Question of the Day

Hi there – I’ve just come out of my first racing season and after talking to my crew and coaches, my weakness still lies within steering; more specifically oversteering.

My racing season consisted of Sykes bow-loaded fours (so steering is done with the rod). The steering system is an AEROWFIN. From the other fours I’ve coxed with the traditional square fin, this one is obviously more touchy and responsive (which has its pros and cons). The problem is that at the tip of the fin, (the point on the rudder that is furthest away from the hull) there is a small crease/slight bend in the rudder. I’m not sure whether this may contribute to some of the steering issues I’ve had.

In the eight that I’ve raced once, we have stuck an oversized fin for the Head of the Yarra we do every year and left it on for the whole season. The rudder does not, however line up dead straight with the fin, it is 1-2mm wide of it. At the beginning of the season, I tried lining up the rudder to be dead straight but moving the rod (while on slings) and looking from the stern down towards the bow at the rudder in order to gauge its “straightness”. I’d then mark the point in my seat to which the position of the rod/string corresponds to a straight rudder. However, I struggle to think of a time when leaving the rudder at that point does not stop the bow ball drifting to either side.

The possible factors I see which might be the cause of my oversteering.
– Power Imbalance
– Current/Wind (Although I’ve steered in near flat conditions and it still occurs)
– Rudder Defect(s)

Often when we train, I’m autopiloting the steering aspect because the river is very simple with gradual turns. But come race day on a buoyed course, it becomes pretty awful. Talking to my stroke, he said that it wasn’t like I was changing the direction of the rudder every three strokes, but it was more of a gradual snaking which was costing us metres. The four I cox have spent a lot of time in the 4- and tbh can steer straighter than I can (although this is an example of a different occasion, with different conditions and a different body of water).

The fact is that I’d like to rectify my steering issues, the next few months will be primarily Winter Training or Head Racing. How do I do it? Do I start from scratch and focus all my attention on steering? What is a good way to know that you’re steering straight (because it seems like I’m steering straight on home territory however as soon as we hit the buoyed course it becomes awful)? Some coxes have the liberty of training on rivers/lakes with buoys all year around whereas the river we row on doesn’t have this, how can I practise? Thank You Very Much!

I love the Aerowfin. We switched it on to one of our Empachers in the fall and it made taking the tight turns on the Charles so much simpler.

Related: Taking the Weeks turn with the Carl Douglas “Aerowfin”

I was texting with one of the MIT coxswains last week about similar steering issues and my first question was whether or not she’d checked the equipment. Not to shirk responsibility or anything like that but because even though 99% of the time the problem is us, that 1% where it’s the equipment can be really validating if you feel like you’d been doing everything you were supposed to in order to steer a good line. (Her problem ended up being an issue with the cables.) It sounds like you’ve already done the leg work in that area so I’d bring that info to your coach and/or boatman and have them look at to confirm if that’s the problem. Very rarely, borderline on never, do I suggest looking at the equipment first instead of yourself as being the problem but the fin having a bend in it and the rudder being a few millimeters out of alignment makes me think that it’s the problem, not you.

Related: Coxswain skills: Steering, pt. 1 (Oversteering)

I don’t think you need to start from scratch but maybe talk to your coach about taking out a different four to see if you have similar issues in that boat as you do in this one. If you do then the problem is clearly you and you’re gonna have to spend some time at the drawing board evaluating how you’re steering now and what adjustments you need to make. If you don’t have any of the same issues then that most likely will confirm that the other boat is the problem.

Not having a buoyed course or unobstructed straight water to practice on is the most played out excuse for why coxswains can’t steer straight. It is highly unlikely that whatever body of water you’re on doesn’t have at least 100m of water with no curves that you can practice “steering straight” on. Those are opportunities that you’ve gotta open your eyes to and be aware of so that as you’re coming up to them you can say to yourself “OK, this is the only time today I’m gonna have to practice my race steering…” and then do whatever you need to do to work on that. Tell the rowers too that you’re coming up on the part of the river where you want to practice your race steering and then afterwards, ask your stroke seat how your point looked – did it seem from their vantage point like you were snaking around or did it look relatively straight?

