Coxing Novice Racing

What happens at a coaches & coxswains meeting?

Coaches and coxswains meetings are held at every regatta, typically first thing in the morning but occasionally in the afternoon/evening the day before racing begins (I’ve been to ones as early as 6am and as late as 6pm). They are a necessary part of any regatta and are where the regatta officials provide information to the coaches and coxswains on regatta rules, procedures, course details, schedule issues, etc.

It is imperative that you go to these. Yes it sucks having to get up really early in the morning to go to a 15-20 minute long meeting, especially when you or your team doesn’t race until later in the morning or afternoon, but the information that you’re given helps make the regatta run quicker and smoother for everyone. Even if you’ve been to the regatta three times already and know what’s said in the meeting backwards and forwards, I still encourage you to go. This year might be the year that the regatta officials say something different and you might not know until it’s potentially too late.

If there are any coaches reading this, I encourage you to not go in place of your coxswains. You should go with them to avoid having to repeat all the information later on. Having coaches go for the coxswains also presents the problem of the coach selectively choosing what to tell the coxswains later on, which can cause confusion and unnecessary stress, penalties, etc.

When going to early-morning meetings that happen well before the rest of the team needs to arrive, have just the coxswains and coaches go either on the bus (which, believe it or not, CAN go back to the hotel to get the rest of the team) or with one of parents. Afterwards, walk around the race site, go down to the docks (if you’re able to), walk up to the start line if possible, etc. and visualize what was discussed during the meeting. As much as you might want to, don’t just plop down into a cocoon of blankets and pillows in the tent until everyone shows up. That’s the fastest way to forget everything the regatta officials said.

Below you’ll find a very, very annotated outline of (almost) everything that happens during these meetings.

Roll call

At large regattas and sometimes smaller ones, the officials will start off by doing a roll call of the teams. Just like taking roll during class, all you have to do is say “here”. At the regattas I’ve been to that have done this, attending the meeting was required and if you were not present when your team name was called you were assessed some kind of team points-related penalty.

Introduction of the referees

These include the dock master, starting line marshal, finish line marshal, course referees, and regatta director/head official. (Note, at some regattas, certain officials may take on two roles, i.e the starting line marshal is also the course referee, etc.)

Dock marshal

In charge of getting crews on and off the dock. They will call you down to the dock and direct you where to launch from and as you come in, where to dock. You must follow their instructions and go to the space they direct you to. They’ll also typically check to ensure that you have your bow numbers. Sometimes they’ve got extras on hand if you don’t have yours but don’t assume that they do.

The dock masters are also the first in line to make sure the regatta is running on time. If crews are taking too long on the dock, they will push you along and tell you to hurry up. Budget for 90 seconds on the dock and no longer. A great way to put your team in a favorable position with regatta directors is to not piss off the dock masters. If they sound gruff or agitated, don’t assume that you’ve done something wrong and/or get angry or talk back to them. They’re on a tight schedule so get your crew moving as quickly as possible so that other crews don’t need to wait on you.

Starting line marshal(s)

There is at least one and sometimes up to three marshals in the starting area. The first one you’ll probably encounter is the one telling you where to go as you approach the line. They’ll usually say something like “Marietta, pull it up behind the platform and proceed to (whichever side of the platform your lane is on).” Make sure you raise your hand to indicate you heard their instructions.

Once the previous race has gone off and the platform is clear, the second marshal, who is usually standing up on top of the platform will call you in, typically by lane number, and tell you how much time there is to the start. “Marietta, Saratoga, and Grosse Ile, pull it up and enter your lanes in order of bow number. 6 minutes to start.” This marshal is also the one who will call the start by saying “Attention, go!”.

The third marshal is lined up parallel to the platform and looks straight across the bow balls of each crew. They’re in charge of aligning the crews and getting everyone even. In the event that you aren’t on a starting platform that has a marshal on it, the marshal who is doing the aligning will also be the one who calls the start.

Finish line marshal

The finish line marshal is usually on land or way off to the side of the finish line. As the crews cross they’ll usually blow air horn or drop a flag so you’ll know that you’re done.

Course referees

Course referees follow the race down behind the crews in a launch and are responsible for making sure nothing goes awry during the race. They’ll have two flags with them that they’ll use to communicate with the crews, typically to tell coxswains to move back into their lanes if they start to drift over. If a collision happens or something breaks, they’ll be responsible for stopping the race and restarting it, if necessary.

Regatta director/head official

Sometimes these are the same person, sometimes they’re not. The head official, in my experience, is who handles protests, announcing the races, and/or any other overarching issues with the regatta. If you have any questions that arise after the meeting, go to regatta headquarters and find this person.

Official regatta time

This may not be the same time you have on your watch or phone, so you’ll need to adjust whatever time keeping device you plan on using to match what the officials say. If their official time is five minutes faster than what you have and you don’t account for that, that could be a big problem for you when you get to the start and find that your race is already locked on to the platforms. I don’t think it’s even possible to change the time on phones so having an analog watch that you use for crew is a great thing to keep on you or attached to your cox box. Having a different time than the officials is not an excuse for being late to the dock or starting line.

