017 | Head Racing: Chute to Finish Line
Welcome to CoxPod - a podcast for coxswains. I’m Breana. I’m Sally. I’m Anne and we're three coxswains with over 50 years of experience in the seat. While there are many rowing resources out there, we decided to create a venue that is solely dedicated to coxing topics. We learn from our shared experiences and want to foster a community that encourages innovation and discussion.
SALLY: Our last episode - Episode 016 - we covered head racing from the point of view where your team decides to go, to all the preparation you need up into the marshalling area. Now finally we're going to do - through the chute to the head race. And for me, this is where the magic happens - this is where I start to cox.
BREANA: Before we go through the chute officially, we thought we would step back just a moment and talk about a couple of final things that we think about when we're in that marshalling area. For me, one of those is making sure that I give my rowers a warning of when their final opportunity to take off layers and get a sip of water is. So they're often layered up in a lot of warm clothing because it's chilly during head race season a lot of the time. And they also just want to know (you know) when is the final moment I can take this off because I’m going to get cold after that … and when is the final moment I can get a sip of water. And so I’m trying to anticipate when is the last time that the rowers will be out before I’m picking us up all four or all eight and we're heading into the chute and those opportunities are gone. So that's something I’m personally noting.
ANNE: I forgot to mention in the past episode that one of the things I’m very careful about in particular race courses is that I sometimes need to attend to the fact that there could be weeds or lily pads … something on the fin. There's one course in particular - but it's not the only one - where while I’m getting ready to get into the chute … before I do that, I have them back hard to get off any potential weeds that might be on the fin. So that's one of my little tips. Let's now actually get into the chute. So we are in the marshalling area and we're going to set the scene for you - that when we get ready to go into the chute, in a head race we need to be in numerical order. So you have already sought out the boats that are before you and after you and you start into the chute. And Sally's already leaning forward … ready to take it from here. Go Sally.
SALLY: My quads are engaged. My core is engaged. I’m breathless - ready at the start. I don't know if we've actually ever defined what the chute is, but the chute is the strip that you're approaching the head race … where you are approaching race speed. So you are taking your boat from a dead stop to trying to get it to race pace and sometimes it's 10 meters … sometimes it's 20. But it's this channel where you're slowly edging up. It's kind of like pole position in Formula One racing. You're slowly (kind of) pushing the envelope … going as fast as you can but not fast enough yet. It's that kind of game. One of the things you really have to think about is getting your boat - getting that 2,400 pounds of inertia - up to race speed. How are you going to do it efficiently? You cannot do it in three strokes. You cannot just go ‘wham, bam’ and hit race speed. You do have to build into it and how you choose to build into it … how you choose to apply that speed is really, really important.
ANNE: One of the things that I truly enjoy about head racing is that the chutes of every race very significantly. It's such a great challenge to understand that race's particular chute - and by the way, let's also put in a factor of the fact that there be different refs and race officials who are in charge of managing the movement through the chute to the start line. And they vary in their approach - depending upon what they're seeing. So one of the aspects of building up to that speed that you're talking about at the appropriate moment … not too soon … not too late (right, Sally?) … is to listen carefully to the refs but understand what your longer term objectives are there.
BREANA: I think it's important for us to say that these referees and race officials - their goal is to set up a safe, fair race. And in head racing, we're operating on a time trial basis here where we're all crossing the line separately. A timer starts and we all cross the finish line in our own time as well. So at the outset, in an effort to (again) create that fairness and safety, these referees are trying to set up somewhat of a gap between the boats. And so you may be making decisions as you pass through the chute here that - I want to actually be a little bit closer to the boat in front of me because I’d like to pass them early on in the race. Maybe there's a big obstacle early in the race and you actually don't want to pass right away, so you hang back a little bit if you think that there's a slower boat in front of you. That calculus of what's going to happen when you're on the race course is already starting in the chute and you have a little bit of agency as the coxswain to control what's going on there. Some race officials at this point are very involved and they will explicitly tell you, ‘I want you all eight now. I want you building pressure now’. Other times it's a little more flexible and you - again it's important to remember - always have the agency to say, ‘Actually I don't feel safe crossing at this speed. I can see the speed of the boat in front of me. I’d like a little bit more of a gap’. In that case, you can just throw in a super brief pause - in one finish … one stroke - add a little pause … that kind of thing. So you can also play a role while listening to and respecting the instructions of race officials always. You can play a role in setting up the distance that you are hoping for on the boats in front of and behind you in the chute.
