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.