I’m starting to think we should start warning coxswains about the docks at CBC rather than the bridge piers at Eliot. Saw a lot of near misses yesterday, which was both hilarious and concerning. Hope everyone had a good weekend of racing and enjoyed that weather – we’re probably in for hurricanes and snow for the next five years to make up for it.
It hurts a lot but they quickly find out that no matter how much it hurts you can keep doing it. We hope that'll carry over into their racing, that they realize when they're racing really hard that the body's gonna say "no, I don't want to do this" but they find out that they can make the body keep doing it, they can keep making the boats go fast. The people who learn this best are the ones who win races.Harry Parker Harvard University
When coxswains think about Head of the Charles their first thought is about how they’re going to steer and navigate their way through the three-mile long course. A distant second is their race plan and maybe an even further distant third is how they’re actually going to call the race. The framework that a race plan provides can take a lot of weight off your shoulders but beyond knowing what to execute you’ve also got to know how you’re going to do it.
Related: Head of the Charles
When I think about how I’m going to execute my race plan at HOCR, I first break the race up into three sections and then think about what I want my baseline tone of voice to be throughout each of those sections. When I say “baseline” tone, what I mean is that it’s what I plan to fall back to in between the normal bursts I already have built into my race plan. With an understanding of what tone is in the context of coxing (how you use your voice to emphasize what you’re asking the crew to do), I approach each section with an idea of what I want the crew to be thinking/feeling and how I can use my voice to keep them on track. Here’s how I lay it out.
Section 1: BU through Riverside
BU Bridge is notorious for funneling any amount of westerly winds right through the arches and into the backs of the crews who have just come down off their high strokes and are starting to settle into their rhythm. My teammates are all seasoned pros so I know a little wind isn’t going to throw them off but I still want to emphasize staying relaxed in the shoulders and long through the back end in order to establish our rhythm early in the race. I want their relaxation and focus to mirror mine so my goal with tone throughout this section is to keep it calm and conversational but with just enough fire in my voice to keep them on their toes. On a scale of 1-10, I want to be around 6 – 6.5.
Section 2: Powerhouse through Newell
This mile-long stretch of the course is the make-or-break zone. If you can make it through here unscathed and with the crew’s focus still inside your boat, the next section is going to be a breeze (Eliot Bridge be damned). My goal for this section is simple: we’re not chasing other crews down, we’re just gonna push the pace and see who can hang with us. Keeping the rowers engaged and their focus internal is key here, especially given the number of distractions that present themselves through this stretch, which means the underlying tone of my calls is going to have a little more fire and “push” than the first section. On a scale of 1-10, I’m shooting for a 7 – 7.5.
Section 3: Top of the Eliot turn through the finish line
Through here our goal is to maintain our speed while fighting fatigue as we drive for the line. This is where I’m using my tone and calls to keep each individual connected to the crew and not let the frenzied atmosphere around us draw them outside of the boat. You have to fight the energy a little bit and not get spastic otherwise you’ll lose the crew’s attention at one of the most pivotal points in the race. The intensity is higher here, around an 8.5, but the ultimate backbone of this part of the race is composure. You can’t be effective at a higher intensity if you lack composure so you have to keep your tone crisp and clear as the fire builds behind your calls.
This race is an equal combination of fun and stress which makes it really easy to get overwhelmed once you’re in the thick of it. If you start sensing your tone going from composed to frantic, breathe. You have about three seconds, give or take, to collect yourself and get back in the right headspace. It doesn’t seem like a lot of time but you’d be surprised at how quickly you can turn it around if you just shake out your shoulders, take a deep breath, and tell yourself to “refocus”.
You’re the leader on race day and no race is more of a performance piece for coxswains than Head of the Charles. Do yourself a favor and take the time beforehand to lay out your plan so that you go into it knowing exactly what you want to accomplish and how you want to sound while doing it.
Image via // Reddit
Hi! I’ve been coxing in high school for 3 years and coxed Head of the Charles last year with my school team. This year however, I was told that I am going to cox an international team that had done well last year. I do not really know anything about them and I will only have the day before the race to practice with them. I was wondering if you had any advice about what I should do to prepare. Thank you!