SALLY: A head race is pretty much just a time trial. However, we're not doing it in a vacuum and theoretically coming out of the starting gates is when you are closest to the next boat in front of you. That is when you should have the best chance of passing them, right? We're only 10 seconds apart. As a coxswain, I try to get into the heads of the people in the boat in front of me so I try to squeeze that margin down a little bit. So that if the people in the boat ahead of me are thinking, ‘Oh, we were separated by 10 seconds’ and truthfully we were only separated by eight seconds, that winnowing down of time … that winnowing down of distance … starts playing on people and I - as a coxswain - use that to my advantage. Conversely, if I am supposed to be 10 seconds from the boat behind me but I’m really 13 seconds ahead of them, you know the rowers start wondering about the distance and how fast I am. It's a small tool, but I definitely use it to my advantage. And I play with my position - where I am in relation to the other boats. I do listen to the referees but - like Anne said - I do know what is best and what is my competitive - my aggressive - plan and I’m definitely following that from beat one.
ANNE: And as we've already said, let's remember that the objective here is to get over the start line at maximum speed and pressure. Your build should be all done by that point. But let's talk right now about: oh, what might stand in the way of achieving that objective? What can possibly go wrong or what factors might arise while your boat is still in the chute with a boat right in front of you and a boat right behind you? Oh, it's not always so smooth sailing, is it?
SALLY: Things happen in the chute. There's things that go wrong. People break equipment, people pop off seats, people slow down suddenly. So you kind of have to have your eye on - I am anticipating the boat ahead of me continuing to move at x speed. You know, we do that calculus that coxswain math that Breana mentioned earlier, and I am going to anticipate - at least for the next minute, they are going to continue to maintain this pace and I am judging my course … my tactic … based on what they are doing and what I saw them doing in the warm-up. Now - stuff happens. So you do want to leave yourself a margin of error because you are going to have to react to the ‘what if’ and you want to be prepared for it and you want to be thinking about it.
ANNE: I know that that is the case. I’ve been in the chute and building the rate and the pressure … figuring all that math out and my positioning … and boom - the officials (just like) bring us to a crashing stop because whatever's happened further down the racecourse. You know, it could be happening right past the start line. I have no idea. But you'll be building your crew and then boom … you know, it's like “weigh ‘nuff”. And they get really serious and make everybody stop. So then you've got much shorter distance to actually accomplish the same thing and it's like being in rush hour traffic. You know, some people come right up on you and you're you've got to be concerned that the boat behind you doesn't come smashing into you. It gets quite exciting. So to say that you get into the chute and then you build your pressure and your rate and you cross the start line and just hear that little, ‘Good luck. Have a good race’ as you cross the start line … yeah, that's the rare exception. What else is happening sometimes for you, Breana, through the chute? What have you also seen?
BREANA: A phenomenon that I have personally experienced is a boat arriving late for their event and the officials deciding to incorporate them into the race right in front of our boats who are about to build up to the chute. So now there's an extra boat in the mix - so that adds an extra 10 or 15 seconds that the refs are trying to set up. So even though - as we start the race - we're going to start going internally focused … we're going to start getting our boat prepared … keep that external focus as well. So I’m keeping an eye after things like this happening to me on the travel lane as well and just noting if some boat that appears to be in my event or the event right before us appears, the refs could very well decide to send them down right at that moment. So that's a circumstance that I have encountered that impacted me at the chute.
ANNE: Well, let's stop talking about the nutsy things that can happen in a chute because when Sally started off this episode privately before we started recording this, she said, “Oh I could spend probably an hour on what happens in the chute”. So we dialed her back a little bit. But so, Sally, let's envision a situation where you're going to actually build and go over the start line. Tell us about what you do.
SALLY: As you're building up, I remind my rowers to breathe. I change my tone. I remind them to stay calm - I try to center them and keep their focus inside the gunnels and I try to redirect their adrenaline. Unchanneled, bad things can happen but channeled and filtered and harnessed, we can use the adrenaline as one more tool we have. So in a perfect world, where all the boats are relatively even - I have watched the other crews in their warm up … I think we've got a chance at passing them but it's going to be a challenge. I think the boat behind us has got some magic. I’m watching them. I slowly bring my crew up … listening to the officials depending on how much space I have … I’m gonna try to be about seven seconds away from the other crew. As she is building up, I am building up. And I’m going to try to do whatever I can to maintain that tight distance and as I’m building up pressure, I’m probably going to make sure I’m at full pressure just before I get to the line. And then as I’m crossing the line, I probably will do a high ten or something so that all the momentum has been overcome and the boat is at maximum speed as I hit the line.
ANNE: I’d love to hear Breana’s approach to the last few strokes and how she handles that crossing of the start line.
