Ghost in the Machine:
Essays on the Art of Coxing

Kevin C. Murphy, Ex-Coxswain,
Harvard Varsity Lightweights '93-97

(Copyright 1997-2013, All Rights Reserved.
(Originally appeared at, 1997-1999)

(originally appeared at Rowersworld, 10/13/98)

Forget the World Series and the owner-induced NBA lockout for a moment - this Saturday, crew aficionados get their day in the sun. October 17 marks the 34th annual Head of the Charles in Boston, Mass. Arguably the preeminent rowing event on this continent, the Head of the Charles is the closest thing to the Henley experience you can get in the States. Rowers of all aptitudes race neck-and-neck along the winding river, while drunken fans congregate on the shores and wait for a really nasty crash. In honor of this one-of-a-kind event, this month's column focuses first on that staple of the fall season, head races, and then on what to expect from the serpentine Charles.

Let's face it - Head races were designed with coxswains in mind.

Precision steering is much more of a factor than in your average straight-shot 2K. Moreover, the length of the race, coupled with the additional fatigue experienced by the rowers, makes creative calls and innovative coxing a must. Thus, be sure to consider the following points when engaged in a head race:

Steer aggressively.
If you're like most coxswains (ok, if you're like me), you originally pictured yourself as a sort of nautical Speed Racer, executing death-defying turns while dusting your opponents. You will have no better chance to fulfill this dream than in a Head race. Of course, they'll tell you time and time again that slower boats should yield to the right of faster boats, and, of course, they've got a point. That being said, make the boat behind you earn its passage, and, if you can get away with it without risking injury or disqualification, always take the inside.

Set a strong and steady base.
These races are long, and, if you're not careful, your rowers will fade faster than Betamax. After a quick 20 to start, set a powerful, relaxation-filled, and sustainable rating for the bulk of the race, and notch it up as you close in on the finish.

Set up your moves.
Or, to put it another way, choose your fights. You may be faster than the boat ahead of you, but don't call a big twenty to move through them ten strokes before they get the benefit of a curve in the river. Take advantage of favorable curves and straight-aways when knocking off your rivals. Moreover, always be aware of what's coming up. It may be a good idea to expend extra energy early on so that you won't have to deal with another boat near a bridge later on.

Be creative.
This is not a 2k race: Head races are perfect for riffing and free-styling. In fact, if you choose instead to scream "Go for it!" over and over again for fifteen minutes, your crew will ABSOLUTELY DESPISE you. It's a good idea to go into a head race with at least 5 or 6 unique 20's at your disposal. On top of that, don't be afraid to make it up as you go along. Belittling other coxswains and their crews is highly encouraged, but don't say anything that'll get you disqualified.

Be ready for anything.
Head races are exercises in controlled chaos. Be ready for the two boats ahead of you to stop suddenly as they collide with a bridge or catch a major crab. Don't be surprised if your five-seat jumps his slide TWICE and your two-seat's oarlock breaks in the space of fifty strokes. In particular, be ready to address that old Head race stand-by, the clashing oars/oarlocks. In such a case, rant voraciously at the other coxswain while carefully peeling your shell away from the offending boat. And remember, even if it's your fault, on the microphone IT'S ALWAYS THE OTHER COXSWAIN'S FAULT. Your bowwoman may know otherwise, of course, but why miss a chance to discombobulate another coxswain's authority? That being said,

Be careful.
Head races are dangerous (heck, for a coxswain, that's most of the fun.) Every year, at virtually every head race, somebody's boat initiates a confrontation with a bridge and loses big-time. Or, somebody's bowman gets pimp-slapped by a stroke's oar. Not to sound like McGruff the Crime Dog, but do your best to avoid any kind of personal injury to your crew or equipment - an ugly crash will stay with you longer than a Head-race win.

Now, that we've gone over the basics of head racing, here are a few tips for those racing in the Head, Foot, or Tail of the Charles:

Use your straightaways.
On this tortuous river, the straightaways are key to success. If you're going to knock off boats, the places to do so are between the Riverside boathouse and the Western Avenue Bridge (a.k.a. "the Powerhouse") and the stretch in front of the Newell (Harvard) boathouse. In both cases, you should make your move on any nearby boat, so as to free up more space for the turns ahead.

Beware the Weeks Footbridge.
For some reason or another, this always seems to be where the awful benders occur. Although Boston coxswains old and new will probably hate me for telling you this, be very wary of the turn under the Weeks footbridge. It looks like you're going to go straight - you're not. Instead, you'll be making a significant turn to port. Here, as with the neverending port turn before the Eliot bridge ahead, you may want to throw in a few strokes of unequal pressure to bring the bow around.

Use the crowds, or keep your focus.
If you're from a local squad, draw strength from the crowds screaming your high school/college/club's name as you row by. If not, keep your focus and don't let the drunken carousing take you off your game.

Finally, have fun!
If you're not racing, go to the Head anyway - it's easily the biggest and best rowing event in America. If you can't make it, good luck on those other Head races.

I. The Coxswain
II. The Eyes Have It
III. Karaoke Time
IV. Zen and the Art of Coxing
V. Back in the Saddle
VI. Bring Me the Head of the Charles
VII. 8 Minute Bones: Dieting Tips for Coxswains
VIII. From the Vaults: Racing Skillz
IX. From the Vaults: Steering
X. From the Vaults: Coxing 101 for Novices and Journeymen
XI. From the Vaults: Dancing Around the Monolith
XII. From the Vaults: Potpourri
XIII. The Winter of Your Discontent
XIV. Staying In the Mix

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