Launching requirements

Requirements typically include having your oars already down by the dock (or having someone carry them alongside you as you walk down), having heel ties on your foot stretchers (this should be done before you travel), and having the correct bow number.

Time between first call and getting to the starting line

The announcers will make a first call, second call, and third call “x” number of minutes before the start of your race, usually somewhere between 45 and 30 minutes. You should know when your first call is and plan to have hands on a few minutes before that.

There’s a science to working the call system. You don’t want to be the first one out, get to the start really quickly, and then have to wait around for your race. You also don’t want to be the last crew out and get stuck between other boats that are in the races after you who are going out on their first call because then you get frantic about getting to the line in time. You also want to pay attention to the weather. If it’s really hot, sunny, humid, cold, snowing, windy, raining, or any other kind of inclement weather, don’t go out any earlier than you have to. If the weather is going to make getting to the start take longer, plan for that. If it’s a nice day but really hot out, try to go out as close to the end of the second call as you can so you can avoid the sun draining everyone’s energy.

At the meeting, the officials will give you an indication of how long it takes to row up to the start under normal circumstances. It’s usually somewhere in the range of 15-20 minutes depending on the warm up you do, if you have to stop for a race coming down, etc. Make sure you plan for this when you determine how early you need to get hands on and launch.


The centers are how often a race goes off the line. Usually they’re something around 12-15 minutes, give or take.

Directions to the starting line and back to the dock

Some courses are set up funny and it’s not that obvious how to get to the start or back to the docks after you finish. The officials will have a map out and will indicate which way you need to go to get from A to B. Pay attention to this because not following these directions can result in you going against the traffic pattern, which could lead to collisions and/or penalties.

Traffic patterns

There is at least one main traffic pattern you must follow and sometimes two.

On the way to the start and back to the docks after you finish

99.999% of the time it’s the same standard traffic pattern that we follow every day we’re out. If it’s different, they’ll tell you.

In the starting area

If there’s a large starting area that you can practice starts and stuff in, they’ll typically have  you row  around in a counter-clockwise circle. If you’re not planning on doing starts, make sure you know where to sit so you’re not in anyone’s way.

Course hazards

Low water levels, debris, rocks, trees hanging out from shore, or my personal favorite, seaweed…all are things they’ll tell you to be aware of and how to avoid them. (Shout out to Stony Creek, MI and the f-ing seaweed that delayed nearly every race I was in at Midwests my freshman and sophomore year … and the officials who forgot to tell us about it.)


Where they are on the course (500, 1000, 1500, 2000m, etc.), if the course has buoyed lanes, and if the last 250-300m has different colored buoys than the rest of the course. (Usually they’ll be red whereas the rest of the course buoys are white.)

Hot seating

Sometimes hot seating isn’t allowed but if it is, one of two things will happen. The rower that is going out of your boat and into another will need to hop out as soon as you get on the dock, so you’ll need to have another rower come down to take their place when you carry it up or you’ll have to dock in a different area (in my experience, usually a beach area that is 100m or so up from the dock), which is where the crew the rower is joining will launch from. If YOU are the one hot seating (been there, done that) have another coxswain meet you and take the boat up (or have your coach do it). The rowers cannot cox themselves up. The procedures can be confusing so make sure you pay attention and know ahead of time whether or not you’ll be hot seating.

Stake boats vs. floating starts

Most likely you’ll know this a few days ahead of time but sometimes the officials decide to forgo one for the other, for whatever reason. Typically they go from a stake boat start to a floating start, not the other way around, usually because of weather.

How you’ll be called to the start

The marshals will say “10 minutes to start, 7 minutes to start, 5 minutes to start, 2 minutes to start…” so you’ll always know how much time there is. Depending on the course you may or may not be allowed to do practice starts on the course while other crews are getting locked on. Make sure you know whether or not this is allowed. The officials will usually call you in my lane number if you’re on stake boats. If you’re doing a floating start they’ll line the crews up about 100ish meters above the starting line and bring you down together.

The alignment process

This will depend on whether or not you’re starting from a stake boat or doing a floating start. If you’re doing a stake boat start they’ll have you row it up, back it in, and get your point. You won’t need to do anything to align the boats; the official in charge of that will talk directly to the person holding on to your stern. If you’re doing a floating start however, they’ll talk to you and have you row it up (with bow pair) to match the other crews.

Floating starts are frustrating because they’re never totally accurate. Do your part and make sure your bow pair is rowing lightly so that they don’t pull you ahead of the crews you’re trying to get even with. Talk quietly too so that you can still hear the officials.

The starting commands and the flags

There are three different commands the officials can use: the quick start (Attention, GO!), the countdown start (5, 4, 3, 2, 1, attention, GO!), or the polling start (Washington, Cal, Cornell, Brown, Harvard, Princeton, this is the start, attention, GO!). The start that’s used is typically dictated by the weather. They might begin with one starting command but switch to another later in the day as the weather changes but they’ll tell you ahead of time if they anticipate doing that and what they’ll switch to (usually to a quick start if that’s not already what they’re doing).

