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.

Question of the Day

G’day! Just an upfront thanks for the help this blog has been to me so far – it is really a god send!

Recently our coach took us on a road trip to a ‘still’ body of water to do our time trials, however the weather was absolutely horrendous that day (strong winds and rain). This left us with quite the time trial. In regards to the steering, however, I found it very difficult. Generally in practice, I’d look over my shoulder (bow loaded quad) to try and see how the blade work was doing and on top of the glances at the SpeedCoach and calls, it’s generally a handful. When we were doing pieces that day, I’d made the mistake of not prioritising the steering (I just kept the rudder straight) ended up a good 5 or so meters to bow side after the 2K (~ish) piece. On the latter pieces, my line was much better, but required my to be on the rudder a lot of the time.

My question is how do you deal with rough weather? Mainly in regards to cross winds, head winds, tail winds. Should I be constantly on the rudder to maintain my line? Or should I point my line in the direction of the wind in hopes that it pushes the boat back to a straight course? A fellow cox mentioned that they did something similar to this in Rio this year but I’m not a hundred percent sure. Thanks in advance!

When we do seat races or time trials we usually tell the coxswains what arches on the bridge to go through and what they should be pointing at so we can ensure they’re setting themselves up to steer a straight course. If their lines are off and they go through the wrong arch or are clearly not pointed correctly then we have to factor that in to the results because they most likely went over 1000, or 2000m (our standard seat race/time trial distances when we do them by length), which could (and sometimes has) cost a guy his seat.

In my experience rowers tend to get way more pissed about coxswains drifting off course and adding unnecessary extra meters than making small steering adjustments to maintain their original course. It also helps to preface the piece by saying “hey guys, there’s a crosswind coming from the starboard side so I might need to steer a bit if I get pushed off my line”.

Related: How to: Cox a seat race

Usually I’ll point slightly into the wind (like, an arms-only or arms and body-stroke’s worth) at the start if there’s a particularly strong and consistent cross or headwind, that way, like you said, it pushes me back on course. My priority though is to do whatever’s necessary to maintain the straightest course without adding any additional meters. Tailwinds haven’t ever presented much of a problem for me unless it’s a tail-cross but even then it’s negligible so I don’t think my strategy for steering changes much in those conditions.

In a cross or headwind I’ll make as much of an adjustment as necessary and say “on the rudder”/”off the rudder” so the crew knows that I’m paying attention to how the conditions are affecting the piece and taking the necessary steps to ensure we’re impacted as little as possible by them. Once we’re done I’ll tell the coach where/when I had to steer (i.e. about 250m in, 2min into a 5min piece, etc.) and for how long (i.e. a stroke, three strokes, etc.) so they can make a note of it and decide if it had any effect on the outcome of the race.

Question of the Day

I really want to practice making small steering adjustments but my team has the great misfortune of rowing on a river that is in the midst of extreme drought. When I say extreme, I mean we can’t have two boats next to each other because anything but a very specific course in the very middle of the river can break off a fin. Because of the drought, there’s debris everywhere, and coupled with the bridges, I’m basically on the rudder at all times. How can I practice minimal steering in this situation?

I get what you’re saying about wanting to practice but it sounds like you’re at the mercy of the river until conditions improve. I don’t really have any advice unfortunately – you gotta do what you gotta do and in this situation keeping the equipment safe is more important than you practicing your steering, which is a pretty low priority by comparison.

The best I can suggest is to take note of how much you’re steering now and then (off the water) visualizing the course you’d take under normal circumstances and what adjustments you’d need to make between how much you’re currently steering vs. how much you should be steering. That’s a good way to practice without being able to actually practice because by the time you get back on the water (or the river returns to normal) you’ve already got an idea of how much or little you need to steer. Other than that though, just do whatever you’ve gotta do to keep the fin in tact.

Question of the Day

So far finding this blog a great resource, it has helped me so much already so thank you🙂 Onto my question, as a novice cox for maybe a month, the only real thing I am really struggling with at the moment is maneuvering the boat – e.g. moving the boat from the middle of the river off to the side in order not to impede traffic, sorta like parking the boat.

Say if I was in the middle of the river and I wanted to get to the bank and be ‘parked’ in the same position as if the boat had simply moved sideways, how would I go about doing this? My past attempts doing this have involved me steering while bow just rows, then I would just get stern pair to back it. It seems really slow and inefficient when I do it.

