Coxswain Skills: Race Steering

Previously: Steering, pt. 1 || Steering, pt. 2  || Boat feel || How to handle a negative coxswain eval || How to cox steady state workouts || How to cox short, high intensity workouts

It’s officially racing season which means your steering is going to be under heavy scrutiny for the next ten weeks. If you steer a straight course you’re not going to get any recognition (and if you do it’s minimal) but any slight deviation towards one buoy line or the other will likely draw the ire of your rowers and/or your coach, depending on their vantage point. You’ve got a lot of “number one” jobs on race day but steering straight is THE number one priority of all your “number one” priorities so make sure it’s a skill you’re honing every day at practice.

Related: How to steer an eight

Steering during a race is, for the most part, exactly the same as steering on any regular day, at least in my opinion. There are very few things I do differently and the things I am doing differently are simply a result of my heightened levels of awareness. One of the hallmarks of steering is that the speed in which the hull responds to the rudder is directly proportional to the speed of the hull itself. The faster you’re going, the faster it’s going to respond to you making adjustments which means that your adjustments have to be that much smaller in order to avoid oversteering and serpentining your way down the course.

Related: Coxswain skills: Steering, pt. 1

One thing that helps avoid oversteering is making sure you’re holding the strings correctly. Don’t just grip them with your full fist like you’re holding a broom handle or something – you’ve got to ground yourself in some way to the boat otherwise you’re not going to know when you’re making conscious adjustments or when your hands (and in turn, the rudder) are reacting to the boat surging, falling off keel, etc.

This is how I grip the strings when I’m coxing. I didn’t do it here because it would have been impossible to take the picture but in addition to positioning my fingers like this, I also hook my pinkies over the gunnels. This forces me to make millimeter adjustments at a time and nothing more, which is great for when we’re doing straight-shot pieces or I’m racing. If I want/need to make a larger adjustment then I have to take my pinkies off the gunnels and since 99.9% of my steering these days is auto-pilot, that conscious movement of moving my finger  “wakes me up” to the fact that I’m steering and forces me to evaluate why I’m doing it.

(During a regular practice I don’t hook my pinkies unless we’re doing pieces, mainly because I have small hands and it’s uncomfortable stretching my finger like that for an hour and a half. If you’re working on limiting how much you hit the rudder though you should spend more time with your pinkies hooked than unhooked.)

That aside, it’s time to think about how steering is integrated into your race plan. The most trouble you’re going to have with steering during a race is going to come in the first 3-5 strokes and this is usually a result of sloppy bladework by the rowers. If they’re trying to muscle the boat off the line instead of taking clean, crisp strokes then the boat is going to be offset and your point will get thrown off.

Related: In regards to steering during a sprint race, do you recommend using the tiller to steer or having the ports/starboards row with more pressure for a stroke or two in order to maintain a straight point?

If conditions are poor (wind, chop, etc.) then this will only exacerbate the amount of steering you’ve gotta do. The only way to try to avoid having this happen is to practice your starts and make sure those first few strokes are clean and together before you add the power in the fourth and fifth stroke. The calls you make here should emphasize this too.

We have a five-stroke start and last year our varsity coxswain would call it as “pry, complete, complete, accelerate, go“, where “pry” = light on the seats, pick the boat up out of the water, “complete” = hold the finishes, complete the strokes (aka don’t get so amped that you’re just throwing water around), “accelerate” = start adding power, and “go” = full commitment with the legs, time to haul on it. The more time you spending getting those first five strokes down (or however long your start is), the easier it’ll be on race day to get off the line with minimal touches on the rudder.

Don’t be afraid to tell the rowers too that the cleaner the start the less you’ll have to steer off the line. I’ve said this numerous times but I have no problem telling my crew that if they want me to not steer during a race then I expect them to take good, clean strokes so I don’t have to steer. I’ll take full responsibility for the other 195ish strokes but they’ve gotta work with me on the first five. I know I can hold a straight point without thinking about it so the less distracted I am by having to think about where I’m going, the more I can focus on executing the race plan.

The last thing to think about is the buoys, assuming the course you’re on has them. I’ve touched on how to get a point on buoyed courses before but ultimately it’s up to you to figure out what strategy works best for you. Some coxswains rely on their peripheral vision to maintain an even spacing between the shell and the buoys on either side of them, others focus on where the buoys converge on the horizon (aka their stroke’s head) and just aim straight towards that.

Related: Hi! Since the spring races all start boats at the same time, do you have any tips on steering straight? I can tell when I’m veering off my lane, but for some reason, I can’t/don’t know how to fix it! I remember you saying it’s all about the small adjustments, then straightening out, but I can’t seem to get it. [Ex today: all 3 boats lined up, me on the outside, I end up too far out away from the other 2]. Tips? Thanks!

There is no right or wrong strategy so utilize the time you have to practice on the course (if you have any) to see which one is easier for you. The first time I steered a buoyed course my coach told me to just go out and steer like I would if there weren’t buoys there and this allowed me to do whatever came naturally when it came to holding a point rather than explicitly focusing on where the buoys converged or where they were on either side of me in relation to the shell.

Not having buoys, while annoying, isn’t the end of the world. Like I said at the beginning, the only differences in my steering on race day is that I’m more aware of and subtle about my adjustments. That’s basically the “trick” for steering on an un-buoyed course. Grip the strings like I showed earlier, pick a point off the starting line (or aim at the markers at the end of the course if there are any – i.e. on the Charles there are 8ft tall lime green markers strapped to the trees on the Boston side across from the BU boathouse), and only make millimeter adjustments as necessary or as dictated by the weather conditions/bladework.

 

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