BREANA: Yeah, I usually have the goal - as we've said, I’ll just put it in very explicit terms - my dream would be that as I cross the line I’m on like stroke one of my high ten. That would be (like) perfect timing. Nothing is worse than - and I’ve done it - where you think you're timing it out and then you're on stroke seven of 10 or 20 and the official's like, ‘You're on the course’ and now your rowers’ first thought is, ‘Well, we just wasted seven strokes of energy’. So that's the calculation I’m attempting to do. And then similarly - because as we referenced in Episode 016 - you've studied this course very intimately; you're planning for what upcoming turns there are. Again if there's a major obstacle right away, I don't want to be entangled or dealing with any other boats unless I think I can pass them immediately. I would rather just take that obstacle myself and then deal with passing and being passed which is something we'll talk about later in this episode.
SALLY: Oh, please promise me?
BREANA: Well, we will absolutely devote a lot of time to that. So that's kind of the thinking that I’m doing - is just trying to set myself up for the cleanest possible start. How about you, Anne, anything to add?
ANNE: I’m glad you mentioned that. I have also made that error - of getting that high 10 or 20 … those high strokes … a little too early. That is a finesse thing and it takes practice and it's something that you can accomplish. And it's also great that you can potentially practice that during practices, right, so don't leave that skill just for race day. It's really helpful to practice that ahead of time - I’m just going to toss that out there. There are two things that I think about when I am almost crossing that start line. First of all is to have an understanding with my crew - in advance - how I’m going to call those first strokes. Is it going to be, for example, an automatic only 15 strokes or 20 strokes - so that they know in advance how many strokes they're going to do at a high rate and then they're going to lengthen or drop the rating down to their long-term race pace. There are coxswains and coaches that coach to that and enact that strategy. Personally, I talk with my crew ahead of time and I explain to them it's going to be dependent upon where we are with the other boats and how I feel they are responding to those initial strokes. So I personally don't have a set number of strokes that's involved with that start over the start line. My second point is that I like to announce to the crew -because it's often not easy to hear it - that they have just crossed the start line. I’ll usually say something like, “Now we're on the course”. Unlike a sprint race where it's obvious when the start is, it's not something that is easy to discern when you are anxious and already pulling and some of these officials are way on the side bank and you can't even hear them yourself, right? So those are two things that come into my awareness as I’m doing those last few strokes before we go over the blessed start line. That being said, I’d love to hear from our audience. Are you that kind of coxswain that really feels it's important to have a set number of strokes or are you kind of like me - judging it based on the circumstance? I’d like to add that for those coxswains who have not coxed a head race yet, the concept is that you do get through the start line with maximum momentum but that is not generally the pace that you're going to proceed at because of the length of the race. So have a plan in place where you're going to have this start and some moves along the course line. But you're in charge of making sure that whatever they go to is sustainable. So how do you call that, Breana?
BRENA: I think that's a very important thing to emphasize and I emphasize that to my crew as well - we're gonna feel so good, so full of adrenaline here at the start, and we have to accept the reality that we have probably around 20 (give or take) minutes ahead of us. So reining the rowers in, I like to do it as a lengthen move where we're keeping the power and we just lengthen into this lower rate but it feels really nice and powerful and long. That's sort of the type of thing that I’m emphasizing and again this is something that we would talk about as a boat in the boat meeting that we have beforehand … which is something we discussed in our previous episode.
SALLY: Once you're through the chute, you're burning adrenaline … you're burning fuel. Oftentimes especially with novice crews, they come out too hard and at an unsustainable rate so you kind of have to consciously back down your crew a little bit so that they have something to the finish. We ‘ve all been there where we've dug ourselves into a lactic acid hole from which there is only pain and agony for another 18 minutes, so just appreciating that … reminding them that this is a head race - this isn't a sprint - and keeping them channeled and focused. That's a super important point.
ANNE: So we've gone through the potentially crazy chute. We've crossed the start line. We're on the course. Now what?
SALLY: I am already planning where I need to turn … where do I need to be so that I’m minimizing the impact on the rudder. I am also trying to pass the boat in front of me. They are a challenge. I am aggressive. I want that. So there are different things that I can do as a coxswain that are both legal and fair to help maximize the effort for my crew. And part of that is - as you are approaching an eight if you look at the wake the eight gives off (right) from the stern, it's going to form this little bit of a ‘v’. The further you get out from the ‘v’, the water is going to be a little disturbed. So if a coxswain is clever, they're going to try to cast that bumpy, wakey water on half of my boat so that half of my oars are getting stuck in this disruption and the other half is not. What I do as a coxswain when I see that happening - when I see the coxswain's trying to cast this dirty water wake on me - is I try to steer so that I’m directly behind her. So when you're right behind an eight, you're in (like) that vortex of the wake so I try to tuck in behind them so that the effect of the dirty water on my crew is minimal. I do use the wake of an 8 and I do cast it on different sides of the boat to put my crew into an advantage.
