Safety Notes for Coxes

Every stretch of water we row on is different and every stretch of water will vary with the seasons. Some stretches can vary enormously in level and speed from day to day or even hour to hour and a competent rower, coach or cox will be able to evaluate the risks presented by a stretch of water they row on regularly without too much difficulty.  The cox is the ‘brains’ of the boat and is in charge of the boat and its crew for the duration of the outing.

The particular skills we expect of coxes start with the basic appreciation of the risks presented by water and weather conditions which would be expected of any competent rowing club member. However, the coxwain has a unique role in a crew boat and being only as competent as the rowers in the boat is really not setting the bar high enough in terms of what coaches, rowers and clubs should expect. The bottom line is that during any outing in a coxed boat, it is the cox’s boat and the cox has the final decision on where it goes and what it does.  The cox outranks both coach and crew and needs the skill and judgement to justify that authority.  It is therefore a good idea for clubs to arrange suitable training for coxes at least annually to ensure that they are equipped to take on their responsibilities.

To begin with, the cox has to be the one who avoids problems by planning ahead.  The outing begins when he or she calls ‘hands on’ before having the boat lifted from its rack and it is the cox’s responsibility to ensure that crew, boat, blades, cox-box, life-jacket and any other equipment is got safely from land to water and back again. While the rest of the crew may legitimately be pre-occupied with the technicalities of rowing and co-ordination, a good cox must always be thinking at least one step ahead.  A good cox will check there is space on the landing stage before getting the crew to lift the boat.  They will check that the boat is in working order before putting it onto the water and that the crew is ready to row before pushing off.

During the outing, the cox is responsible for the safety of the crew and the care of the boat. They have to think ahead of their current position on the water both to navigate and avoid hazards.  They must know the rules of navigation for the stretch of water they are on – and these may change with water levels, time of day or local events organised by other river users. The cox has to ensure that there is enough clear water  to overtake as required during drills or pieces on crowded stretches. Where a river or lake is shared with other users, these may present a variety of fixed and/or moving hazards which also have to be avoided. This may sound complicated, but most coxes manage to keep their crews safe on their local river or lake.  Familiar hazards are easier to deal with – although there can be a downside in that even large red ‘Danger’ signs seem to become just part of the scenery if they are always there.

The greatest challenges coxes face are away from their home stretch when competing at regattas or head races hosted by other clubs. At these events there really is no safe alternative to doing the homework. Coxes must learn the local navigation rules and read the instructions to competitors which should be supplied by the organizers.   On tidal stretches, rules can be particularly complicated with circulation patterns varying according to the time of day.  With start times  always subject to change, to navigate these stretches safely a cox will need a watch and possibly a set of notes.

Experienced coxes are a valuable resource at any rowing club.  It would surely be a good idea for more clubs to organise their coxes together to allow for the regular formal or informal transfer  of accumulated knowledge from older to younger coxes. Instead most coxes need be motivated to do their own research and learning. Google Maps is really useful for researching an unfamiliar river and in the UK the Environment Agency provides online reports on river levels here ( http://bit.ly/1fVouB9 ).  If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask the local rowing club or the event organizers for clarification of any questions regarding unfamiliar venues.

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Balancing the boat

New rowers are often surprised by the instability of ‘fine’ racing boats.  These boats are designed for speed on the water and their long, narrow, semi-circular hulls have very limited stability around their long axis.  They therefore tend to roll from side to side unless the crew know how to balance the boat.  A rolling boat is difficult to row and therefore slow – so any coach will find that getting a crew to balance the boat so that all of their blades can work effectively on every stroke is a fundamental requirement.

The first point to note is that while the boat has a tendency to roll, the rolling of an unbalanced boat is caused entirely by the crew.  There is a hierarchy of crew errors which unbalance the boat and while sculling boats differ somewhat from sweep-oar boats in their roll characteristics, most of the coaching points which follow apply to both types.

