning.This is is everything I keep in the other front pocket. In the small black cosmetic bag I keep a spare set of  AA and AAA batteries. The AA batteries are for my camera and the AAA are for my recorder. These are a recent addition that I wouldn’t have thought to add until my coach was trying to get footage of our 8+ one morning and his camera died. Towards the end of the fall I tried to record every outing, so having a spare set  ensured that I’d never get caught trying to record something with dead batteries. I’m not sure why I have Super Glue in here, but I can’t find a reason to NOT have it, so it gets to stay. I also keep sunscreen in this pocket. 100+ degree days combined with absolutely NO cloud cover and a lot of sun reflecting off the water led to some pretty wicked sunburns this summer, most of which probably could have been prevented if I’d put sunscreen on. The reason I carry it with me is, in fact, not so much for myself as it is for the rowers (although it’s just as important for you to wear it as it is for the rowers). Before you go out, make sure everyone has some on, especially on the backs of their necks and shoulders. The sunscreen I have is Neutrogena’s Wet Skin and Ultimate Sport. Both work amazing, so I highly recommend either (or both).

Another thing that I make a point to note when discussing sunscreen is to please, please, PLEASE check the expiration date of your sunscreen if you use a bottle that you’ve had at home for awhile. When I was a senior in high school I was racing in Virginia and my boat got stuck on the water for SIX HOURS due to … something. I don’t even remember what it was, but we were stuck up by the starting line forever. It was hot and extremely sunny, but I’d put sunscreen on earlier in the day so I wasn’t too worried. When we got off the water I started to feel like I’d gotten burned but didn’t realize the extent of it until the bus ride home. I’d put sweatpants on and fallen asleep, but when I woke up it was like my legs were on FIRE. I took my sweatpants off and … trust me, you NEVER want to see your legs be the color mine were. Tomatoes looked albino in comparison. I had also completely lost my voice, which was a very, very rare occurrence for me. By the time we got home, I’d developed huge blisters all over my shoulders, neck, and legs (which made wearing clothes unbearable). I can’t think of a time when I have been so incredibly miserable. I ended up going to the doctor a day or two later and thought to bring my sunscreen with me, just in case. We found upon closer inspection of the bottle that it had actually expired six months prior, which, as evidenced by my burns, indicated that it didn’t protect me from the sun at all. I was sunburned SO bad that I had actually burned my vocal cords, which was why I lost my voice. I couldn’t talk above a whisper for nearly two weeks, all from a sunburn. Let this be a warning – check the expiration date on the bottles.
This is what I keep in the small side pouch (which you can’t really see in either of the pictures). The two screwdrivers are made by Concept2 to be used for tightening the oars. If you have Concept2 oars (what else would you have…) you probably have some spares lying around your boathouse, but if you want your own, the manual they send with the oars recommends a T-20 screwdriver. The abundance of pens is for when I’m coaching. I take a lot of notes on what I see while I’m on the launch, so having pens handy is a plus. I don’t recommend trying to take notes while you’re coxing though – use your recorder instead. In addition to the pens, I like to keep a Sharpie or some other kind of permanent marker with me in case there’s something that needs labeling. I’ve used it to mark tape on the boat and to label boat slings, among other things. Having some kind of writing implement in your bag eliminates trying to search for one in the boathouse, so try and keep at least one pen or pencil with you at all times. The last thing I keep in this section is a few individual Crystal Light packs. When it’s really hot out and I’m on the launch, I try and keep a water bottle with me at all times, but I’m not a huge fan of the taste of water so I keep some Crystal Light with me to make it more tasty.