ANNE: I’m glad you brought that up because it is a real thing. It's a bigger skill set than some people have but we can share that the dirty water is not a place you want to sit and sit and sit. We can do better. So we can either - if we're not going to pass that boat as you point out - we can sit directly behind them and have the cleanest water possible or we can get out of that way and pass them as quickly as we can. Breana, I’m hoping that you'll maybe bring up this topic of passing and how you might approach it … and how this is such an exciting part of head racing, right? Whether we're being passed or we're doing the passing, how do you approach this?
BREANA: Generally our goal in head racing is to steer the shortest possible course. So when we're talking about a line, that is always going to be the shortest distance between two points and so we're steering the course trying to cover as few meters as possible. And that is knowledge that you have based on your studying of the course. There may be turns on this course. There may be bridges you need to pass through … buoys that you have to adhere to … and steering a line around those is (again) all in the service of making your course as short as it possibly can be so that your rowers are putting in the least amount of work that they have to to get to the end. So that same thinking comes into mind anytime that we're passing a boat - the goal is that we pass them in a way that enables us to take the shortest possible line. That could mean, for instance, that I see an upcoming turn and I want to be on the inside of that turn and force that crew that I am passing to the outside. So there comes some technical aspects with this concept of passing. One (again) relates to the studying that you did previously by reading the race packet - which may stipulate rules for when a boat needs to respond to an incoming threat of a boat that's going to be passing. And often this rule says something like: within one length as the boat approaches you - there's a length of open water - you need to have moved out and given that boat passage. The approaching boat can indicate what side it wants to pass on. That is sometimes the language used in the rulebook as well so if you are the boat that is passing in this situation, you need to make your intentions very clear through a variety of ways as you communicate with that other coxswain. Do you guys want to talk about some of the ways that we can do so?
ANNE: I am very vocal when I need to be if a boat that is ahead of me is not yielding to the side that I indicate. Then I get louder and I always let my crew know that I’m about to go into shouting mode so that they can just tune me out and let me deal with it. And they know that when I say that, their job is to focus on their strokes and let me deal with it. But I am not trying to ramp them up internally - I am merely trying to make it clear to the other boat so that we can make a safe pass. I will often use a vocal as well as visual cue with my hand whether I’m in the bow or in the stern. I will start off with a very distinct, “Coxswain - move to port” and I’m also pointing the way I want them to go. Now there might be other techniques out there - some coxswains might be pointing the way they want to go. I’d like to have that conversation. I mean … let's face it… this is not something that's in a rule book somewhere that says all coxswains will point to the way they want the boat in front of them (the yielding boat) to go. That's my strategy and so I try to say, “Coxswain - move to port”. Or if I know what crew they are, I’ll say, “Capitol - move to port.” I think it's very confusing when a coxswain behind me is saying, ‘I want to go starboard’ and then I have to deduce - oh no, that means I go to port. Or if I’m in the bow, the bow person - who's by the way also rowing and trying to respond to all this - that's the toughest position in my view for a head race - that bow seat. I figure (for me) it's clearer if you stick to one strategy. Either tell me where I’m supposed to go or tell me where you're going, but don't mix the two please. Sally, do you call the coxswain to move or are you saying where you go?
SALLY: I tell the coxswain where I want them to go and I usually indicate it with my bow. The thing is - if I’m overtaking a boat and I don't assert myself, the coxswain can go, ‘Oh … boat's overtaking’ and yield but they could take the faster line and I take the slower line. I’m putting my bow into where I want to go and I’m trying to push them out.
BREANA: I similarly am indicating to the coxswain where I want them to go and I’m using my bow to indicate where I intend to go. And I can definitely see how maybe even in my own past, I’ve caused confusion by saying both, “Coxswain - move to port. I’m coming on your starboard “ - which is the most confusing. They may have only caught one word of that. So all of the modalities we can use to indicate where we're going are important. And make them congruent so that it is abundantly clear - I want you to move to starboard … I want you to move right … I want you to move to bow side. And we're indicating with our arms the entire time.
SALLY: The interesting thing is on the video, all three of us are indicating with our hands … because this is a podcast.
ANNE: We have to. We're there.
BREANA: Yeah, we're mentally in it. One scenario that can emerge in the context that we're talking about right now that I think we should pause and discuss is - let's say that you have signaled and the coxswain doesn't move out enough for you to safely take that inside line without crossing over a buoy and incurring a penalty, for example. What are our strategies that we can appeal to in that case?
SALLY: I will first try to push my way in and then there is a point where it becomes unsafe and I abandon that. If I have to pass them, I’ll pass them on the outside but I do try to push my way in. And I will try to back up and charge and I will try a couple of techniques to get the coxswain to move and if they can't - or won't - there has to be a point where this isn't working … they’re slowing me down. I gotta do something else.