The starting flag is a white flag that the official on the starting platform will hold. As he says “attention” he will raise it in the air and drop it as he says “go”. At nearly every regatta I’ve ever been to I’ve been told that you go on the drop of the flag, not on “go”. Get clarification on this from the officials if they don’t mention it.

Jumping the start

The fastest way to get 50+ people pissed at you in five seconds or less is to jump the starting line. Depending on the size of the regatta there are different penalties that are given for jumping the slides. Some add seconds to your final time and others give you a warning and then a DQ if it happens a second time. Know what the penalties are and talk to your rowers so they know what’s at stake.

Broken equipment

If something in your boat breaks, you will almost always be issued a restart if it happens within the first 100m or 30 seconds. It’s different for each regatta. If this happens you’ll be told to stop, raise your hand, and the referee will come over and determine whether or not to stop and restart the race. If the race is to be stopped they’ll usually blast the horn on their megaphone to alert the other crews so always be listening for that. Even if you see another crew stop, don’t stop rowing until you hear that sound.

Broken equipment means physically broken equipment. What is not broken equipment is catching a crab, jumping your slide, your cox box dying, etc. If any of those things happen and you stop and put your hand it the air, you are shit out of luck.

Commands from the course referee(s)

Course referees are really happen when they don’t have to say anything at all during a race. The things they’ll be watching for are crews that are drifting out of their lanes, imminent collisions, etc. They’ll have a red flag that they’ll raise and point to whichever side you need to move to. Make sure your stroke knows to watch out for this and tell you if the official is behind you. If you don’t follow their instructions you can be penalized or disqualified.

In situations like this, I consider it just as much the stroke’s fault (or bow, if you’re in a bow coxed 4+) as the coxswain’s because they can see what is happening behind the boat whereas the coxswain can’t. There needs to be communication happening so the coxswain can move to where the officials are pointing them.

The finish line

Where it is, how it’s marked, and what the officials will do when you cross (flag, horn, etc.). Also, what you should do after you cross – you always need to keep rowing through the line but make sure you know where you’re allowed to stop and for how long. Don’t forget there are races coming down behind you.

How the race will be declared official

When all the crews have crossed, the official that followed the race will briefly talk to the finish line official and then come over to each of the crews to make sure everyone is OK. If it’s a regatta where coxswains were required to weigh in, the officials might have the coxswains hold up their sandbags or weight plates to ensure that they actually brought them in the boat with them and are carrying them on their person (vs. distributing them throughout the boat, which is against the rules).

If no one has a protest, the officials will raise a white flag and the race will be “official”. If there is a protest, the officials will raise a red flag and the results will be considered “unofficial” until a ruling has been made.

What to do if a medical emergency occurs

Obviously something like this is not something you can predict but you can prepare yourself ahead of time to deal with the situation should it arise, that way you’re not all “deer in the headlights”. When your lineups are set, figure out if anyone in your boat has any medical issues you should be aware of – asthma and allergies requiring an Epi Pen are the two biggest ones. Make sure you’ve got their inhaler or Epi Pen up in the stern with you so you can get it to them ASAP if they need it.

As soon as you cross the finish line, raise your hand and have the person in front of and behind the rower in distress raise their hands. Don’t just hang them in the air either – you want to get the officials attention immediately and they’re more likely to respond to someone who’s frantically waving their hands in the air.

What to do if any other kind of emergency occurs

This usually refers to someone being ejected from the boat. The rules are different at each regatta so make sure you find out what to do if this occurs.


At the end of the race, raise your hand and wait for the official to come over to you. The protest almost always has to be initiated on the water so make sure you tell the referee about it before you start rowing back to the dock. Explain the situation and what you plan on protesting. Usually at this point the ref will either say “ok” or try to dissuade you from continuing the protest on land.

This is where it’s important to know whether or not what you’re protesting is actually worth protesting. If whatever happened directly knocked you out of the medals or down a spot in the medals, protest it. Otherwise, if you were in 6th place and winning would only bump you up to 5th, don’t. It’s a waste of time for you and more importantly, the officials. At the meeting they’ll probably tell you what they consider to be worth protesting.

Once you get off the water and within a certain period of time (usually 60 minutes from the conclusion of your race), you’ll need to get your coach and make your way to regatta headquarters to file a formal protest. Here you’ll have to write down your complaint and at some of the larger regattas, pay a small fee. If the ruling is in your favor you’ll get the money back. If you lose, you don’t get it back (hence why you should be absolutely sure of your account of what happened).

Like I said at the beginning, this may or may not be everything that the regatta officials go over. If they don’t go over something that you have a question on, raise your hand and ask. There’s a good chance that three other people have the same question. If you don’t ask it and then find yourself lost, confused, or with a penalty later because of it … that sucks but it’s your own fault. Don’t assume that the rules are the same at every regatta either. Even if it’s a USRowing event, which has pretty standard rules across the board, certain things might change depending on the venue.

Image via // @nickmiddletonphoto

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