Also if the current keeps pushing us towards the bank, to the point where there is barely enough room to take a stroke without hitting the bank what can I do to:

1) Keep the boat off the bank in the first place
2) Get out of a situation like this if it does arise again.

I usually tell bow to tap it on bow side but then the stern just gets pushed in, then I tell stroke to tap on bow and same goes, bow just goes back into the bank. If I tell all 4 to tap in on bow side, the stern will just hit the bank. BTW This would primarily be for a 4x+ as I don’t cox 8s very often, but advice for 8s would also be nice🙂 Thanks!

I’d just keep it super simple and spin the boat 90ish degrees (ports row, starboards back), take a few strokes to get out of the way, and then spin back 90ish degrees (starboards row, ports back) so you’re pointed back where you were before. You’ll be in pretty much the same position, just a few lengths to the right of where you were before. If you’re on a narrower stretch where it’s not necessary to spin a full 90 degrees or you’re just trying to move over a length instead of a few lengths  I’d have the rowers spin it enough that I can take a sharp angle towards shore and then I’ll row it across. I’ve never been concerned with being in the exact same spot along shore as I was in the middle of the river (nor have my coaches) so backing it down just seems unnecessarily tedious.

As far as dealing with the current, that’s one of those things where you’ve either gotta know ahead of time that it’s strong that day thus you’ll need to stay further out from shore or you’ve gotta evaluate it when you get out and know based on the flow what adjustments you’ll have to make to your steering. If you’re sitting well off shore and it’s still sucking you in then the solution is to either a) don’t sit for very long or b) if you’re sitting because your coach is talking to the crew, make quiet calls to bow pair or stern pair or whoever your coach isn’t directly talking to and have them row you out a little. I usually try not to interrupt my coach but sometimes I’ll try to sneak in when he finishes a sentence and just say “hey, can we row it out?”, especially if we’re getting close to the point where we might get stuck or the fin could get damaged.

Related: Should I make corrections to my point (using bow pair) while the coach is speaking? I always feel rude but the boat sometimes drifts off!

The simple and obvious solution to dealing with your bow or stern going back and forth into shore is also pretty straightforward – don’t put yourself in that position to begin with. If the current is strong don’t row that close to shore and if you know you’re going to be stopping definitely don’t row that close to shore. I fully get wanting/needing to get out of the way but you can do that while still giving yourself a buffer zone so as to avoid not getting stuck.

If you do find yourself in an unavoidable situation like that, you have to work quickly without freaking out and losing focus on the steps you need to take to get out of there (which is a common thing with novice coxswains). The boat is naturally gonna pivot around whichever side is taking strokes so if arms + body strokes or full pressure strokes or whatever is too much, try sculling it around by having your 2-seat take bow’s oar and bringing it nearly parallel to the hull while taking short choppy strokes.

Related: How to scull your bow around

Your stern is still gonna move towards shore but it shouldn’t be at nearly as aggressive of an angle as before, so you should have a little more room to then row it out. Again though, this can’t be something that everyone just takes their time with otherwise you will drift into shore and make things ten times harder for yourself.

Ultimately though the best solution is to not put yourself in that position to begin with. Sometimes it’s unavoidable if there’s a lot of traffic or you’ve had to stop or whatever but getting to that point where you’ve gotta execute some ninja-like maneuvers to get out is nearly always preventable if you’re paying attention to the conditions and where you’re positioning yourself on the river.

Also, don’t be afraid to say to your coach “The current’s pretty strong, is it OK to stop here rather than go all the way over so we don’t end up drifting into shore?”. If you’re gonna be sitting for a few seconds before the start of a piece it’s probably not a big deal but if you’re gonna do stationary drills or he wants to discuss something, let him know so that he knows and can be aware of that going forward since it’s not always easy to tell from the launch how the water is impacting your steering.

HOCR: Setting up for Weeks

Previously: Getting to the starting line || Steering through the bridges || Landmarks along the course || Steering around the turns || Race plans || My general race plan || Yaz Farooq’s coxswain clinic || Race plan “hacks” || The course in meters || Weeks, Lowell House, and “the turning tree”

Two years ago Pete Cipollone was on the Rowing Illustrated podcast talking about how to take the Weeks turn. I’ve talked about Weeks before in a previous post but if you’re looking for some last minute tips, here’s a few from the guy who’s won HOCR seven times and whose course record still stands (13:58.9, set in 1997 if you’re curious).