ANNE: I think you're bringing up a situation that's important to discuss (right) because there is no one correct answer. I think that it's important however, that if you have repeatedly instructed the crew that you're overtaking and you're clearly overtaking them … it's not that you are just approaching them - you need to be clearly overtaking them … directing them where you want them to go in our case … and then if you can emphasize that - especially if there's an official round saying, “Coxswain. Give me room” (you know) indicating in different ways that they are impeding where you are and they won't – yes, then you'd have to make an alternative plan. The main thing is - it's your crew is against the clock so there's not that much glory in struggling for a long period of time to make your point. If you know you're faster and you just have to take that longer line to get around that roadblock, do it. Just do it. It's your crew against the clock. However, sometimes you will be in a situation where there are multiple boats and you're in the swarm. And let's talk about that because already my blood pressure is going up because I’m thinking about the word ‘crashes’.
SALLY: When a rower hits something, their first instinct is to look at it. They look at their oar. They might stop. And if we collide oars - port side on one boat, starboard side on the other - both the side will stop and the opposite side will drive the hulls in together. That is generally how entanglements start. So one of the things I use to prevent the entanglement before it starts is: add a pause. Just one pause stroke. “All right y'all - in three strokes, we're gonna pause at arms and body away. I need room”. And (you know) “Three, two, one - pausing on this one”. Let muck and mire happen. And then you pick it up - you're not sacrificing that much boat speed to get out of the thick of it. You may be missing one or two strokes but it's still going to be faster than at a dead stop. The other thing is - if you're going to make contact, let your rowers know and keep talking to them. “Y'all it's too tight. They're turning into us. I need you to keep rowing. I need you to stay focused.” And keep talking them through it. Part of what you're going to have them do is have the other side back down on pressure. If we're careening into the starboard side, you don't want port side full pressure … starboard stop rowing. You're going to have starboard side continue to row, port side back down so you're keeping that hull out of the mess of it on the starboard side. And honestly - when you collide, energies are gonna be there. Attitudes are gonna be there. People will have been ripped out of their pain cave and are not going to be at their finest. Words - unpleasant words that would never be said at a linen dinner might be expressed - and you want to try to make sure people stay calm. I have seen clashes at Head of the Charles where people are throwing punches at each other. That is not ideal. So stay calm. Let people know what's happening. Take charge of the situation. Usually one coxswain needs to assert themselves - be confident … not cocky … and pull yourself out of there.
ANNE: I’m really glad that you're bringing up something important - which is, how do you extricate yourself? So my instinct would have been to actually put my hand and (like) push away from the other boat or the oars that were closest to us. And I think that's a natural instinct. Sally, I think you said – ‘Don't ever do that Anne - don't put your hands up’. Hands break. What you do is - you back. You have one side back and extricate yourself. So thank you very much for that pro tip. I have not been to a dead stop so far and I hope never to be. But I will try to keep that in mind. And coxswains out there if this happens to you, be sure to tell your rowers you're in charge and you're going to back them out and move away and then pick up from there. I’m going to throw in here something that is - I think - a hard and fast rule - you are never going to benefit your crew by engaging in a collision. I’m not saying that coxswains consciously opt for that, but there are many times that there are other choices. Please - make those other choices. You may think the line is the be-all and the end-all. A collision is going to put you out of the race pretty much … if you're lucky that nobody gets injured. So do everything you possibly can - including if you have to drop back your pressure to avoid it - please do that. There's nothing glamorous or positive that can come out of a collision. Am I right about being that assertive about that comment?
BREANA: I firmly stand behind this as well. And an official - in a coaches’ and coxswains’ meeting put this in a way that has always stuck with me - which is that they have no power to grant you any additional time. All they can do is penalize the boat that got in your way. So as you said, Anne, you are not helping yourself if you get entangled in something. There's no magical credit of time that's coming back to you. So let that boat get their penalty. Move on. You don't need to engage with them. You don't need to make a show of saying anything to that coxswain, you know. The time has passed. The officials have awarded the penalties that are needed and (you know) you move on with your fastest possible race.
ANNE: Yeah. We'd love to hear from our audience - experiences that they have had for the positive and maybe not so positive (right) in head races … in their steering and their passing and being passed. And also if you've been engaged in a collision, is there something you've figured out in your post analysis that you might have done something differently? What would it have been?
