Racing skills: Pre-race prep

We’re getting closer to the start of the spring racing season, which means I’m getting a lot of questions on racing starts – what they are, how to do them, what it’s like at the starting line, etc. The simple explanation is that it’s tense … super tense. It’s also exciting, nerve wracking, intense, incredible, and terrifying all in one. The bigger the regatta, the better the feeling. The trick (and honestly, a sign of total badass-ness) is the ability to reel in the emotions and stay completely pokerfaced while you’re getting staged.

I always thought of it like a slingshot. As we’re being backing into the stake boats and I’m getting my point, it’s being pulled back farther and farther until the official finally says “GO” and that’s when the slingshot releases and all the pent-up energy goes into coxing the race. For me, there are few places I enjoy being more than the starting line of a sprint race.

Getting to the line

The hardest part of the start isn’t even part of the start. Getting there is the hardest part, for a number of reasons. It is imperative that you know what time your race is set to begin. At most major regattas, you have to be locked onto the stake boats no less than 2 minutes before the start of your race. If you’re not there, they will not wait for you. Ideally you would know the race schedule before you even leave to go to the regatta but worst case scenario is you find out the morning of at the coxswain meeting. Commit your race time to memory and then determine how much time you’ll need to get everyone together, get the boat down to the dock, and get up to the starting line.

Our band director in high school used to say “to be early is to be on time and to be on time is to be late” all the time and it’s something I carried over to rowing as well. When in doubt, always be early. I used to tell my crews that we would have hands on the boat 35-45 minutes before the start of our race and preferably we’d meet an hour before our race, spend fifteen minutes stretching and having a quick meeting with our coach before getting hands on and making our way down to the dock. You never know if the dock is going to be backed up, so getting down there with a little bit of time to spare is always a plus.

Once we’d get out, we’d do our warm-up and get up to the line as quickly as possible without rushing through anything. It’s important to still get a good warmup in and go through everything you want to do while still moving at a good pace. It doesn’t need to be frantic but your job is to keep things moving.

Staging

Depending on the regatta, staging will either involve stake boats or they won’t. Smaller regattas typically don’t use stake boats and instead do what is called a “floating start”. Floating starts mean that all the crews gather about 200m or so above the starting line and then paddle down together. As I paddle down, I like to go by 4s unless I’m told to go by 6s or all eight. Usually I’ll end up doing what everyone else is doing but if I’m the front boat I’ll row down by 4s. Whatever pairing you choose to row by, don’t switch in the middle (i.e. don’t go from stern four to middle four to bow four).

When you get to about 100m before the starting line, the starting marshal will typically have you go down to 4s (if you’re currently at 6s or all eight) or bow pair to row it up closer to the line. They’ll be off to the side so they can see where everyone’s bows are. It’s important that you and your crew (especially your crew) are quiet so you can hear what they’re saying. Sometimes they’ll talk directly to you, other times they’ll talk to whatever pair you have rowing. You don’t need to repeat their instructions to your crew and personally, I think it’s best if you don’t. Tell them before you launch to listen to the instructions of the marshal and immediately respond to what they say.

All the crews will row up to about 20ish meters before the start before they’ll have you weigh enough and hold water. At this point, everyone should sit at the ready position with their blades buried, holding water, while the marshal finishes lining up the crews. As he lines them up, you’ll hear him say “Dartmouth, tap it one stroke. Harvard, hold water. Princeton, two strokes.” When your crews take these strokes, they should be LIGHT. I am known to make the biggest “WTF” face when I see a crew take a full slide, full pressure stroke (or two) when they’re being lined up. It throws everything off, really pisses off the marshals, and really pisses off the other coxswains. Strokes shouldn’t be more than 1/2 pressure at most. Make sure your crew is aware of that, especially if you’re coxing a men’s boat (they tend to use more pressure than is necessary).

When the marshal sees that the boats are lined up evenly, he’ll call the start. If you’re doing a floating start, it’s pretty likely that you’re not on a buoyed course so make sure that as you’ve rowed down you’ve spaced an equal distance away from the crews on either side of you to avoid a collision or clashing of oars right off the line.

Stake boats

The other staging scenario is when you’re using stake boats. It takes a little effort and skill to get into them quickly and correctly but compared to the potential hassles of a floating start, they’re worth the extra time.

Stake boats, if you’re unaware of what they are, are anchored docks or boats that run perpendicular to the crews. A stake boat holder lies on their stomach and holds on to the stern of your boat and is responsible for moving it in or out to ensure the crews are aligned. Some examples of various stake boats can be seen here, here, and here. The ones from the Olympics this year are similar to the most common ones I’ve backed into. A long diving board-like platform extends from the main dock and that is where the stake boat holder lies.

Getting into stake boats is admittedly not easy for novices. It’s best to practice it with your coach before you get to the regatta (you can do this by either backing into the launch or into the dock) but not all coaches will think of this as something to practice with their coxswains so I’d suggest proposing the idea to them yourself.

Similar to how crews stage for a floating start, boats will row up behind or beside the starting platform and wait to be called in. Typically they’ll call you in in the order of your lanes, so pay attention to the crews you’re near and be prepared to move out of their way if necessary. As they call you in, you’ll row across the lanes (which are almost always marked with buoys), spin, and then back up to the starting platform. It sounds tricky but it’s really not that hard once you’ve done it a few times. The two biggest things to remember are:

Don’t be an unnecessary distance away from the platform when you spin. You want to be as close as you can get to it when you spin so that you don’t have to spend a ton of time (and energy) back rowing. 50m away from the platform is more than enough.

When you back, only back by stern pair or stern 4 if necessary. Don’t use your bow 4 to back because it’ll be harder for you to control the boat’s direction than if you were using the rowers in the stern. Backing should be done at 1/2 – 3/4 pressure at most. Make sure you’re looking behind you and lining yourself up with the platform too. I find it easiest to keep the rudder straight and use the rowers to guide you in vs. trying to steer yourself. When your stern is a couple of feet away from the platform, weigh enough and let it drift in. If you come in too fast the holder can’t grab you and you can end up breaking your stern by getting it caught under the platform. I’ve seen it happen before, so go in slowly. Better safe than sorry.

To line the crews up, the marshal will talk directly to the stake boat holders and will usually say “Lane 1, in 6 inches. Lane 4, out one foot. Lane 5, in 2 inches.” As soon as my crew gets locked on I like to have them sit ready, blades flat on the water until we’re finished getting lined up. When they’re done aligning us that’s when I’ll have them square up.

Below I’ve posted some videos that do a great job of demonstrating how to get into the starting blocks. The first video is by far the best one I’ve been able to find in terms of explaining how it’s done. The second one also does a good job of showing the do’s and don’ts. (Shout out to my high school team from senior year at 1:01.) The third video let’s you see the boats back in the last few strokes and hear the announcer telling the holder how much to move each crew and the fourth video is a stake holder’s view of the start.