Coxswain Skills: Steering, pt. 2

Previously: Steering, pt. 1 (Oversteering)

Depending on who you talk to when you first start coxing, you’ll either be told that you should always be steering or that you shouldn’t be steering at all. Both of those are correct-ish but are still pretty vague and can be interpreted a couple different ways, which leads to either some aggressive oversteering or watching a coxswain steer directly into a boat in front of them because you said not to steer. Obviously that’s not what you meant but to a novice who doesn’t know any better, they’re going to take you literally even when common sense dictates that maybe they should steer to port to avoid the boat that’s directly in front of them.

When you’re told that you “shouldn’t be steering” what that actually means is that you shouldn’t be overcorrecting (aka making more adjustments/corrections than are necessary). The ultimate goal when it comes to steering is to do it just enough that the boat responds but not so much that the rowers can sense that it’s happening. Outside of steering around long bends or sharp turns, they shouldn’t be able to tell (by the boat going off-set or seeing the zig-zag trail in the water behind you) when adjustments are being made. This is where knowing how your shell responds to the rudder and how far you have to move the strings before the rudder moves can come in handy.

Another important thing to remember  is that “small adjustments” doesn’t relate to how far forward you’re moving the strings, it has to do with much the rudder moves. You’d think the two would be one in the same (and in most cases they are) but I’ve been in boats where the steering cables are really loose and I have to move my hand forward a few inches (aka not a small amount) just to get the rudder to move a quarter of an inch. If you know this is the case with certain boats then make sure you let the other coxswains know, especially if they’re new to the team and/or haven’t coxed that particular boat before.

Related: Hi I’m a novice coxswain (like really novice, my first day of actual coxing was today) and I have a steering question. Should I steer when the rowers are on the drive or on the recovery (blades in or out of the water)? I have looked it up a couple places and found conflicting answers. Today I just steered during both because I figured for my first time it was more important not to hit anything than to have perfect “steering technique”.

If someone says that you should always be steering that doesn’t mean that you should constantly be moving the rudder back and forth, rather it means that you should always be anticipating what adjustments need to be made based on what the boat is doing, what’s happening up ahead, the wind/water conditions, etc. Hearing “you should always be steering” tends to lead to the oversteering problems I talked about last week though so a better way of saying that would be that you should always be thinking about steering in the context of the things I just mentioned but only actually doing it when you need to.

The experienced coxswains out there will know that the more proficient you get with steering the more it becomes an “auto-pilot” skill. For me, I tend to only consciously think about steering a few times per practice and it’s usually only when there’s a lot of traffic around me. If there’s minimal traffic, conditions are good, and we’re rowing well I might come off having not thought about it at all. Part of it is knowing the river and part of it is just knowing based on sight/feel when I need to make an adjustment vs. having to actually think about and process what needs to happen.

It’s a little tough to explain but you’ll eventually get to the point where you’ll get off the water and your coach will say “nice course today!” and you’ll think “… uh … I don’t even remember steering, let alone what course I took”. This isn’t something that’s just naturally going to happen though. If you aren’t consistently practicing your steering skills then “eventually” could be a couple seasons (or years) away, whereas if you’re regularly focused on all the things I’ve talked about previously that go into steering an effective course, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be fully confident in your steering abilities within two seasons or so after you start coxing.

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