Related: Coxswain skills: Steering a buoyed course

Autopilot is fine when you’re warming up, executing drills, etc. but every so often you’ve gotta snap out of that habit (especially during steady state or pieces) and pay attention to every single aspect of your steering, from your hand placement to if you’re reacting to the boat’s movement and knocking the rudder, etc. All those things add up and are super easy to ignore if you’re not making a conscious effort to pay attention to them.

Related: Coxswains skills: Race steering

You’ve gotta use every practice as an opportunity to work on your steering. If you only decide to work on your steering when you notice there’s a problem (or worse, a rower or coach points it out) then it’s basically too late because now you’re hyperaware of it and that tends to exacerbate the problem. Steering is not that hard. It just isn’t. We overthink it and make it hard, which is what tends to be our downfall 99% of the time.

Taking the Weeks turn with the Carl Douglas “AeRowFin”

I posted a clip of this on the team’s Instagram earlier but wanted to share the full video to highlight the new fin on our Empacher. If you’ve emailed me at any point in the last four years about not being able to take tight turns with your normal Resolute or Empacher fins, have your coach check out the Carl Douglas “AeRowFin”.

Not to take away from Riker’s steering here because he did a great job but compared to what Weeks looks like with the normal Empacher rudder, this was so much tighter and smoother. Before, even with the rudder all the way over and one side powered down, the turn would take longer and you could still end up on the opposite side of the river which was obviously super frustrating for both the coxswains and the coaches. This Carl Douglas fin though is magical. Definitely recommend checking it out.

Related: HOCR: Weeks, Lowell House, and “The Turning Tree”

Some context for the video – we were doing 3′-2′-1′ steady state at 18-20-24spm through the Powerhouse and then built to 30spm at full pressure for 20ish strokes through the bridge.

Also, special shout out to the Radcliffe coach in the launch at the end. 👍🏽

Video of the Week: Boat strapping failure

This deserves a place in the vault that houses all the classic rowing videos. I posted this a few years ago as part of a post on how to strap boats to the trailer so if you haven’t read that yet, you can check it out here. There are two good videos in there that show how it’s done, as well as some other pieces of advice that are hopefully all common sense … but if they’re not, well, now you know.

Reviewing the Cox Orb

Game. Changer.

That’s the best way I can describe the Cox Orb. It’s one thing to “ooh” and “ahh” over it on Instagram or at the regatta booths but I’m telling you guys, if/when your team is in need of new cox boxes I really hope you alert your coaches to the existence of the Cox Orbs because they are a much more worthwhile investment than NK’s original model. Don’t get me wrong either, I love NK’s cox box – I’ve been using them for 14 years now with minimal issues – but I can’t deny that a competitor in the cox box market as well as an update to what’s currently available is long overdue.

In today’s post I’m going to briefly talk about my experience with the Cox Orb so far and highlight some pros and cons that I and the MIT coxswains have come across as we’ve used it throughout the last several months. To start though I wanna point out the different models that are available, as well as do a price comparison between each one and the standard NK model.

Below is a Google Sheet that includes the price of each model (the price links to that model’s page on the Active Tools website) as well as the key features of each one (in separate tabs at the bottom). To view the full spreadsheet in a separate tab, click here.

Some notes:

High school clubs/teams don’t need the fancy features that come with the Platinum. Although the GPS would be great to have, the Steel, Cobalt, or Tungsten will accomplish everything you need at this stage in the game.

College programs should consider the Tungsten or Platinum simply because the data you can collect will go farther here than it would at the high school level (and if you coach/cox a bunch of data driven nerds like I do, they’ll appreciate having something else to look at other than whatever data you collect from the ergs).

The full package is, in my opinion, a better deal than just getting the unit, mic, and charger because the full package comes with the carrying case (which is $40 on its own). I’m obsessed with this case because it’s small, lightweight, and has a shoulder strap so I definitely recommend using it over NK’s cases (which should fit these cox boxes, although I haven’t tried to see if it does yet – I’ll update you on that in a later post).