BREANA: So, we've been talking a lot about the aspect of passing where you are the faster boat. Sometimes you may be out on a course where you are not the faster boat and you are going to experience the phenomenon of being passed. So in addition to yielding the line that is chosen by the approaching coxswain - which we've already talked about - you also really want to focus on keeping your crew internally focused … still rowing well. That's something that I try to emphasize with my boats is: don't pay attention to what's happening out there. Of course, that coxswain is going to be doing what they should and walking through us in probably a dramatic and loud way that gets their crew excited but when you're the one being passed, you've got to keep your crew as impervious to that as you can. So I really try to keep my crew calm after I have yielded the line only as much as is needed. There's no need to make a super wide turn. You just give that coxswain the space they need and that's it. That's the goal. How about you guys? What are your strategies when you're in this situation?
ANNE: I find this especially challenging - especially if it occurs earlier in the race. It can mess with people's minds and so one of the strategies that I do in … addition to what you mentioned, Breana … I also specifically remind them: it's us against the clock. It's us against the clock, so let us have our fastest race possible. Focus on how our time is. And sometimes people have said that's been helpful to them. Sally?
SALLY: You're right, Anne - it hurts to be overtaken. It's hard, but you have to focus your crew. Otherwise, all that other coxswain has to do is to get in the head of my rowers … make them doubt their effort …make them not pull hard for one stroke and things will start to fall apart. So when you're being overtaken particularly it is really important - it's imperative in fact - that you maintain the focus and the control and you change the focus and the control. Not that we're (like) rah-rah we're the best - rah-rah we're doing our best. So when I am being overtaken - which I hate - I call to my crew. I ask them to dig in. “Don't make this easy for them. Don't give them an inch. This is us against them. Fight for this - they're challenging you - how will you deal with this challenge?” And again, I really fight to keep the focus and the motivation in the gunnels.
ANNE: How about those races - and I know I’ve certainly had them … I’m supposing you both have, too - where there's no passing … either being passed … passing a boat. It's a long, long race. How do you both handle this? Breana, would you like to share what you might do?
BREANA: I think this is really important to say because this could very well be your experience. And if you're prepared for this, then you can handle a race that involves more action. But you should be prepared to fill up to 30 plus minutes. The longest race I’ve ever been in on a head race was 28 minutes in a masters women's 4+. And you could very well be completely alone on the course. You're not passed by anyone and no one passes you.
SALLY: And there are no landmarks.
BREANA: Yeah - and there are no landmarks at all. And you have to fill that time. You cannot give up and just sit there while the rowers suffer for half an hour of racing their hearts out. You have to be prepared to fill that time from nothing … with no action going on. So I always am trying to prepare for that eventuality. And I pass the time by just cleaning up the rowing as we go. Nothing's worse than when you get to that (like) 3/4 of the way through point and you just feel the rowing fall apart - it's rushed, it's off set, there's no power - everyone's suffering. And I come with a list of things that I could use as focus tens. For example, “Okay, we're gonna start cleaning up the power on the front end so let's pick it up in our first couple inches of the drive”. And if you feel that you are at a level with your coxing where you can make those kinds of technical calls based on what you're feeling in the boat, then excellent. Spend a lot of the time in between motivation cleaning up the rowing especially in the beginning and middle parts of the race. If you don't think that you're yet at a point where you can perceive that, then come with a list that maybe you work with your coach and your boat to prepare, of things that are just general calls that are always a good idea … that you can make. There's probably always rush going on, so if you call a 20 to lengthen out the recoveries … shift the ratio … that's probably going to be good at any point in the race that you could make that call. So the key is just that we can't check out mentally. We have to be mentally in this for as long as the rowers have to be physically in this, so come prepared with some strategies to fill that time. And for me, technical calls is one of those.
SALLY: Breana, I have a question. When you're rowing into the void like that and you don't have landmarks or boats or anything concrete to push yourself against, how important is silence in the boat? Like when do you chatter and when do you stop talking? Do you talk 30 minutes straight?
BREANA: So I’ll give the context that most of my career - certainly the last number of years - has been in masters women's boats so take that context as I say this. But I fill the whole time. And I know that people have different strategies about that. I know I’ve heard masters men say: ‘I love it when the coxswain is just silent and I just know they're (like) preparing a move or something’, you know. And people in different countries cox in different ways, so we always welcome a conversation about this in our Slack community. This is something that's been discussed a little and we welcome more – absolutely. I personally fill the time because I feel that and I’ve had rowers say to me afterwards, ‘The fact that you just kept walking us through with different technical focuses and different things to think about really helped me get through that race. When I don't hear you talking, all I can hear is my own labored breathing and all I can feel is the pain.’ And so for that reason I do not have prolonged periods of silence unless I’m steering around a serious object. I just have a long list of things that I rotate through. So we're getting some updates on how we're doing on rate - if I have a split in the boat, we might talk about that. We might rotate through all of these technical focuses. I really am talking for the entire time … personally. And that (again) is something I’ve continued to do based on rower feedback. So I personally don't have prolonged periods of silence. But I (again) absolutely welcome discussion about people who approach that differently and what groups of rowers resonate with different strategies. Please - open that conversation up.
