I read an article by Pete Cipollone and he said coxswains should say “I don’t know” instead of bluffing. In yesterday’s race, I couldn’t see the finish buoys around a large curve and I told my rowers I didn’t know how far was left. This really frustrated my stroke who shouted at me after the race and told me I should’ve made something up. After we docked, rowers in the other 4+ complained their coxswain gave a misleading distance. Was I right to say I didn’t know, or should I have bluffed?
So just to preface this, I do think that it’s necessary for coxswains to be comfortable saying “I don’t know” when they truly do not know the answer to something. If you can’t ask your coach for insight or clarification at that moment then it’s your responsibility to say “I don’t know but I’ll figure it out after practice” and the report back the following day. I would expect your stroke seat or whoever asked the original question to hold you accountable to that too. If my boat asked me something that I didn’t know I’d typically wait until we took a water break and then ask our coach if he could explain whatever it was we were talking about that wasn’t clear.
However, this only applies at practice. During a race, if you say “I don’t know” the trust your rowers (and coach) have in you can and probably will plummet since it’s expected for you to know this stuff. I can understand why your stroke was frustrated. As a coach, I would have been irritated too. Personally, I think you should have bluffed but this only works when you’re properly prepared. This involves knowing the course, knowing the overall distance, and being aware of your surroundings. If you’re not it can be tough and you might end up giving a misleading distance, similarly to that other coxswain. This is one of the reasons why I constantly stress studying the course ahead of time, learning the landmarks, etc.
Knowing the total length of the course and where the individual mile markers are can allow you to guesstimate how much you have left based on where you’re currently at. Yes, it involves some quick math but it’s really not that hard (and that’s coming from someone whose math abilities are comparable to that of a rock’s). For example, the Charles course is 3.2 miles long. During the race there are mile markers between River St. and Western Ave. and right after Newell Boathouse that denote 1 mile down and 2 miles down, respectively. If you’re unfamiliar with the course but at least know where the mile markers are, you can always tell your crew where you’re at.
Say you’ve just passed Weeks and your stroke says “where are we”? You already passed the 1 mile marker, you know that the the 2 mile marker is somewhere near Anderson, and that Weeks is roughly in middle. A quick guesstimation let’s you assume that you’re about a mile and a half in. Knowing that the course is just over 3 miles long also leads you to conclude that you’re halfway through the race. This allows you to tell your crew that you’re coming into the second half of the race or that you’ve got 1.5 miles down. Don’t say anything about 1.5 miles left because that’s just mean. During head races I don’t say anything about the distance we have left until we hit the last mile or 1000 meters.
Another thing you can do if you don’t know the distance you have left is tell them the time. This requires you to roughly know your crew’s 5k time (or whatever the applicable distance is). It also requires you to start the timer on your cox box at the start of the race. If you forget to do that then you’re kind of out of luck unless you’ve got a watch and happen to catch the time as you cross the line. If you know that your boat’s time last week was 17:44 for 5000m (roughly 6 minutes per mile) and you’re currently at 15:34, then you can guesstimate that you’re probably close to 2.5 miles in and have roughly half a mile left to go.
In addition to prepping yourself ahead of time, you should also make sure you’re not ignoring what’s happening outside the boat in favor of spitting out the race plan like a robot. If you’re doing this then you’re neglecting one of the crucial rules of coxing which is to always be aware of your surroundings. If you pay attention to what’s around you and think back to the course map that they went over during the coach-and-coxswain’s meeting (or that you looked at on your own), you should be able to find some landmarks that give you a clue as to your location.
Bottom line, there’s no excuse for saying “I don’t know” during a race. It’s unlikely that they expect you to give them an exact distance but it does have to be in the ballpark. They’re going to know (and feel) the difference between half a mile and a mile. It’s the same as saying “last 20” during a 2k three different times – if you do it, don’t be shocked if your crew is pissed once you get off the water.