I use vinyl cosmetic bags to hold everything so that if for some reason the interior of my bag does get wet, everything will still be fairly protected. When I bought these bags, they came in a set of 3, which was great since they were all different sizes and it was cheaper than buying individual bags multiple times over. Check WalMart, Target, CVS, Walgreens, Duane Reade, etc. for similar ones.You can honestly never have enough band-aids. Johnson & Johnson could give you a lifetime supply and you’d run out in a week. Somebody is always getting a blister or cutting themselves on a rigger bolt or getting a splinter from the dock. Be prepared and stock up. When I bought band-aids, I bought every size I could find, from the smallest to the largest, which at the time seemed like overkill until a few weeks later when I was halfway through my stash. Having a supply of band aids in various sizes will save you a lot of time and sanity when your rowers aren’t complaining that the band aid they begged for is too big or too small for their blisters. My suggestion is to buy an assortment so you’re prepared for whatever sized blister or injury you’re presented with. Waterproof ones are ideal, as are the fabric ones over the plastic-coated ones. If you get gauze pads, make sure you get the kind that are NON-STICK. Nothing is worse than having your palm raw from a ripped-open blister only to have to pull gauze off of it. Gauze pads are also good if you have a rower who gets track bites on their calves, which can lead to a lot of pain and bloodshed. When it comes to athletic tape, I have a couple different rolls simply because people have different preferences. I have the flex wrap, regular cloth athletic tape, and a roll of Nexcare’s new flexible and breathable tape. So far the flexible & breathable one seems to be the most popular, but they’re all good options. The use of tape, especially among novice guys, seems to be a sign of how badass one is – the more tape on your hands, the more hardcore you are. That’s not it’s purpose, so don’t let your rowers waste it (that stuff is expensive!).In addition to my bag of band-aids, I also have another small bag that contains a lot of alcohol swabs, in addition to a few other things. I bought the alcohol swabs on a whim and I’ve been surprised at how useful they’ve been. If a rower has a blister pop or some skin get ripped off their hands I make them clean the spot off with the alcohol before they bandage it up. This helps eliminate any germs or anything that could potentially lead to an infection. If they bleed on the oar handle or anything, I’ll clean them off after practice with the alcohol too so that the next person who has that oar doesn’t get the previous person’s blood and sweat (and possibly tears) all over them. Neosporin is another item I keep in here, for obvious reasons. NewSkin is “controversial” amongst rowers – some love it, some hate it. I had an extra bottle lying around my apartment, so I keep it with me just in case. I got this small bottle of Nivea’s Express Hydration in the mail from Target and use it if/when my fingers get sore from holding the steering ropes. The last thing I keep in here is a small role of almost-gone athletic tape.
This bag was another freebie I got in the mail from Target. In it, I keep spare hair ties, chapstick, Advil, hand sanitizer, and Excedrin. If you cox for a girl’s team, expect to be asked at least once a day if you have an extra rubber band. Having a few spares definitely doesn’t hurt, although once you lend them out you might never see them again. I saw this chapstick on super-clearance at the grocery store one day so I grabbed a few of them. Do you know how painful and miserable it is trying to cox with dry, cracked lips from being out in the wind, rain, and snow for extended periods of time? It’s the WORST. It’s our equivalent of blisters. I always end up getting the worst chapped lips when it starts to get cold, so chapstick is my best friend throughout the fall and winter. The two that I have, in addition to Blistex’s Medicated ointment, are Chapstick’s Lip Shield 365 and Ultra Skin Protectant. The Advil is pretty self-explanatory; if someone is sore or has a headache or something, Advil can make practice a little more bearable for them. I wouldn’t advertise to everyone that you have this though…only break it out in case someone really needs it and they specifically ask you if you have some. Hand sanitizer, like the alcohol swabs, is just another thing to keep germs and bacteria at bay. If I’m cleaning off someone’s nasty handles or I’m the recipient of a particularly sweaty high-five (a common occurrence when you coach high school boys), I use some of this so I can feel slightly less gross for the time being. The Excedrin is just for me. I get really bad migraines that are both caused and exacerbated by light, which is really unfortunate when you’re out coaching or coxing on a sunny day. After spending a miserable four hours on the water one day with a skull-splitting headache, I decided I needed to have some medicine with me so I can take it if I feel one coming on. If you get headaches or anything like that, I definitely recommend keeping some medicine with you.
This bag contains my electronic stuff and a roll of electrical tape. I use the electrical tape whenever I need to mark where the boat is supposed to sit on the racks or to tape the workout or a note by my feet, amongst other things. I usually try and get a rundown of what we’re doing that morning from my coach, so I’ll scribble it down and then tape it to the footboard so I can see it throughout practice. You guys have heard me talk time and again about the power of video footage – it’s amazing. When I started coaching I bought myself a FlipCam on eBay so I could record the rowers and then watch the footage later. From the coxswain’s seat it doesn’t work that great but from the launch it’s really useful. The other thing I keep in here is my beloved recorder. I can’t remember when I bought this (sometime between junior and senior year of high school) but it was long enough ago that they no longer make this model. Every coxswain – regardless if you’re a novice, varsity, or elite – should have a recorder. Mine is an Olympus one that I keep in a compact travel container that I got from WalMart. It came with a clip-on mic, which I keep in the top part of the container. 9ish years later and it still works great. For those of you who are planning to cox in college, here’s a useful tip if your parents are skeptical about buying you one – tell them that in addition to coxing you’ll use it to record your lectures. I actually did this and it came in really handy while studying for exams.
Sometimes I get hungry when I’m coaching, especially during the summer when I’d go from my own practice right into coaching skills camp. Resealable bags of granola are just the trick for mid-morning or mid-afternoon snacks. After experiencing a tidal wave one morning while coxing, I had the displeasure of discovering once I got back on land that my phone got fried from the water. After I got a new phone, I decided that I needed something to protect it when I go out so that if we ever get swamped with water again, at least my obnoxiously expensive iPhone would be safe. My parents bought me this waterproof case to keep it in when I go out and so far, it’s worked like a charm, especially on days where it’s been raining. There was also that time my backpack wasn’t zipped all the way and the case with my phone inside fell out into the Charles when I tossed my bag into the launch…yes it floats, yes it’s waterproof, no my phone wasn’t harmed, and yes I did have a massive heart attack watching the case fly into the river.
A notebook is an invaluable resource to a coxswain. Keeping a record of who’s in your boat, what you did during practice, what drills worked, what didn’t, things you have questions on, your race strategy, etc. is just another thing that can make a good coxswain great. I have a couple notebooks, although I never have more than one of these in my bag at any given time. The first notebook is a basic Moleskine that I use for coaching (notes, lineups, etc.) and taking notes when I go to conferences and clinics. The second is a Markings notebook that I found at Target on super-clearance. I use this one to keep track of all my ideas and rough drafts for blog posts. The third is a Miquelrius notebook I picked up at TJMaxx (again, on super-clearance) to use as my actual coxing notebook. I used these notebooks in college and loved them because of the color-coded edges. Mine has four different colored edges and each represents something different – one is for practice stuff, one is for general boat notes, one is for race notes, and the other I haven’t come up with a use for yet. The fourth notebook is probably the greatest accessory to coxing ever. I’ve been wanting one for years and after winning trivia night at CRI I got some as part of my prize. They’re made by the company Rite in the Rain and what’s great about them is that the paper is waterproof, so you can use them when it’s raining, snowing, etc. and your writing won’t smear or smudge.
This is my traveling closet, without the actual clothes (those are permanently kept on the backseat of my Jeep). While I was back in Ohio in May I was going through my room and found this mini-mesh bag that to this day I have no idea what it went with, but it’s new purpose is to contain all the stuff you see here. At our annual Christmas party, my 8+ got me some awesome presents that included lots of high-vis gear. Since we normally row before the sun is up, visibility on the river is usually pretty low so I’m looking forward to trying out my new vest, ear warmer, and gloves. I have a rain coat that I wear when it’s raining but I keep this cycling shell that can fold into itself in my bag in case it starts to rain while I’m on the water without  my jacket. It’s lightweight, breathable, and repels moisture, so it’s also nice to wear in the summer when it’s raining but too warm out for a regular rain jacket. I also keep a cheap, plastic poncho in there as well, just in case. In addition to the gloves my boat got me, I also have a pair of Under Armour Cold Gear liner gloves that I bought last spring. They’re great to wear in the early spring by themselves when it’s raining and still a bit chilly or when it’s cold outside under your fleece gloves for an extra layer of warmth. They’re thin and have rubber grips on them so you don’t have to worry about your hands slipping off the balls on the strings while you’re trying to steer. The last two things I have with me are socks. Why I have a regular pair of socks with me, I’m not entirely sure, but they have come in handy the few times I had to hop on the erg over the summer with the kids I was coaching. As soon as it’s warm enough to wear sandals I shun regular shoes, which can be inconvenient when you have to teach people how to erg. The socks at least protect the back of my ankles from getting blisters. The other pair of socks are a pair of waterproof ones that I got when I was in high school. Suffice it to say, you should have a pair, whether you’re a rower or a coxswain. They’re that awesome.

