Hi! Love your blog! I was just wondering if you have any tips as far as steering a buoyed course and what to do during the first strokes of the race if for some reason the rowers’ powers are uneven and the boat gets lodged towards one direction. Thank you!
Short answer: For steering buoyed courses, check out this post, particularly the part on vanishing points. If one side pulls you over at the start then you don’t really have any option but to fix it so make whatever small adjustments you need to make to get you back on course and tell each side to keep it even. During a sprint race you obviously don’t want to tell anyone to back off so you should avoid resorting to that unless the pressure difference is so egregious that that’s your only option to keep the boat pointed straight.
Long answer: You know those “if this then that” flowcharts? That’s pretty much what the rest of this post is. Hopefully it’s not too difficult to follow but let me know if it is and I’ll try to draw it out to make it easier to visualize/understand. (I almost had to do that anyways just so I could keep track of my thought process.) Something to take away from the “big picture” of this post is that when something’s not right, it’s usually the result of something else not being right and to figure out what that is you have to work backwards through what you know and are feeling and seeing in order to put all the pieces together. This requires a lot of thought but if you can work through all that and figure out what the problem is, it’s pretty satisfying.
The first thing to do would be to make sure everyone’s rowing the same pressure at the start. Obviously this isn’t something you can really do on race day though (other than give them a reminder before the race) so it’s important to pay attention to that when you do starts at home during practice. If you notice one side out-pulling the other, even if it’s only the tiniest amount, speak up and say “hey ports, starboards had a little more power off the start on that one so on this one let’s try to match them so we aren’t getting pulled off course”. I have no qualms whatsoever with telling them to not interfere with my ability to steer because if they expect me to give them a fast course then I expect them to not make that tougher than it already is/can be. Few things irritate me more than someone else being responsible for me steering a bad course. If it’s just me steering poorly that’s easy to fix because all it requires is me telling myself to do something different but if I know I’m not oversteering and the reason we’re off course is because four or eight people can’t all row full-pressure at the same time, that’s frustrating because it’ll still end up being my fault and now I have to play puppeteer to get everyone to do what I need. Most of you will probably know what I mean by that and for those that do you know that is NOT fun and NOT easy.
If the amount one side is out-pulling the other is small then I’ll just tell the other side (ports, in that example) to increase their pressure but if they were out-pulled by a lot then I’ll tell the stronger side (in this case, starboards) to back off on the next one. This serves two purposes. One, it lets me steer straight and two, it helps me figure out why we went off-course in the first place. Was it just adrenaline from the starboards, is the lineup stacked on that side, or were the ports being lazy on the last one? To figure out which one it was I’ll ask them how it felt (I’ll usually ask my stroke as soon as we finish and then the boat once we stop rowing or my stroke and I finish talking). If they say “good”, “fine”, “better”, etc. then I’ll leave it at that and talk about it with my coach later. (If we do more starts after that one then I’ll just remind them to remember how the last one felt and try to replicate that.) If the starboards say they felt like they were rowing at three-quarter pressure but the ports say they were at full then that usually means there’s some kind of imbalance, in which case, again, I’ll bring it up to the coach (although instead of doing it after practice I’ll do it on the water so he can address it immediately).
This usually necessitates doing another start so on this one I’ll watch the puddles of both sides, particularly those of my bow pair since they tend to have a bigger impact on where the boat goes – hence why we use them to get our points and not our stern pair. (For those keeping count, watching the puddles would be the fourth thing you’re doing simultaneously at the start … any ideas on what the other three are?). If the starboard puddles are deep and dark then I know they’re probably at or close to full pressure. If the port puddles look shallow or the strokes look short then I know they likely aren’t taking effective, and by extension, full pressure strokes (which begs another question – is it because they’re washing out, rowing it in, not burying their blade deep enough, etc.), even though the rowers might think they are because of how hard they’re getting their legs down. If that’s the case then I just tell the ports to get their blades in, keep the blades buried, etc. (This is usually when someone on that side says “I am/we are”, in which case I get to lean out and say “really, because I’m literally watching your blade every single stroke and you’re not doing either of those things”, which then leads to them getting pissed off for one reason or another that I most likely don’t care about. That’s another thing I’m pretty adamant about – if I’m specifically watching the bladework and I tell you you’re doing something (or not doing it, in this case), don’t argue with me because there is a pretty solid chance you will lose that battle. It has nothing to do with me (or your coxswain) being cocky or thinking we’re better than you or whatever other ridiculous excuse you can come up with – it’s LITERALLY OUR JOBS to know/understand this stuff and point it out to you. It can be a very “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation but at least by saying something no one can say you didn’t try to fix the problem. )
Anyways, if you determine that one side’s taking more effective strokes than the other, that’s a relatively easy fix because all you have to do is figure out what technical thing they need to fix and then … do it. If by watching the puddles you only notice one or two outliers (i.e one really strong one or one really weak one) then again, that’s also an easy fix … just tell them to either ramp it up a notch or stop being that person that pulls me off point every. single. time. by thinking that “go hard off the line” means that you abandon all common sense and forget that “go hard off the line” doesn’t work if seven people are rowing at 100% and you’re rowing at 150%. There’s a good chance that most of the coxswains reading this (particularly if you cox guys) are thinking of someone specific right now because we’ve all had that person in our boats at one point or another . (And rowers, if you are that person … please stop. Seriously. Stop.) In the majority of cases you’ll find that this is what solves the problem though. It’s very rarely ever an entire side out-pulling or getting out-pulled by the other – sometimes it is but that usually happens when you’re trying out new lineups, which is why it’s important to communicate with your coach and let them know that one side seems to be stronger than other based on XYZ that you noticed during practice.
So … the bottom line is that if you’re veering off course during your first few strokes you can’t freak out about it as it’s happening, just make an adjustment and fix it. Before and after the race though when you’re practicing at home you should pay attention when you do starts so you can address the issue if/when it comes up and figure out what’s causing it, that way in the future you can avoid losing valuable seconds during your starting 5 + high strokes by having to consistently readjust your point.