Race skills: Managing the nuances of a head race

Previously: Race warmups || Coxing from behind || Calls for when you’re behind

Now that the fall season is well underway and we’re a little less than a month away from Head of the Charles, I wanted to share some tips for head racing for those of you that are new to coxing or new to head racing.

Look at the course before you arrive. With Google Maps being, ya know, a thing, there’s no excuse to not have a general idea of what the river looks like before you get to the race site. Race maps are obviously ideal but they’re not always available so the next best alternative is looking the course up on Google. This will give you just as good of a look at the turns, bridges, possible landmarks, geography (i.e. how much room is there to navigate), etc. and will help you plot out a rough idea of where you might want to execute (or avoid executing) certain moves.

Don’t count on being able to do your usual water warmup. Making your way to the starting line, especially at big regattas like HOCR, tends to be a crowded affair. You can rarely row above half pressure or by anything less than all eight, which makes getting the crew properly warmed up tough. To combat this, do a land warmup (7-10 minutes of dynamic stretching plus a light jog … or something similar) 20ish minutes or so before you launch so that when you’re on the water, you can focus on getting from Point A to Point B without the distraction of having to actually call the warmup and the crew can focus on getting into their rhythm, establishing their swing early, and keeping their focus internal.

Establish your rhythm early. Your first priority coming out of your high strokes should be on lengthening to a sustainable pace and immediately finding your rhythm. This is where you can really work your tone of voice and use your calls to help facilitate that. The sooner the crew gets into their rhythm, the better – you don’t want to still be trying to figure this out when you’re eight minutes in to a 3.5 mile long race.

Related: What are some “rhythmic calls” you use? I know ones such as hook, send and catch, send but I was wondering what others are used. and Hello! Sorry if this is a dumb question but I was wondering, what does it mean when coxswains say “cha”? Thank you!

Plan ahead. This is where knowing the course and having studied it ahead of time will really help you. In a head race you’ve always gotta be thinking one bridge or turn ahead of where you’re currently at, which means knowing where the buoy line is (and when to follow it closely vs. when to stray off of it) and whether you need to be on the outside or inside of this turn in order to get the better/faster/more effective line on the next turn. You’ve probably heard (or will hear) numerous times that the inside line is the fastest but that isn’t always the case. The best example of this is the stretch between Weeks and Eliot on the Charles – Eliot is a bigger/more important turn than Anderson so coming out of Weeks (a turn to port) you should line yourself up on the outside of Anderson (a turn to starboard) so that coming out of that one you’re automatically lined up on the inside of Eliot (a turn to port). This minimizes the number of crews you have to tousle with to get that inside line and has been my go-to strategy for nailing the Eliot turn for the last four years.

Steer competitively and aggressively. Those two things are not synonymous with “a lot” or “recklessly”. You have to be smart here because your steering, per usual, can make or break you. Patience and forethought is key and will help you avoid or navigate through at least 50% of the situations you’ll encounter. It all starts with holding the strings correctly though. You know the phrase “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”? Look at steering the same way – your hand position on the strings and the gunnels is the “single step” in that analogy. I talked about this in the “race steering” post linked below so check that out to see how I hold the strings when I’m coxing and how it helps me avoid oversteering.

Related: Race steering, oversteering, and “steering a lot vs. never steering”

Communicate with your bow/strokeSaying it again for the people in the back that didn’t hear this the first 8,023 times it’s been said – not yielding during a race because you didn’t see the other crew, didn’t know they were there, didn’t hear their coxswain yelling at you to yield, etc. is not an excuse and you deserve every second of the penalty/penalties you incur. I get that you’re looking forward and you can’t see what’s behind you blah blah blah but your stroke/bow can and they should know (either through their own common sense or because you’ve discussed this with them beforehand … preferably both but definitely the latter) that they need to communicate to you in some way that a crew is behind you, walking on you, etc. and you need to yield.

Maximize your time in the straightaways. When you’re in long straight stretches, this is your best opportunity to pass a crew or make up time by steering laser-straight. Way too many coxswains fail to take advantage of this because they’re focused on unimportant stuff (i.e. that crew that’s four and a half lengths of open in front of you) or just completely lacking in awareness of where they’re at and what’s happening around them.

Work the crowds. If you’re neck and neck with another crew and you’re near a heavily populated spot on the course, bring all that energy from the crowd into your boat.  Use it to reignite your crew if the boat’s starting to feel a little heavy or to add some extra fire to the start of a move. Make your crew think that all that cheering is for them and then harness that to help you move through the other crew(s), even if that means only taking a seat or two. Sometimes that’s all it takes to change the tone of a race.

Know what logistics need to be handled … and then handle them. Heel ties, bow numbers, top nuts, knowing the subtle differences in rules at each regatta, etc. … all the little things that might trip up an unprepared coxswain, figure out what they are ahead of time and take the initiative in handling it. Discuss this with your coach ahead of time (because they’ll definitely have a list of little things that you can do so they don’t have to) so you know beforehand what your priorities need to be once you get to the course.

Better safe than sorry ALWAYS. Your most important job as a coxswain is to keep the crew safe. Everything else you do outside of that is a bonus. Whether it’s on the water, walking to/from the launch site, or loading/unloading the trailer, your main focus has to be on executing the safest course of action followed by the fastest/most efficient, etc. There’s obviously a risk-reward aspect to it when you’re racing but there’s a very fine line between taking a calculated risk to move ahead of a crew or take a sharper turn and straight up putting your crew (and potentially others) in a dangerous situation. Erring on the side of safety isn’t always a popular decision in the moment but you’ve gotta be able to deal with a few people being annoyed at you for a small amount of time and recognize that the alternative (a lot of people being furious with you for an extended period of time) will tarnish your status/position on the team a lot more in the long run.

If you guys have any other pieces of advice, feel free to leave it in the comments.

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