I get made fun of so much for this last picture, but nobody’s complaining when we’re rigging/de-rigging boats and no one has to search for a wrench.
7/16 wrenches are the only REAL tool any rower, coxswain, or coach needs. I have multiples because my coaches in high school used to give everyone on the team one at the beginning of each season so that no one would have an excuse to not help with rigging/de-rigging. When I was a senior, I went to a coxswain clinic in Virginia where we all got a Vespoli coxswain tool. In addition to a 7/16 wrench, it’s also got 3/4″ and 5/8″ slots, as well as a deep slot for wing nuts and thumbscrews. The wing nut slot is especially amazing for loosening the screws on foot stretchers. The other tool that’s up there is one that I got recently at an event at CRI. It’s genius because it’s an all-in-one tool that contains a pocket knife, mini-LED flashlight, and every rower’s favorite accessory, a bottle opener. Everything is contained in a small cosmetic case that I’ve adorned with a keychain floater I’ve had since college. With everything inside, the bag probably weighs about 3+ pounds, so the floater is really there just for decoration.

I hope this tour of my backpack gives everyone an idea of what I take out in the boat and on the launch with me, as well as gives you some ideas of what to put in your own coxswain bag. Like the Boy Scouts say, be prepared for any old thing and make sure you’ve got the appropriate tools handy so that if something happens while on the water, you’ll be able to handle it.

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