Steering through wake is a pretty common thing you’ll have to deal with while coxing. Whether as a result of the elements, other coaches, or powerboats, you’ll probably encounter some form of wake a couple times per practice (at least). It’s also dependent on the time of year – Canadian Henley week on the Charles is a lot different than early October or mid-May when it comes to wake generated by launches and other crews. It’s something you should always be on the lookout for though so your crew’s not caught off guard when the boat starts to roll with the waves.
Related: Coxswain skills: Awareness
If you think back to your earth science class in middle school, you’ll recall that there are two parts to a wave – the crest, which is the top, and the trough, which is the bottom. The larger the distance between the crest and trough, the bigger/taller the waves and the tougher they’ll be to steer through. The general rule of thumb is that if you can see both at the same time (i.e. they’re spaced out, lower than the gunnels, etc.) you can continue rowing. It might still be a little bumpy but nothing too distracting – it’s important though to give the rowers a heads up though by saying “little bit of wake on starboard side on this next stroke…”.
If you can’t see both/when in doubt, you should stop. The reason why is because if the boat is suspended on the crests of the waves, that empty space between the crest and trough isn’t providing any support to the hull and could cause it to crack or snap. Basically, if you could see daylight under the hull at any point, you need to stop and wait for them to pass. If the waves are due to the weather and stopping isn’t an option and/or would be unsafe, you’ll want to position yourself as close to shore as you realistically can (you can always go another oar’s length closer than you think though) and avoid turning the boat whenever possible, even if that means rowing agains the traffic pattern (which is another reason why you want to be super close to shore and something I talk about more down below).
In normal, quick-to-pass situations (like a launch zooming past you at a close range), you’ll want to stop and position the shell parallel to the wake so that you’re minimizing the surface area of the hull that isn’t supported by the water (going back to what I said before about it being suspended on the crests of the waves). In most cases you have enough warning time, especially if you’re just sitting there between pieces or listening to your coach, that all you’ll need to do is tell bow + 3 (for example) to take a couple strokes so you’re angled with the waves. Tell the rowers to “lean away” (not drastically, just enough that the water’s not going to end up in the boat) and keep the oars flat to provide as much stability as possible until it passes.
If you weren’t already rowing you’ll probably need to readjust your point and/or row back out from shore since the waves will push you in but otherwise, this ultimately isn’t something to worry about. It’s annoying and can be disruptive if you get waked out in the middle of a piece but it’s one of those things where I just roll my eyes, think “dude, seriously??”, and move on within a stroke or two once the wake is past us. If we’re stuck in the waves and have to stop to allow them to get ahead of us or flatten out, that’s even more annoying but again, not a big deal and not an excuse to let the focus/power completely fall off.
In not-quick-to-pass situations like strong winds and whitecaps, you don’t want to stop, like I said before, because that could potentially pose an even bigger safety threat. I always defaulted to my coaches here rather than making a call on my own (which I could do in situations like the previous one I mentioned) – if they said “keep rowing, angle across, row by sixes and do not stop“, I kept rowing, angled across, went down to sixes, and didn’t stop … even if it made me wince every time a wave would hit a rigger. Rowing through wake like this is the ultimate test of staying cool under fire though and even though it can be challenging, there’s nothing to do except do it.
I’ve rarely encountered this type of wake from other boats, it’s always a result of the weather. If you’ve been in the basin in early spring, you’ll know what I mean – once you get past the BU bridge going downstream it’s a shitshow. That was one of the very few downsides of our boathouse being by the Mass Ave bridge because the Charles is, for the most part, relatively protected but once you get past BU, you’re out in the open and there’s not much you can do other than limp through it and take it one stroke at a time. I can recall a couple specific instances where we’d come out of the bridge and just get smacked by insanely strong wind gusts and waves and in order to avoid swamping the boat, we’d have to angle across in front of BU from the Boston side to the Cambridge side and row against the traffic pattern until we got to the MIT lane (all without stopping) rather than rowing up the Boston side to the crossover point (near-ish the finish line), stopping, turning, rowing across, spinning again, and then rowing up the MIT lane.
(If you’re not familiar with the Charles, check out the maps in the post below to see all the landmarks I just mentioned and get an idea of what I’m talking about.)
Related: Navigating the Charles River
This morning on Twitter I saw a sculler call out a coach for waking people out in the Powerhouse (he actually @’ed them, which I love) and that’s what gave me the idea for today’s post. I’ve said this before but if you get waked out by someone, don’t flip them off or yell at them or whatever else … just let it go, especially if you’re a high school coxswain. College coxswains can probably get away with it more often but still, don’t engage. It doesn’t make you (as a program) look good and if your crew is already questionable about your ability to maintain your composure, this isn’t gonna help your case (I see this come up on evals a lot). If it’s a big enough issue then your coach can/will handle it (by either saying something to them or flipping them off themselves … I’ve been in the launch with coaches who have done both) but you should pick the “really??” GIF of your choice and just imitate that instead.