I’ve had the Platinum model since September and I love it. I raced with it at Head of the Charles and used it regularly throughout the fall while I was coxing. Here’s my pro/con list thus far.

PRO The microphone is loads better than NK’s in nearly every capacity. The sound comes across clearer and even on a low setting it’s still pretty loud. The head strap gets a huge thumbs up from me because, as someone who hates wearing the mic, NK’s drives me crazy. Even their new head straps seem flimsy at best and I always felt like no matter how tight I made it, it never stayed in place, even with a hat on. The Orb’s strap is wider, thicker (I think … or at very least, more durable), and just more comfortable in general so once it’s on I don’t have to think about it again until I take it off.

CON My only con with the microphone is that it doesn’t seem to fare well in strong winds. For as good as the sound is, it seemed to get easily drowned out when the wind was hitting the mic, despite my attempts to shield it with my hand, turn my head a little, etc.

PRO Real time splits and check factor. Speed coaches are great but it’s just one more thing to have to remember and carry whereas with the Orb, the splits are already built in. I never tried it with the impeller but when I compared the splits I had with my Speedcoach they were very similar. Not quite exact but the margin of difference between the splits was consistent and never more than 1-2 splits total. I didn’t play with the check factor very much (this was mainly due to the level of boat I was coxing, I don’t think the data would have been that useful for us) but the fact that it exists is a huge plus (and again would definitely be data that college coaches would appreciate having).

CON There’s kind of a steep learning curve that comes with the more advanced models. The Steel and Cobalt are very similar to NK’s (they’re basically idiot proof) but the added features on the Tungsten and Platinum (particularly the Platinum) mean that you’ve gotta spend quite a bit of time reading through the instruction manual and playing with it before taking it on the water if you want to actually be able to use them to their fullest capacity. It took me a few practices before I felt comfortable just using the basic features and remembering which buttons did what. I didn’t expect to “get it” right away but I also didn’t anticipate how much time I’d need to spend familiarizing myself with it before I practiced with it. I guess this isn’t so much a “con” as it is a friendly warning that this isn’t a piece of tech that you’re gonna want to figure out how to use as you’re trying to use it during practice … speaking from experience, you’ll just frustrate and distract yourself if you try to do that.

PRO In the Tungsten and Platinum, the need for an external voice recorder is eliminated because the Orb automatically starts recording your voice as soon as you press “start” to do a piece. To get it off the unit (along with all the other data) all you’ve gotta do is plug it into your laptop via the included USB connector.

CON This may be a user-error issue but I had some trouble with the Orb staying in the holder while I was racing with it during HOCR, as well as when it was cold out. I noticed that the colder it was the less likely it was to stay in place, I assume because the plastic on the holder was less malleable than it is when it’s warm. When I was practicing this wasn’t that big of a deal but it did distract me while I was racing at HOCR. I didn’t have issues with this when we were in Florida though (where it was substantially warmer) so I’m attributing it to either me just not using enough muscle to get it into the holder properly or, like I said, the cold affecting the malleability of the plastic.

(Keep in mind that the Orbs don’t fit perfectly into the standard holders, which is by design. The rounded bottom (hence, “orb“) lets you position it however you want, that way you don’t have to lean forward or adjust your body in any way in order to clearly see the screen.)

PRO You can program workouts which means, for example, you don’t have to remember each individual chunk of time for your interval workouts because you can just program them straight into the cox box. I used this a couple times when I coxed the guys in Florida over winter break and it was a life saver. When you’re on a busy waterway with giant channel markers scattered all over the place (that you need to pay extra attention to since one of the coxswains already hit one, broke an oar, and ejected the bow seat…) all the while actually trying to cox a piece, the last thing you want to be doing is distracting yourself by trying to remember how much time is left in this interval. Programming it and letting the cox box do the work is a god send.

PRO The customer service is A+. I’ve had minimal dealings with NK’s customer service myself but we’ve all heard the stories so … yea. The guys at Active Tools are awesome and I strongly encourage you to talk with them if you come across one of their booths. They are fully committed to creating a product that fits our needs and is something we’ll want to use, not just something we have to use.

