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Fall Steering – A Coxswain’s Season

Fall is a great season to hone your skills and make an impact on your boat as a coxswain. Whether it’s nailing your line down a straightaway, or taking a sharp and tight turn during a practice or head race, your steering can make or break the piece. In this post, there will be tips and tricks for steering straight, taking turns, and steering with one boat, or multiple boats next to you. These core skills are important ways to make the difference from the coxswain’s seat, and the better a coxswain’s steering is, the more your boat can count on them.

Steering The Boat:

Steering is the MOST important place to focus your efforts in the fall. From the coxswain seat, there is the potential to make or break a race based on the line that you are taking. This is an exciting opportunity for you to make a big impact. Staying straight on the straight aways and taking the shortest course on the turns from the coxswain seat is the equivalent of a huge PR or a seat-race win for a rower. By looking a few turns ahead and being thoughtful about their line, a fall coxswain can be a hero to their boat by shaving off meters of a race, and in the best cases making it even a minute shorter for their rowers.

Going Straight: When it comes to going straight, the best way to ensure a good line is by looking far ahead and making small adjustments. As you get in the boat, set yourself up for success by being thoughtful about your hands and positioning for steering. I like to steer with my pointer finger and thumb holding the strings, and wrapping my middle, ring, and pinky fingers around the gunwales for stability. By just using your pointer finger and your thumb, you’ll be able to make minuscule, precise adjustments without oversteering. When you bring your right hand forward, the boat will move to starboard, and when you bring your left hand forward, the boat will move to port. I like to keep my hands attached to the gunwales at all times, and lighten the grip as I steer on turns, still only using my pointer finger and thumb to actually make the steering adjustments. To keep a sharp line, find a landmark or point in the distance, and use that as a guide to make sure you are staying straight. It can be super tough when you are in open water to tell if your steering is straight, so picking a point on the horizon and using it as reference is super helpful as a gauge. As you get closer to your landmark, sometimes you’ll want to shift to something more specific. Or, if you are coxing down a river or a course with some turns in it, you can shift your landmark as soon as you need to start thinking about your next turn. Once you get as far as you need to with your point, make your turn, and then start looking for your next point. Some easy landmarks to start with include:

  • Buildings
  • Boathouses
  • Power lines
  • Bridges
  • Randomly Specific Trees
  • …or anything else you can identify from far away!

Tip #1: Not sure if you are steering straight? I like to turn my body and look over my shoulder to see my line from the boat in the water. If you are steering straight, your small wake line will look straight. If you are oversteering, or making too many adjustments, you will see a light zig zag on top of the water. This is a good indicator that you need to simplify your steering and move the rudder a little less. Use this tool as a way to keep yourself accountable and give yourself real-time feedback during practice on your line. Making Turns: Turning is one of the most fun parts of fall coxing! It is all about anticipation, timing, and taking a little bit of a risk to get a big reward. Crushing your turn through a bridge at a big race, or even on a practice row at home can be one of the best feelings from the 9th seat because it has such a palpable and positive impact on your boat. Turning is something that has to be done thoughtfully and strategically. Because of the long and large nature of a rowing shell, it takes a little forethought to get your boat to turn how you want and where you want it to go. It can take a few strokes for the boat to respond to the rudder moving. Every boat is different, so as you get used to a new hull, pay attention to its responsiveness, and get familiar with the sensitivity when it comes to using the rudder. Steps to taking a turn:

  1. Look ahead and figure out where you want to go.
  2. Start moving your hand on the side you want to turn a few strokes before you get to where you need to be turning – it will take a stroke, or even a few for the boat to respond.
  3. If it is a big turn, once the boat starts responding to the initial steering, use the full rudder if needed.
  4. As you start to get close to where you want to be, ease off the rudder and return the strings to center – it will again take the boat a few strokes to stop turning – so you almost need to anticipate a few strokes before you think your turn will be complete to avoid over steering past your new point.

If a turn is really big and the rudder isn’t going to be enough, you can call for one side to row light and one side to row hard. This will make the turn much easier and give the boat the help it needs to complete the turn in way fewer strokes. Having one side row hard and one row light can throw off the rhythm if its during a race or a piece, so I would use this steering technique sparingly, saving it for when you really need it! That being said, it can help you make a tight turn in 5 strokes, rather than a wide one in 15, so it is definitely worth experimenting with! Tip #1: Apply the rudder (start moving the steering strings) when the rowers have their blades in the water on the drive, rather than out of the water on the recovery. This will help keep the boat as set and balanced as possible while you are making adjustments. Tip #2: I like to tell my rowers when I am going on the rudder so they can keep their technical rowing sharp, and can expect to feel a little of the balance give out. Making a small call saying “going on the rudder here” allows for the rowers to finish a little higher, tap down a little better, and keep the boat set up while you are steering.

Steering With Coxswains Next To You: Whether it is day to day in practice, or during a race, it is crucial to be able to steer well with a boat next to you. Keeping the distance between the blades in the corner of your eye at all times will allow you to make small adjustments to ensure you are not getting too close or too far from the boat you are practicing with, or racing against. Communication is super important between coxswains, and it is ok to communicate outside the boat to maintain proper spacing, or take turns together. Working with other coxswains on the water is necessary for executing a multiple boat practice efficiently. When taking a turn, I like to say “Hey, I am going on the rudder now” to the coxswain next to me so they can plan accordingly. If you are in the inside lane and you take a turn and the other boat doesn’t turn with you, that is a poor reflection on both coxswains for not working together. That being said, if you are in the outside lane and the boat on the inside doesn’t start turning in time and you do, you are going to have a much more serious problem, which will be an oar clash, if not a full-on collision. When going straight, I am always looking at the distance between my blades and the blades of the boat next to me out of my periphery. Sometimes a quick “Hey, I need a little more room” to the coxswain next to you can be exactly what is needed to keep the oars from clashing. Having a good rapport with the coxswains you are working with will allow practice to go much more seamlessly, and will ensure that communication on the water is healthy, helpful and positive.

Steering is super important and can be tough, but once you have it down it makes all the difference! Putting in the effort in the fall to get your skills where they need to be will make a big difference in your performance on the water, give you some confidence from the coxswain seat, and once your steering is seamless it will allow you to refocus your efforts on other things going on inside the boat. Focusing on your execution, getting feedback from your coach, and working well with other coxswains on the water will all help your steering to make you the best coxswain you can be!

Izzi Weiss is the owner of Inside Turn and a contributor to Rowers Choice.

You can find more information at and connect with her at [email protected]