Steering is the most, if not the only, visible role we have as coxswains. It’s something I’ve talked a lot about on here (you can see all those posts in the “steering” tag here) but since the new season’s just getting started I thought it’d be beneficial to go over a couple of the basics for the new novice coxswains. This should also serve as a reminder for those of you who are returning as experienced varsity coxswains and give you some stuff to touch on with the novices.
If someone asks you what your most important task is outside of keeping your crew safe, your answer should always be “steering an effective course”. I don’t like to say “steer straight” because there’s always that one person that takes it way too literally and emails me saying “but I cox on a river with a lot of turns, how do I steer straight then?”. Steering an effective course covers all the bases, regardless of whether you’re coxing on a straight-shot body of water or a more serpentine one like the Charles.
More so than telling your rowers what to do and WAY more so than motivating them, learning how to steer properly should be your biggest priority when you first get on the water. This entails a combination of things – knowing how the steering system works is obviously the main one but also knowing how the boat responds to you touching the rudder and where you need to steer more/less on the water you row on (aka turns and straightaways) are the other two components. Varsity coxswains, you should be clueing the novices in on both of these since you’ve been in the boats before and know which ones respond well and which ones don’t. You also know which turns require you to stay on the rudder longer (i.e. the downstream Eliot turn on the Charles) and where you should only need to make slight adjustments as necessary to hold a point (i.e. in the basin).
Related: Mike Teti’s “Three S’s of Coxing”
Steering too much (aka oversteering) is the most common problem coxswains, especially novices, have. This is usually a result of getting impatient because the boat doesn’t feel like it’s turning. Remember, it’s not going to respond right away – it takes a stroke or two (or more, depending on your shell) before it starts to turn so you’ve gotta wait and not shove the rudder all the way over to one side thinking that’ll make it turn faster. All that does is cause you to, as I call it, “drunk steer”, meaning you’re zigzagging down the course in such a way that would make me think you’d fail a sobriety test if given one on land.
Between fours and eights, fours tend to be the easiest to oversteer because there’s less of a “delay” in response time between when you move the strings and when the shell actually turns. One of the reasons why developing boat feel and understanding technique is such an important part of coxing fours is because it can also help you limit unnecessary (over)corrections with the rudder. Being able to gauge the impact the rowers have (or will have) on the shell will allow you to be able to anticipate the corrections you’ll need to make to your steering and limit it to only what needs to be done.
Related: Coxswain skills: Boat feel
Another cause of oversteering is not anticipating what’s up ahead. You should be looking over your stroke’s shoulder every couple of strokes to see what’s going on in front of you so you can start adjusting your course sooner rather than later. “What’s going on in front of you” includes any upcoming turns in the river, other crews that might be stopped, moving slower than you, etc., and any debris or obstacles like an errant log or a buoy. Failing to acknowledge this ahead of time leads to that “oh shit!” moment where you have make a last-minute adjustment to avoid putting yourself in a dangerous situation. Those sudden changes can also cause you to panic and throw the rudder to one side (thinking again that that will make the boat turn faster and get you out of harm’s way). This will only exacerbate your oversteering and could put you in an even worse position if you end up on the wrong side of the course (aka going against the traffic pattern) as a result.
A more rare cause of oversteering is not knowing what to say to the crew so in order to feel like you’re doing something you steer … a lot. This isn’t something I’ve come across too often but I’ve had coxswains bring it up in emails so I think it’s worth addressing, if only to say that the “less is more” theory applies not just to what you say but also to how you steer. If you don’t have anything to say or are struggling to come up with a call, don’t feel like you need to compensate for that by going all Grand Theft Auto on the steering cables. The rowers and your coach will appreciate a quiet coxswain who steers well a lot more than a coxswain who is struggling on both ends.