ANNE: I appreciate this discussion because I find this a very challenging situation. I think I tend to be quite similar to Breana in how I approach that. And (again) my context is similar to Breana’s - it's primarily masters rowers that I am dealing with. I will be coaching most of the way through the race. I will also be using some motivational pieces - for example, what I do in my discussions prior to getting into the boat - when people are … I can see that they're anxious and they're excited and they're ready to go - I have often employed the concept of asking them to not try to fight that anxiety. I ask them to visualize taking that energy and crunching it down into a ball … almost kind of like a little piece of tin foil … into a little ball and then putting it in their pocket because then I will call upon that bundle of energy that they knew they had earlier… not too long ago … and asking them to open it up and use that energy that they could have wasted by fighting it - but instead they brought it with them and now use that. So that is just something I’ve adopted and people have said that that's been very helpful. Sally, what do you do? You quote Shakespeare – no, never mind.
SALLY: Well, I do. I do. As the race moves on - as there are less people - how I cox changes. The first half of the race is generally about the goal, about positioning, about where we are. As the rowers get tired - as the form gets sloppy - I start changing to technical corrections or trying to draw more out of them and try to not be more inspirational but more motivational. That's generally how I try to cox. You have to really work hard to keep the energy and the motivation in the crew.
ANNE: Well, we've covered a lot of topics. We have a few more we'd like to bring forth before we close out this episode and one of them is - at least - mentioning turns. Again, one of those vast differences between sprint racing and head racing is turns. So Breana, why don't you share with our audience how we decided to approach this topic.
BREANA: As we've been emphasizing this whole time, for courses that involve turns the primary goal is to take the shortest possible course as always. So that would be the inside of turns (you know) as you head to the next part of the race. And head races can contain a variety of turns - so these can be turns that are very gradual - these can be sharp turns that are close to 90 degrees - and there are a lot of different ways to approach those. So we can use the tools that we have like our rudder for steering. We can add in rower pressure. And we might even go to additional lengths - for very extreme turns - of having one side shorten up, one side drop out, if it comes down to that. The goal is that as you come out of that turn you are pointed towards the next place that you need to be. So maybe it's the apex of the next turn you're about to take. Maybe it's the center of a straight stretch to the finish line. Again, the goal is always to take your boat through the fewest possible meters that you can. For more specifics on this, we're going to save those for future episodes – plural, I imagine - on steering and maneuvering. So stay tuned for that. That's what we'll say now for head racing … different ways to approach that and as you get more comfortable with boat maneuvering, you'll start to be able to deploy those according to what's needed on a given turn.
ANNE: Excellent. I look forward to talking in more depth on steering and maneuvering. Let's continue to talk about sprint racing and head racing - the differences. And one of them, of course, is going to be buoy lines. There are many courses in head races that might have a start line and a finish line and virtually nothing in between other than some landscape. Others are fully buoyed. If you could just (kind of) give a description for the new coxswain who's never been out there what they might see.
SALLY: So there are different kinds of buoys: there's giant orange ones - those are generally going to be the ones marking the finish lines, important obstacles, critical turns - you don't want to always get super close to those because you can't get your oars over them. They usually have multiple anchor lines. The last thing you want to do is get your oar or fin or rudder caught in that anchor line. The buoy lines that I like … again, you know I love the Head of the Charles where you're designed to hug the buoy line. Other race courses, the buoy line is actually there because they are outlining debris or obstacles or places where you should not be going. So just know and research the course … that when you're out there, not always hugging the blue line is the fastest.
ANNE: Right. Another differentiator for head racing is the fact that if it's a course that has a lot of turns, as you change direction, the weather and wind conditions, for example, or the flow of the current if you're on a river - can behave very differently when there is a change of direction. Again, unlike the 2000 or a thousand meter sprint race where you're basically facing one set of wind conditions and water conditions, they can vary tremendously as you go around a turn. And so understanding the conditions and how it might vary from segment to segment is an important thing to consider.
SALLY: You're absolutely right, Anne. And considering sometimes that the line isn't the most advantageous when you factor in wind and current. So just because point A to point B is shorter doesn't mean it's faster. You could be in slower water. You could be in heavier water. You could be unprotected from the waves. Really understanding and appreciating that is going to go a long way into helping chart your course.
ANNE: Yeah. Another thing that I’d like to have your feedback about - the both of you - is the challenge potentially in a head race, of oncoming traffic from the travel lane. Do either one of you just want to point out for our coxswains who are not familiar with head racing what that means?