That’s pretty cool, albeit definitely nerve-wracking. Your best bet would be to reach out to them via email (somebody has to have the contact info for one of the rowers) to introduce yourself and get a sense of their experience levels, if they already have a race plan in mind (or at the very least, certain things they want to do at specific points along the course), what they’ve been doing during practice, etc. The four I’ve coxed the last three years is from the PNW so I stay up to date with what they’ve been doing through an email chain that generally starts sometime in the late spring. Once we meet up to practice that Friday morning before HOCR, I’ve usually already got a good idea about what they want to do so all I’ve gotta do is fill in the gaps based on whatever I see/feel during that 90 minute practice. It’s definitely an unconventional approach but as long as you communicate beforehand, even if it’s only over a couple emails, you’ll pretty much have all the info you need to have a decent race.
If for whatever reason you can’t connect over email or Skype or whatever, just plan on asking those same questions before you launch. I get why coxswains are nervous about going out with a crew they’ve never met before but your job is still the same (steer effectively, don’t hit anything, etc.) so all you’ve really gotta do is just execute whatever practice/race plan they give you. And if they don’t have a plan (which is unlikely but still possible), just say “This is what I did when I raced here last year and it worked really well for us, are you guys open to trying it today and then we can tweak it if necessary once we’re back on land?”. That’s basically my go-to whenever I’ve encountered that situation and the crews are usually happy to default to what I’ve done in the past with minimal adjustments to fit the current lineup.
It’s highly unlikely you’re gonna have to come up with any sort of plan solely on your own though, which I think is what trips a lot of coxswains up. Nor should you, since you know nothing about them. Either they’ll already have something they want to do that they’ve been doing for awhile or you can just default to something you’ve done previously. When you’re jumping in a boat like this nobody expects “perfection” the way our actual crews do so don’t think too hard about all this.
Since you mentioned that they’re an international crew, I’m assuming there’s not a language barrier of any kind but even still, the best piece of advice I can give you is to make sure you use the terminology they are most familiar with when it comes to basic stuff like port vs. starboard, calling for them to stop or hold water, etc. I know in some places it’s more common to say “easy” or “easy oars” instead of weigh enough, port/starboard are more frequently referred to as “stroke side” and “bow side” outside the US, etc. I talked to a coxswain last year who collided with another crew on the course because the people she was coxing didn’t immediately process that when she said “ports, ease off” she meant stroke side (or whatever one it is, I really don’t know…) and when she said “weigh enough, hold water” she meant hard stop.
Related: Head of the Charles
St. Joe’s Prep 2016 Head of the Charles Men’s Alumni 8+
Like most HOCR recordings, the biggest takeaway is gonna be getting a look at the course and observing how each coxswains takes the turns and bridges. There are some gems in here as far as calls goes but what you’ll really want to pay attention to is how he handles the clusters of crews between Weeks and Anderson. He pretty savagely cuts in front of a crew right before Anderson and I’m pretty sure the only reason he was able to do that without more than a minimal clash between his stroke and the bow man of the other boat is because he committed to it early and never hesitated. (As I was watching it I was thinking “where is he steering … oh damn, he’s doing that…”.) That’s kind of the name of the game with steering HOCR too – commit or get screwed.
Circling back to the beginning, when they’re passing bow #46, they’re close enough to them that you could probably signal to your bow man to yell at them to yield as well if they’re not responding to you. Granted, you have to be projecting your voice loud enough for them to hear you in the first place but if your bow seat if right beside or off of the coxswain, having them yell “yield to starboard” can be helpful. This is something that you should discuss with them during practice and/or before you launch though, not something you should spring on them during the race. Just give them a heads up that if you’re close to another crew and they’re not yielding, you’ll say something like “Ben, yield!”, which is their cue to tell the coxswain to yield. And – ahem, junior men – not in a rude way either. Don’t yell “fucking move!” or anything like that. Repeat whatever your coxswain is saying, which shouldn’t be any more complicated than “46, yield to starboard”.
At 3:56 he says “picking up the buoy line again, get ready starboards…”, which I think is a good call just to alert the starboards that they might bump a buoy as he shifts back over. Obviously if you’re taking that tight of a course you want to make sure the buoys are either under the oar shafts or just off of the blades … you shouldn’t be hitting the buoys on every single stroke. That defeats the purpose of being on the buoy line.
When they’re in front of Riverside, you hear the stroke say “we need to yield”, after which the coxswain turns around, sees where the other crew is, and then makes and adjustment. This is good communication between the two and, for the stroke seats in the back who have missed this the other 30,480 times I’ve said it, your responsibility since your coxswain doesn’t have eyes in the back of their head. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t have their head on a swivel but you’re looking at what’s behind the boat, just give them a heads up if they need to yield. See the video below for more on this (different regatta, same principle).