PRO My favorite feature – GPS! Unfortunately it’s only available on the Platinum but this alone makes that model worth getting, at least in my opinion. I used it a lot in the fall to track my HOCR course (although I failed at recording it during the actual race so that was a bust) and I used it in the spring to judge/observe the courses our coxswains took during some of our races. Once you connect the Orb to your computer all you’ve gotta do is open the associated GPS data in Google Earth and you’ll be able to zoom in and see every touch of the rudder along your course. In the case of our coxswains it was a huge reality check because looking at it zoomed out you’ll think “that looks like a pretty straight course, yay, go me!” and then you’ll zoom in and be like “… oh”. It’s a great tool to have though and kinda the only one out there that actually holds you accountable for your steering by actually putting in front of your face the exact course that you steered.

Below are some screenshots of the course our varsity eight coxswain steered during practice on a day when we were doing 4x2ks. The blue line is the course he took and the red line is the ruler feature on Google Earth that I used to compare how straight his course actually was. Given that this was a fairly windy practice day, overall I’d say this isn’t too bad. You can see though that it really captures every single time you hit the rudder so there’s no escaping the accountability here.

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Throughout winter training in Florida and the spring season I lent the Orb to a couple of the coxswains in the boathouse to get their thoughts on it. For the most part we all had similar pros/cons but below are some that one of our lightweight coxswains shared after using it for a few weeks.

PRO Being able to track the course is huge. If I remember correctly, the GPS it captures has an error margin of +/- 2-3 meters, which, when zooming in on Google Earth lets you see which coxswain had the straightest/most correct course.

CON There is a lot of information of the screen, which is good, but sometimes distracting (and a little bit too informative, if that’s possible).

PRO The ability to position the box is super nice and it won’t move around no matter how soaked it is – see “adventure row”, hahaha. (For context, when we’re in Florida the lightweights do a marathon row around the island we row off of and this year the wind and chop was pretty epic so it was basically like sailing the high seas for them. Below is a screenshot of the course they took this year.)

CON There’s a very harsh/difficult learning curve. A lot of the features are super useful if you know how to use them (i.e. timing pieces). My main issue was not knowing how to set up pieces – if you don’t know how to do this fast (or can’t remember how to do it) you’ll never want to do it while you’re on the water and then you lose the functionality of being able to match up and break down data according to which piece the boat was doing.

PRO It’s loud and can handle being loud. Like, significantly better than the NK boxes can, which was huge for us because my bow pair were having problems hearing me with the cox box. The Orb had no issues at all. At one point, they actually asked me to turn it down (haha).

(Biggest) CON When you turn it on, theres a good chunk of time where you can’t see the time. This is huge if you need to restart the box in the middle of practice for some reason (basically turn on and off because you’re stuck on a screen because you don’t know how to use it, which happened to me, or to test connections because a speaker isn’t working) and need to be able to see the time immediately after.

PRO The battery life is incredible. I didn’t charge this nearly as often as I should have and I never had any issues.

All in all, it’s definitely a well-liked tool in our boathouse. We’ve also affectionately nicknamed it “the Borb” because its faster and more fun to say than “Cox Orb”. The other heavyweight coaches dig it too and have already given me some ideas for how to better integrate it into our practices next year so we can better use the data it’s collecting (for the coxswains specifically, we’re gonna abuse the hell out of the GPS feature … fair warning guys!).

Looking back, I can recall specific conversations I’ve had in the past with my dad (5+ years ago when I was in college) where we talked about what should be included in a cox box, what would make them more effective tools, etc., so to now actually see and have a tangible piece of equipment that embodies everything you could possibly need … like I said, it’s a game changer.

I’d love to hear any questions you have so leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll do a follow-up post sometime in the next couple of weeks. I’ll also be bringing it with me to the camps I’ll be coaching at this summer so if you’ll be at either of the Sparks Middletown camps or at Northeast Rowing Center you’ll get a chance to try it out firsthand and see how it works.