Body Posture

The primary cause of instability in the boat is poor control of the upper body by the crew.  The crew weighs far more than the boat they are sitting in and every movement they make will affect the movement of the boat. Getting the crew to ‘sit tall’ (heads up, shoulders down, stomachs pulled slightly in) will, by minimising uncontrolled lateral body movement, bring a positive improvement to the stability of the boat.  This attention to body posture while rowing requires considerable concentration from each rower and this can be a challenge.  However, the reward for better posture in the boat is immediate and can be dramatic for some beginner boats, so the crew gets very good positive feedback on the effect their improved body posture has on the boat.

Stroke Shape

Almost as fundamental to boat balance as body posture is the stroke shape being executed by each individual member of the crew.  The correct stroke shape is like a bicycle chain – two horizontal lines with a semicircle at each end.  Rowers need to finish the power phase of the stroke at a consistent height which keeps their riggers at the correct distance above the water if they are going to keep the boat level.  This means that the stroke should end on the chest, before the ‘tap-down’ extracts the blade from the water.   The correct point on the chest (called the Reference Point) can be found by modelling the ideal ‘finish’ position. Sitting the rowers at backstops in a level boat, with the blades squared in the water, get them to gently pull the squared blades to their bodies, taking care to let the blade find its own depth in the water.  If the rowers pull to this point on each stroke they will help keep the boat level.  Slight adjustments of this height up and down can be used to control most normal variations in boat balance e.g. when the rudder is being used.  Rowers on the higher side of the boat can also tap down more firmly at the finish to help restore balance.  The additional downward force on the riggers will help lower them.

It should be remembered that stroke shape sets the recovery height and that this should be consistent across the boat.  Some less experienced rowers tend to ignore recovery height and  just drag the blade across the water to the catch.  This not only looks sloppy, it slows the boat down and unbalances it.  Even modern carbon-fibre blades have a significant weight and if  one blade is on the water rather than in the air during the recovery phase of the stroke then the boat is clearly going to be unbalanced.  Matching hand heights on the recovery should be as instinctive as matching the stroke rate and will pay dividends in both balance and speed.

Square Blade Extraction

If a rower is feathering the blade underwater they have to use more force to extract it from the water.  The downward force of the extraction will tend to push their rigger towards the water, causing the boat to roll down on that side. Coaching rowers to  keep their blades ‘square’ at the extraction and feather in the air can quickly correct this particular error and as with body posture the results can be seen and felt immediately.

Crew Timing

Inexperienced rowers tend to be happy if they are getting their blades into the water at the same time as stroke.  More experienced rowers take their timing not just from stroke’s blade, but also from his or her hands, head and slide.  In this way their body movements become much better synchronised with stroke’s and this contributes greatly to improved balance in the boat.  Another common cause of unbalanced boats is ‘rushing’ the recovery phase into frontstops.  This is a particular problem in sweep-oar boats as the weight of the rower will tend to be thrown to his or her side of the boat causing it to roll down on that side as the crew takes the catch.  Switching your rowers main timing cue from the blade to the hands or slide can help resolve this problem.

Foot Pressure

Many rowers are unaware that differences in the amount of pressure exerted by their feet can unbalance the boat.  One way of coaching through this is to get a crew to press down deliberately on one side or the other during the recovery phase of the stroke.  They will usually find that they can make the boat roll to the right or left quite easily.  If the boat does not respond as expected it is probably because at least one member of the crew has a ‘heavy’ right or left foot.

Pressure on the feet can, with practice, be used to help balance the boat but any coach teaching this technique should be clear that foot pressure should only be used for ‘fine-tuning’ the balance of the boat.  It is not a remedy for sloppy rowing.  It works best on smaller boats but even in an eight, if you allow for its slower response – foot pressure can be used to trim the balance of the boat. I find the best technique is to respond to the motion of the boat after the tap-down.  With a little practice, a rower can detect which side of the boat is rising and can apply a dab of pressure with the foot on that side to counter it.  Small boats respond almost immediately; eights – due to their greater inertia, take a little longer. The aim is to arrest the roll of the boat, not to reverse it.  Most rowers tend initially to over-correct the motion of the boat, which can make the situation worse, but with practice most crews can apply the technique correctly.

As a footnote it is worth pointing out that using body-lean to help balance the boat (a common error among novice rowers) is not recommended.  Rowing badly to correct an imbalance in the boat is only ever going to make things worse in the long run.