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.

Don't even act like you're surprised that we've got this much #tech in the boat. (Not pictured: my GoPro.) 💁😁 #MITMensRowing

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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.

Video of the Week: Technology + Rowing

Princeton posted this video early last month and if you’re into the idea of incorporating tech into your training, you’ll probably find this interesting. We’ve been using our Peach system for about a month now and it’s pretty cool. The guys are really into seeing their force curves after each practice and I’m convinced that the emails that get sent out with each guys’ watts from that practice are a subtle/clever tactic to get them to be even more competitive with each other. Lots of data to pour over but like Greg Hughes said in the video, it gives you a lot of opportunities to see where you can improve.

How to sit in the boat

Previously: Steer an eight/four || Call a pick drill and reverse pick drill ||  Avoid getting sick || Make improvement as a novice || Protect your voice || Pass crews during a head race || Be useful during winter training || Train when you’re sick (as a rower) || Train when you’re sick (as a coxswain)

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to sit in the boat. Seems obvious at first – you just … sit in it – but if you’re working on establishing boat feel or trying to figure out how to not slide into the black hole that is the bow of a four, there are some tricks to it. I’ve talked about these in various posts before but I’ve tried to combine them all here so they’re in one place for easy access.

Related: Is there a ‘right way’ to sit in the coxswain seat? My left foot always gets super numb during practice!

Bowloaded fours

When it comes to how to properly situate yourself in a four, I see way more coxswains doing it wrong than doing it right. The purpose of these boats (compared to ones where you’re sitting in the stern) is to distribute the weight more evenly throughout the bow and eliminate the wind resistance that comes from having another body sitting straight up. In order to be effective in those two areas you have to actually be lying down. If someone is looking at your boat, they should see you like this, not like this. You being flat in the boat also helps keep it on keel. If you’re sitting straight up like the coxswain in the second picture and the boat is falling from side to side, you are most likely the main contributing factor.

If you’re having difficulty lying completely flat or are avoiding it because there’s no way to prevent yourself from sliding into the bow when the boat surges then you need to adjust the back (or neck) rest to accommodate your height. This is the equivalent of the rowers foot stretchers … they wouldn’t not change their foot stretchers just because the lineups aren’t set and they didn’t row in that seat yesterday or might not row in it tomorrow so in a similar vein, there’s no excuse for you to not adjust the back rest.

If you’re short, move it forward towards the bow to decrease the amount of extra space between your feet and the end of the boat. If you’re around my height (4’11”) then you still might not be able to reach the very tip of the boat with your feet but you’ll be far enough forward that your feet will be closer to the narrow end of the hull which will make it easier to brace them against the sides of the boat.

If you’re tall, you’ll need to move the back rest back towards the stern. For those of you who are more vertically blessed than the rest of us then that might mean moving it back so you’re right against your bow seat’s backstops, which also means that you must lie down as far as you can because their upper bodies/elbows will probably travel in the plane directly over your head. There’s pretty much no way to be a tall coxswain and comfortably cox in a bow loaded four though (at least that’s what I’ve heard from friends) so sacrifices will have to be made.

If the back rests in your shell aren’t the solid planks (which are amazing) and instead are those mesh nets (second in awfulness only to those stupid neck bars that some Resolutes have), make sure that you tighten them enough so that there’s no tension in your upper body when you’re lying down. The first time I coxed a four with one of those I didn’t think to tighten it and came off with the worst headache and a really sore ribcage because I was tensing my body so much to keep myself in a good position to see and not slide around. The next time I was in that boat I pulled the straps about 75% and that ended up being perfect (and not entirely uncomfortable…). If you don’t have one of those mesh nets I’m almost positive you can buy them online from the boat manufacturer but I’ve also seen crews DIY their own from old t-shirts (it involved grommets, carabiners, and thin rope or bungees), which is easier to do that it sounds.

Going back to the “sliding into the bow” problem, it took me forever to figure out how to deal with this. I can lay completely flat in every four I’ve ever been in but if I move the back rest up to the point when I can actually brace my feet against the boat then I end up with my chest right against the steering lever (the one that moves left and right), which as you can imagine makes it really difficult to steer. The solution was to throw an old soccer ball (the smaller ones that are 18-24″ in circumference work great) or a small beach ball into the bow of the boat to put my feet against. This lets you keep the back rest closer to the stern while giving you better control over your body and not compromising your ability to steer. Please don’t listen to your coaches when they tell you to just throw a life jacket in the bow because that’s stupid and not a legitimate solution. One, they’re split down the middle and have a giant hole in them and two, it is incredibly easy to get your feet tangled in them. Worst case scenario, if you flipped and your feet are caught up in a life jacket, how easy do you think it’s gonna be for you to get out of the boat? Not very. Don’t use life jackets.

Related: Coxswain Skills: Boat feel


It’s pretty easy to brace yourself in an eight but you’ve gotta know how to sit in the seat for this to actually work. You can casually sit in the boat during less intense stuff but when you’re doing pieces, drills, etc. you should make your body is “one with the boat” so you can feel what’s happening and so you’re not getting jerked around. The way to do this is to press your feet into the footboards on either side of your cox box (like you’re trying to push something away from you) while pressing the small of your back (that inward curve right above your butt) into the back of the seat. Doing these two things allows your body to move with the boat rather than in response to it.

Side note, I had a rude awakening when I was coxing in Florida over winter break when I got in the boat and realized our Resolutes don’t have these footboards. I’ve never been less in tune with a boat than I was that week, which was really frustrating for me because I felt like I was missing out on a lot of things the boat was doing. Having your feet flat on the bottom of the hull just doesn’t provide the same … feeling … resistance … I’m not sure what word to use … so it was tough to establish any kind of boat feel when I was in there. Similarly, when we were doing high rate stuff, like starts at 38-42spm, I felt like a rag doll. It took a lot more effort than I’m used to to keep my body stable, despite having what I consider to be pretty solid core strength. So Resolute coxswains … how do you combat this?

When it comes to your upper body, similar to the rowers you want to keep everything loose. Rather than tensing your shoulders to prevent your upper body from moving around you should instead use your core to keep everything stable. (More motivation to do core workouts.) I’ve heard of pressing your elbows into or around the gunnels to keep you from moving but I tried that in Florida and it just hurt so I can’t vouch for that method personally.

The positioning of your fingers/hands is the final component to how you sit in the boat. I know I’ve been talking about this a lot recently but you shouldn’t be gripping the steering cables with a full fist (this creates unnecessary tension in your shoulders and causes you to oversteer).

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

Instead you should hook your thumb, index, and middle fingers around them (see the picture illustrating how I do it in the post linked below) and then finish by hooking your pinkies over the gunnels. This helps you maintain full contact with the boat while preventing you from oversteering due to the limited range of motion you now have thanks to how you’ve weaved the cables between your fingers.

Related: Coxswain skills: Race steering

What advice do you guys have for sitting in the boat? If you’re a tall/short coxswain in a four, what’s your method for positioning yourself?