Related: Pete Cipollone’s 1997 HOCR Recording

Setting yourself for the turn is easier than you think, provided you give yourself plenty of room to execute it and position yourself in the middle of the course coming down the Powerhouse stretch. Despite what you’ve probably heard from your coach about staying tight to the buoys, this is one spot (of many, tbh) where you don’t want or need to do that. If you’re confident in your rudder system and the strength of your bow and 3-seat then you can hug them a little tighter but the “ideal” position is about a full boat length off the buoys.

Related: Taking the Weeks turn with a new/better fin on the Empacher

There are two ways to know if you’ve nailed the turn – the first is if you’re done steering before you hit the bridge. If you’re going through the bridge at an angle and you’re pretty much completely off the rudder already, you nailed it. The other visual cue is if your port side’s blades miss the abutment by a foot or less. I’ve talked about this before but for me personally, I know that when I have the momentary feeling of “oh shit I’m gonna hit the bridge”, that’s how I know we’re right where we need to be.

Related: Weeks, Lowell House, and “the turning tree”

The last part of managing the turn is thinking ahead to Anderson, which you should be doing before you even enter Weeks. Coming out of the turn, provided you started it early enough and are done steering before you go through the bridge, you want to be pointed straight ahead at the outside abutment of Anderson Bridge (the one between the Boston arch that contains the traveling lane and the center racing arch).

Related: Steering through the bridges

A lot of coxswains, particularly those who are racing at HOCR for the first time, have a tendency to wait too long to start their turns which then throws them super wide coming through Weeks, which then means they’ve gotta do an S-curve to get back into position to be lined up for Anderson. You can save yourself a lot of stress and steering by thinking a bridge or two ahead so that you’ve got plenty of time to get set up and make adjustments to your course if necessary if there’s other crews in your way.

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. 👍🏽

Coxswain skills: Steering a buoyed course

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 || Race steering

Today’s post is going to be a super quick recap-ish post on strategies for steering a buoyed course. I’ve gotten several emails about this lately and with IRAs this weekend and Youth Nationals coming up soon, this will hopefully be a good last-minute refresher for anyone that hasn’t had much experience with buoyed courses (which apparently is more common than I thought it was).

I talked a lot about race steering in the last post (linked below) so I won’t regurgitate what I said there but a point that does bear repeating is that if you’re thinking about steering during your race, something has already gone wrong.

Related: Coxswain skills: Race steering

There are four things you can loosely focus on when you’re on a buoyed course to help you maintain a straight course. They include:

A point far off in the distance (like a building or tower on the skyline)

The center line where the buoys meet

The distance that one side’s blades are off the buoy line

The buoy line that’s just ahead of you

When looking at the buoys just up ahead, it’s similar to standing on the street and looking one block up, then you walk a block and look up at the next block. You’re taking it one chunk at a time as opposed to looking down the whole street, or course in this case. I’m personally not a huge fan of this approach because I think it pulls your attention back to your steering more than it should but if the idea of looking straight down the whole course at once is a little daunting, this could be an approach worth trying.

The center-line approach is a commonly used one but coxswains tend to overthink it and freak out because they can’t actually see where the buoys meet because the rowers are in their way. This is where good coxswains separate themselves from the rest because a good coxswain would be able to use their critical thinking skills and common sense (more so the latter than the former, to be honest) to realize that obviously the point where the buoys meet won’t be visible when you’re actually following a straight course. The goal here is to point yourself at the start so that the center line is “hidden” behind the rowers and then to use whatever’s on either side of that point to maintain a course straight down the middle between them.

The last approach is to use your peripheral vision to maintain an equal distance between the blades and the buoy line. This is best used in tandem with focusing on the center-line or a point off in the distance. It’s also easy to practice too when you’re rowing side-by-side with another crew at home (sans buoys) since keeping the crews close without clashing blades is an important part of practice management. The one downside to it is that if you focus too hard on one buoy line it can tend to pull you over to that side. I have a tendency to do this so my go-to is to always look straight ahead and focus on the center-line.

Buoy lines ultimately are not a hard thing to handle, even if you don’t have a ton of experience with them. The last two years at Sprints I’ve seen a lot of coxswains, mostly freshman/walk-ons I assume, nervously asking their coaches what to point at, how to hold a point between the buoys, etc. and it’s very obvious that they’re thinking way too hard about it. Buoys are your friend so don’t think about them more than you need to – they’re there to make your life easier, not harder.