Related: Disqualifying Sydney Rowing Club
At 6:55 he says something about taking advantage of the fact that the crew beside them (Columbia, ironically) was taking the wrong arches. The Columbia eight was going through the Cambridge arches, which you are allowed to use in the Powerhouse Stretch, and in some cases can actually give you a strategic advantage if there’s a lot of crews going through the middle arches. Your “plan A” should always be to take the middle arches but if you come around Magazine Beach and see that there’s just a cluster of crews down the center of the Powerhouse, by all means, go for the Cambridge arches if they’re clear and use that to your advantage. This is one of those “split second, in the moment” decisions so you’ve really gotta be paying attention here.
As far as meters go, if you line yourself up right coming down the Powerhouse and positioning yourself into Weeks, it should only add one meter to your course based on measurements done by the HOCR organizers. It should still be your “plan B” but it’s a good option to have in your back pocket and if it does tack on a couple extra meters, it’s nothing you can’t make up by having solid turns through Anderson, Eliot, and Belmont Hill.
Other calls I liked:
“Get on the gas, let’s go!”
“I’ve had it with these amateurs!” (Same, dude. Same.)
University of Michigan 2016 Head of the Charles Men’s Collegiate 8+
This was a recording that Michigan’s coxswain sent me after the race last year. They started 15th in a pack of 37 and were the highest finishing American crew, coming in second overall in the collegiate 8+ event behind a Dutch crew. Below is what I said included in my email reply.
” I think one of your strengths throughout this race was your ability to maintain your composure and focus while steering through what sounded like a decent amount of traffic. (Side note, he said: “It was definitely a hectic race starting so far back. We went into Anderson four across with Wesleyan, Holy Cross and BC, suffice to say that did not work.”) It’s easy for coxswains to get overwhelmed and just completely shut down when that happens but you did a good job of continuing to communicate with your crew without losing the rhythm or intensity in your calls. I also liked how you gave them targets and said who you were passing, who you were moving through, who the next crew ahead of you was, etc. On an easier course that’s a simple thing to do but the Charles can get so chaotic that it becomes a lot tougher and requires a lot more awareness to be able to do alongside everything else. You nailed your management of the race though and there’s no question that it played a huge part in how well you guys did.”
Before you click out of the video after 10 seconds because you realize there’s no commentary … don’t. Not only will you miss a pretty sick finish, you’ll also miss (what I can only assume is) the best “fuuuuck, are they walking, nooo…” reaction from the Italian coxswain at 4:30ish (and lasting for at least the next 20 seconds).
Hi – I’m a relatively new coxswain (~6 months) for a master’s team in my city. We have a few head races coming up late August/early September, and I’ve been asked to cox the super novice master’s team. I haven’t coxed a head race before, and while your existing posts are really helpful, I was wondering if you could give advice specifically for coxing a less competitive boat (not necessarily less competitive in spirit, but definitely in rowing ability)? I worry that there will be a lot of boats passing during the 5k course and that I won’t be able to make any calls off of other boats without them ending poorly (like if a boat is coming up from behind, I know to make calls about pushing off of them etc., but if those boats keep passing us regardless of what we do, I don’t know how productive those “pushing off” calls will be if nothing comes of them). How would you approach coxing a race like this?
Also, do you have any good coxswain recordings where the coxswain is both doing a good job and the boat isn’t winning? I feel like a lot of the exemplary recordings on this website are of boats that are able to be super competitive and while there is obviously some transfer of tips/knowledge from that type of recording to my current coxing, it also doesn’t always feel relatable to my own coxing situation (where I’m coxing super novice masters rowers). I’m excited to have a chance to cox my first head race with lower stakes but I still want to do right by the rowers and prep just as seriously as any other cox in any other boat, which is why I’m getting nervous about having the right calls!
I think accepting that they’re a super novice team that is probably going to get passed a lot is important. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t have a similar approach to coxing a normal crew but if our definitions of “super novice” are the same, you kinda have to match the complexity of your race plan to the skill level of the crew … which is to say you should basically go out with the goal of doing a few 10s/20s throughout the race but mostly row it for yourselves rather than as a competitive piece like you otherwise would, if that makes sense. I know that sounds kind of dismissive and negative but that’s the reality of coxing crews that are way below the skill level of the other people you’re racing against. You don’t have to change anything as far as intensity or spirit goes, like you said, but you do have to adapt your strategy and be realistic.
