Coxswain skills: Cutting corners

If you’re steering and coming up a turn, you’ve probably heard your coach say something along the lines of “don’t cut the corner”, which means that you’re taking it (or setting yourself up to take it) too sharply. This tends to happen most often on rivers where there are big sweeping turns, for example, like the one between the BU bridge and Riverside on the Charles. I am so guilty of cutting that one nearly every time I’m going downstream.

In this picture you can see two lines, a dashed red one and a solid black one. The dashed one represents a course that would be considered “cutting the corner”. What tends to cause this to happen is we look out of the boat and see a turn coming and instead of waiting until we actually hit the point in the river where the turn starts, we instead start turning the shell immediately. As a result, because we’ve started steering early this will cause us to end up on the wrong side of the river once we’ve completed the turn (as indicated in the picture). This can be very dangerous depending on how heavy the traffic is on your body of water (that includes power boats too, not just other rowers) so it’s important to take your time and make sure you’re taking it at the proper angle. If you’re not sure if this is something you’re doing, a good indicator is to judge how far you are from shore when you’ve completed the turn vs. when you started it. A few feet is negligible but if you were five feet off the bank at the start and you’re finishing in the middle of the river, that means you cut it a bit.

What you should actually do in these cases is simply wait to start your turn. You always want to go straight just a little longer than you think you should before tapping the rudder. For me, when I’m going downstream on the Charles, the few times that I’ve actually nailed that turn are when I’ve stayed straight just long enough to make me question whether I’ve stayed straight for too  long. There’s this momentary uncomfortable feeling you get and you’ll think you’ve made a mistake but that’s actually the best indicator, at least in my experience, to let you know when to start going. (That applies to a lot of things in coxing, not just how to take turns…)

(In that illustration I actually made the black line a bit farther out than I wanted so if it looks like the “correct” course is going a little wide … it is.)

Another common example for cutting corners is when you’re rowing two or three across and the crew on the middle and/or outside squeezes the crew on the inside as they come around a turn. In cases like this, if you’re the inside crew you have a couple options. 1) Stop rowing until it’s safe to pick it up again, 2) drop down to fours or pairs so you’re still moving but can avoid the other boats until they fix their course, or 3) keep rowing and force the other coxswain to fix something so they don’t hit you. There are a few others but these are the main ones. Option three tends to come off as super passive aggressive but … why should I stop rowing just because you can’t steer? Personally, I think this is the best option all around because it forces the middle/outside coxswain to fix the problem as it’s happening (instead of trying to think about what to do differently after the fact) and it puts the coxswain on the inside in an uncomfortable position that they have to learn to manage and deal with without freaking out.

From a coach’s perspective, it also forces communication between the coxswains because there’s really no fixing this situation without one telling the other what they need them to do. That means that you can’t get super pissed at the other coxswain and suddenly decide you’re just not going to say anything to them. (This is waaay more common with female coxswains but I’ve seen guys do it too.) If you’re getting pushed over it does nothing for anyone if the only person you say something to is your stroke seat. You have to actually look over to the other coxswain and say “Hey Emily, can you stay wide coming around the turn here, you guys are starting to push me over…”. To the coxswain(s) being asked to maintain the spacing, just listen and adjust. Don’t back talk to the other coxswain, don’t get snarky, and most especially, don’t blatantly ignore them. Put your hand up to acknowledge you heard them and then move over a little. If you’re in the middle and fairly close to coxswain on the outside, you’ll need to look over and say “Hey Alex, I’m coming over to starboard” so you don’t end up merging into their lane while they’re still in it.

An example of when situations like this become dangerous is after it’s rained and there’s a lot of debris along the shoreline. We ran into this problem a lot this year because of all the rain we had. If there weren’t full-size tree trunks floating down in the middle of the river, they were stuck just under the waterline along shore. Additionally, if the water level is high then the branches of trees that are right on the bank tend to be lower, which means you can’t just row under them like you normally do. Both of these present problems where equipment and/or people could be damaged if you steer or get pushed into them, which is why coxswains in the middle and outside need to be equally as cognizant of what’s in the inside lane so they’re not putting their teammates in a bad situation.

If you’re one of the crews on the outside, coming around a turn like this means you have to take it wider than you normally would.  It’s going to take a little longer (I donno, 10ish strokes at most maybe?) but it’s not a race so it’s really not that big of a deal. I think it’s good to spend an equal amount of time in all the lanes though (inside, middle, and outside) because it’s good practice for head race season. You might not always get your desired lane on the course and it’s important to know how to handle both tight and wide turns so you can get through them cleanly, safely, and without a penalty. Don’t just go through the motions when you’re at practice, really think and compare what you have to do differently depending on which lane you’re in. What’s the difference in the number of strokes it takes to get around the bend between the inside lane and the outside one? For your crew, is it more effective to have one side increase the pressure or can you comfortably make it around solely on the rudder? Those are the kinds of things you should be paying attention to (in addition to everything else).

Image via // @oh.genevieve

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Comments (3)

  1. This sounds like it was written just for me haha. On the Schuylkill going upriver there a huge sweeping turn into columbia bridge. I always cut it way to hard and what you said is really true about seeing the turn and reacting way to early. This really helps, great post.

    1. Hey Jake! I know exactly which turn you’re talking about. I coxed on the Schuylkill a few times when I was there last summer and having never been on it before, I did the same thing going into the bridge. Like I said, wait long enough to feel like you’ve waited TOO long and THEN start your turn. Good luck!