BREANA: This is something really important to be aware of on those courses where the travel lane is very close to the race course. And racing boats have the right of way - that's what your studying of the race packet will tell you - so hopefully you, as the coxswain, are not causing these issues as you travel up to the start line because you are staying out of the racing area. But you never know … there's singles, there's boats that get out of control, there's potential threats on-coming. So as we've said before: you're internally focused on your boat as you're racing you're externally focused on your competitors, and don't forget to be externally focused on people not even in the race right now who may potentially be traveling and coming directly at you. Hopefully the race officials are speaking to them but it can absolutely happen that - especially if you're hugging a tight turn - that oncoming traffic can be in your way.
SALLY: With all coxswains, you're kind of anticipating something going wrong. I’m always anticipating someone's going to be in my lane … somebody's going to drift in. I try to cut that off … put my finger over the mic … yell at the oncoming coxswain, “Please - you know - give me more room. You're encroaching on the race course.” I get pretty vocal.
ANNE: I don't want to belabor this point too much, but I want to say it's very startling and it's happened to me numerous times. It's often a totally different classification of boat. As I am coming down the racecourse and where our boat’s just doing well and all of a sudden, for example, on my port side (which is the travel lane) two singles will be practicing their starts on the way up to the marshalling area and the chute and they're just totally enmeshed in executing their warm-up strategies and whatnot and it's a horrible situation. My message here is: be aware that that is a thing. Hopefully you never encounter it but it's your responsibility to keep your boat safe and that other boat safe and do whatever you have to do in that circumstance. It happens. Are we getting close to the finish line yet … I mean literally and figuratively here? How about if we talk about the sprint and then bring this episode – hopefully - to a winning conclusion?
SALLY: Again, it's gonna depend on the crew. I try to make sure that they have saved and budgeted energy and that last minute … that last 30 seconds … I beg for them to leave it all on the water so that they don't have anything left. But there are going to be some crews who can't - who are too novice, who have spent it all - and in those cases, I think rowing cleanly is more important than trying to whip them up to an egg beater finish. I would much rather finish well and finish in a rowing style that they're proud of.
BREANA: Another thing to think about at the finish line is something we also discussed last episode … related to the start line … which is to do your best to observe what's going on down there. And there are very often buoys that are in the general vicinity of the finish line but they aren't necessarily marking the exact finish line. They could be well before it or well after it. So our advice is just row well through those buoys at race pace so that there is no chance whatsoever that the clock continued while your boat paddled. That's what we're trying to avoid.
ANNE: I totally agree and at the end of the day, really, how many strokes they've already put in 4000 meters, right? A few extra strokes - if it turns out that those buoys are way before or way out – whatever it is … is a few more strokes at pressure. What is the big deal there? The big deal is getting through the finish line just like you went through the start line … with as much as you possibly have.
SALLY: Each of us came to this idea of racing with a very different idea of what was important to cover. We invite our listeners to add to our collective wisdom and we really do want to learn from you. And we hope that you share with us your best and worst stories.
BREANA: As always, there's so much to say about this and it couldn't possibly all have been covered here, so we will be happy to allow your comments to direct future content that we make and happy to bring up other aspects of head racing. We look forward to hearing everybody's stories and strategies on social media and Slack. Our Quick Pick for today is a resource that we are developing that is designed to help coxswains prepare for Head of the Charles. It is going to be something that we release in advance of the Charles that will get you ready in the 30 days leading up to Head of the Charles. So look out towards the end of September on our website, social media, and Slack channel for announcements about that. The program is called 30 Days to Head of the Charles. What it's designed to do is just give you one small, actionable thing that you can do each day in those 30 days leading up to the race so that by the time the Charles comes, as a coxswain you feel prepared for that … whether it's your first time going or not. So look out for that. We're really excited to develop that with our combined expertise. And as we've said, we really look forward to what our listeners can add to that as well.
ANNE: So - Shout Out time. I’d like to toss out a Shout Out and it would be to those regattas that put together really great regatta packets that I can study in advance. One in particular that I recommend looking at as an ideal is the Head of the Fish. They have not only detailed diagrams, they have photos of bridges, course landmarks … it is beautifully done. There's a little bit of humor in there. A really great head race packet - love it. That's my Shout Out.
BREANA: Yes. Thank you, regattas, who make those excellent packets that help us help you run a safe and effective regatta for everybody. We appreciate that. So in the meantime, we invite you to engage with us on social media and on Slack where your question about head racing - or anything else that comes to your mind - might get featured on a future episode. We would also love for you to consider supporting us on Patreon if that's of interest to you. We're so excited to bring you more content soon and until next time, I’m Breana. I’m Sally. And I’m Anne signing off for now.