How to Pass Crews During a Head Race

Previously: Steer an eight/four || Call a pick drill and reverse pick drill ||  Avoid getting sick || Make improvement as a novice || Protect your voice

I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about this at any great length but I figured it’d be a good topic to get out there since we’re starting to get into head race season. Passing another crew requires you to be a bit of a maverick, depending on the situation. It’s not something you should be figuring out how to do as you do it though because deciding what the best course of action is requires a lot of decision making in a very short period of time. When your mind is going a mile a minute you don’t want to be trying to figure out all this stuff in the middle of the race.

The first thing you’ve got to do before passing a crew is assess the situation and figure out how many crews are ahead of you and how close you are to bridges or any other kind of potential obstruction. If there is a lot of traffic up ahead or there’s a chance you won’t have completed your pass before you reach the bridge, it might be best to hold off until crews spread out or you’re through the bridge. It sounds counter-intuitive but from a safety perspective, holding back is always preferable to a collision. No coach who has their priorities straight will tell you otherwise.

From there, when you do go to make your pass, and sticking with the idea of what is safer in the long run, you’ve got to decide if taking a slightly wider course off the better line is preferable to taking the better line and potentially being involved in a collision that could cost you even more time. This is where having studied the course beforehand can work in your favor. If you’re on a river with a lot of curves – the Charles, for example – it’s less about how you come out of the turns and more about how you go in. Even if the faster line around a turn to port is to hug the buoys, if you’re passing someone and know that the next turn is to starboard, it would be advisable, if it’s safe, to pass the crew on the outside, that way you’ll be on the buoys around the next turn.

Related: HOCR: Steering around the turns

One thing to remember if you decide to pass on the inside is that if the next turn is fairly sharp and in close proximity to the last one, you’ll either have to be really good at steering or you’ll have to have the crew adjust their power to bring you around, which has the potential to add seconds to your time. 60ft long boats don’t turn on a dime, which is something a lot of novices don’t realize, so knowing the best way to move your shell around a tight turn is something you should have figured out before you race. That way if such a situation arises where you’re going around a tight turn, either because you chose it or were forced into it, you’ll know how to do it smoothly and with as little added time as possible.

Related: Yaz Farooq’s HOCR coxswain clinic

The last thing you’ve got to consider is whether you want to increase the stroke rate to get by the other crew or if you want to keep it the same. You can take it up a beat or so if you want but it’s not usually necessary and if you’re constantly changing your speed you run the risk of running out of gas and not having enough energy to maintain your pace through the end of the race. If you’re passing someone, your strokes are  already more powerful and your boat is generating more speed so all you need to do is find an open lane to glide into.

If there’s a crew behind you that’s threatening to pass, increasing the stroke rate might be a good idea if you think your crew can sustain it. If there are crews that are packed together in front of the one you’re trying to pass, you might want to pass them at your base pace and then settle in where you can, either with or behind the pack in front. If you think you can pass another crew, that’s a calculated risk you’ll have to make a decision on as it’s happening based on the information you have on hand. You should also be watching the crew you’re passing to see if and how they counter your move. They might take the stroke rate up to hold you off, which might mean that instead of cruising by them, you might need to take the rate up for a couple strokes too.

Another thing you’ve got to factor in is whether or not the crew in front of you is a rival. A normal crew will do their best to hold you off but a rival will make it their mission to make sure that your bowball doesn’t get past theirs. Be prepared for this and know how to counter it.

General passing rules – these should be announced by the regatta official(s) at the coaches and coxswains meeting so don’t skip that. Different regattas have different rules, especially at head races. Some might allow you to pass under a bridge, others might penalize you for doing it. You won’t know unless you go. I’d also recommend not assuming you know the rules just because you’ve been there before. You never know when they might change them.

When passing, your bow must be pointed towards the side you intend to pass on by the time you are within at least one length of open water on the crew you’re passing. The crew that’s being passed should be fully out of the way by the time the passing crew is within half a length of open.

When you are passing, you should yell out “coxswain, move to starboard/port” to the crew in front of you. Most coxswains will acknowledge you (do this by raising your hand, like normal) and immediately move over but some will be less accommodating. This can be attributed to two things: a) they can’t hear you, which is sometimes understandable or b) they’re purposely doing that because they think it’ll make you give up on trying to pass them. All you have to do in situations like this is yell again to move over. Your bow (wo)men can help you out here by yelling at them to move too. People in bow, don’t wait for your coxswain to tell you to do this. If you can hear them repeatedly telling someone to move, just look over and repeat what they’re saying. If you have to tell at them again to move, threaten them with a penalty. They will get penalized for not moving out of the way because it’s considered unsportsmanlike conduct. At HOCR it’s a 60 second penalty the first time, 2 minutes the second time, and an automatic DQ for the third time.

If you are being passed, move. Communicate with your stroke before the race (or bow if you’re in a 4+) and tell them that if there’s a crew coming up on you, they must tell you. It doesn’t need to be some big long conversation between the two of you either. That’s part of the reason why I think a lot of the rowers don’t tell their coxswain what’s going on behind the because they think they need to say “hey, there’s a boat passing us on starboard” and they don’t want to waste that much energy or oxygen, but in reality all they need to do is say “starboard” or “port”. I know your lungs are on fire but I think you can manage to squeak out a one or two syllable word. Help your coxswain out. If your crew gets penalized for not yielding, it’s just as much your fault as it is the coxswain’s.

Try to avoid passing under bridges when you can. Know the rules as to what bridges you’re allowed to pass under and which ones you aren’t if there are multiple ones along the course. Don’t be that coxswain that thinks it’s a good idea to go three wide under Weeks (shout out to the coxswain who messed up my turn last year by being that person…ya jerk).

I’ll try to find more videos of this if I can but I came across this one while writing this and thought it was a good example of a coxswain telling a crew to move repeatedly (Michigan) and the crew being passed not moving (Dartmouth), leading to a collision before Eliot. Michigan was able to recover quickly but you can see it really stalled Dartmouth. If you’ve got time, definitely check out the whole video but the part I’m referring to starts around 20:00 and the collision around 21:45.

One other quick thing to note, you can hear somebody say “you had room!”, someone else say “fuck you”, and someone else say “fucking” something (it’s kinda hard to hear). I get that situations like that are irritating but you’ve got to be careful about spouting off on other crews like that because you can also get an unsportsmanlike penalty even if steering-wise you did everything correct. I’m lucky I didn’t get a penalty last year for yelling “are you fucking kidding me” to the coxswain who thought going three-wide under Weeks was do-able because there were three officials standing on Weeks watching the whole thing unfold. (I was the only one of the three crews to not be penalized so yay for that.) In the heat of the moment it’s understandable but ask yourself if it’s worth a penalty if an official hears you.

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