When I’ve coxed or coached novice crews in the past, being honest and up front with them has always been the key to them going into the race with a good mindset. If you say “yea, we’re probably gonna get passed a lot because we’re the least experienced ones out there” or “OK here’s the race plan (and then lay out something super unnecessarily detailed)” then they’re going to feel deflated, overwhelmed, or both before they even get in the boat. If you frame it as “yea, we’re the slow guys but we’re faster than we were a few weeks ago and we’re all getting our blades in at the same time now so let’s go out there and row our race … we already know other crews are gonna pass us and that’s fine but the primary goal is to focus on our boat and try to beat our 5k time from practice last week.” then they’re more likely to feel energized about the piece because you’ve neutralized the whole getting passed thing and given them something tangible to work towards (more tangible than passing another crew, finishing in XYZ position, etc.).
As much as I hate to say “be positive” because of how cheerleader-y it sounds, that is the tone you have to have when you have that conversation. (Keep in mind there’s a big difference between being positive but realistic and sugarcoating it because you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. That’s not productive at all.) I’m not really an overly peppy person in that sense but I have a sarcastic, dry enough sense of humor that I can say “we’re slow AF” and still get people to loosen up and go into it with a smile on their faces. Whatever your personality dictates in those kind of situations, just roll with it.
You’re right that those “pushing off” types of calls probably won’t be super effective, especially if/when you know the crew is going to pass you. Them “ending poorly” is probably unlikely – at most you’ll have an undesired effect if the energy falls off – but again, it’s all in how you frame it. If you say “Sarasota’s walking, let’s hold them off, push them back, etc…” and then they walk through you in five strokes then yea, that’s pretty demoralizing. If you say “Sarasota’s coming up behind us, eyes on the guy in front of you, let’s keep it internal and make ’em work for it…”, again, that gives them tangible things to focus on and work for. If/when they’ve moved through you you can say “solid effort there guys, finishes looked cleaner and Sarasota had to call another five on top of their move just to get past us, way to fight…”.
When I coached my high school team a few years ago we’d have the novices do pieces against the lightweights and one of their goals was making it take longer for the lightweights to walk through them this time than it did last time – i.e. if it took them 18 strokes to walk through them last time, this time we’re gonna dig in and make it take 20. They knew they were gonna get walked through but their primary focus was less on holding them off and more on digging in, testing their own limits, and staying in their boat rather than getting caught up with what this other crew was doing. How long it took the lightweights to move through them was a secondary goal.
Don’t worry about the calls. Worry about steering effectively first and following the rules of the course. The nice thing about coxing a novice crew for a low-stakes race is that you really don’t have to prep as much or as hard as you would if you were coxing like, the Princeton 2V at HOCR. Basically my point is don’t overthink this. Look at the course maps ahead of time, familiarize yourself with the starting area and any tricky spots (i.e. anything marked by a buoy), and have a general plan (i.e. a couple spots where you wanna do 10s/20s) and a rough idea of the calls you wanna use based off of what’s been working during practice. Don’t listen to other recordings and try to implement calls you hear/like because it’s unlikely they’ll be right for a crew that’s “super novice masters rowers”. If you can adapt it to make it work, by all means go for it, but test it out in practice ahead of time so you know if it has the desired effect and if it’s worth using during the race. Don’t try to memorize a bunch of calls that sound cool because you will forget them, which will just cause you to freak out during the race because you’re drawing a blank and can’t think of what to say.
Related: Coxswain recordings, pt. 11
There’s probably others but the recording I immediately thought of is this recording of GW’s freshman eight in the petite finals at IRAs in 2013 (also found in the post linked above). I don’t believe they were ahead at any point in the race but he still coxes it really well and you can tell at the end that they’re not bummed about where they finished (5th ahead of Dartmouth, 11th overall in the field). I get what you’re saying about some stuff not feeling relatable but a) you’re coxing (super novice) masters so that’s to be expected (nothing against masters but it’s to be expected) and b) the relatable stuff shouldn’t be winning, losing, competitiveness, etc., it should be tone, execution, and communication. 10th grade tennis players probably can’t relate to Federer or Serena but the fundamentals of their game are still the same and that’s the important stuff to pay attention to and incorporate into your own style of play (or in this case, coxing).
Neat look at how the timing system works at Canadian Henley (and pretty much all other major regattas).