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, 10/7/99)

Like the brontosauri of another era, rowers are generally a lumbering, congenial sort, happy to row and take orders. But, every so often you get an oarsman or oarswoman who stops dancing around the monolith and starts brandishing a mammoth femur at you. These letters are for those times.

Submitted Question: I used to be a coxswain when i was 11 after i was too big to do so I started to row I'm 19 1/2 now and it's damn good to row. Aren't you frustrated?!

Hmmm...with all due respect to the rowing ilk, let's attempt a comparison. If I rowed, I could spend my days in a permanent state of muscle fatigue, my nights tearing flesh from my gnarly, blistered palms, and my races watching sweat dribble down my teammate's back until I threw up and/or passed out. As a coxswain, I need worry only about the occasional aching joint, bout of laryngitis, or hypothermia-inducing splash of cold water. I can not only watch the race unfold in its full grandeur, but can take part as an active decision-maker in control of my and my boat's fate. I get to pilot a craft, take charge of my crew, and warp the minds of my opponents as we pass by them.

In short, while I have endless respect for those who take up the oar, my calling is on the microphone, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Submitted Question: - Matt Sargent, San Diego RC: Kevin - In a previous question, a coxswain turned rower asked you if you would rather row. You presented an interesting point that you don't have to sweat, throw up, etc. and thus you like being a coxswain more than a rower. I understand how coming from your position you might answer as such, but you have to come straight with me on one thing. If you had the choice of one of the following body/personality types:

1. 6-4, 205 pound, strong both aerobically and anaerobically.
2. 5-2, 120 pound, good steerer and brimming with self-confidence.

Which would you choose. This is not to say that rowers are better than coxswains, but it seems that if most coxswains could row, they would. What do you think?

Hmmm...well, obviously I can't speak for ALL the coxswains out there, but, in my humble experience, you're way off. Perhaps I'm reading too much into your query, but to me it seems you're casting the average coxswain as a meager, frail soul doomed by their genes to a life of ignominy. Whoa, buddy. I can't remember a single time when any coxswain has suggested to me that they're consumed with envy for their rowing brethren. (More often, it's pity.) Moreover, I would guess that any cox afflicted with an inferiority complex such as you describe wouldn't possess the necessary psychology to get out of bed, much less win a race.

Now, look, before I continue, let me reiterate my utmost respect for rowers. Applying Zen-like focus to the excruciating physical challenge of a 2K race requires a will that is nothing short of transcendent. Obviously, crew wouldn't be much of a sport if it consisted solely of little people on microphones screaming at one another. That being said, this is a coxswain's column, and it's time we set the record straight.

I think the dichotomy you set up in your question is hooey, for the following reasons:

1. For one, "strong both aerobically and anaerobically" is not a personality type. If you want to talk personality types, good coxswains are predisposed to lead, and good rowers (with the exception of the stroke) are predisposed to follow. What would you rather be - a ghost in the machine or a cog in the engine? In the choice between a coxswain's command and a rower's passive-aggressiveness, I'll choose the former.

2. Neither is "strong both aerobically and anaerobically" exclusive to rowers. True, in terms of strength, you're not going to see coxswains pulling tractors with their teeth. But in terms of aerobic and anaerobic fitness,which I believe is what you were getting at, there's no reason why a coxswain can't be in great shape. Indeed, unless you're of the midget waif school, keeping your weight around 125 demands a considerable level of fitness. In my own case, I spent my off-hours running, playing soccer, and shooting hoops. Every other decent coxswain I know were into their own physical activities. I would even go so far as to say that a coxswain who doesn't relish the occasional athletic burn would be hopelessly disassociated from the experience of their crew.

3. As for choosing between standing 6-4 or 5-2, all I can say is, don't go there. My 5 feet and 6 inches have gotten me pretty far in this world, and I've got no complaints. Any sucker who goes through life wishing s/he was taller deserves all the failure they're gonna get. Your implicit ranking of height not only smacks of eugenics, but incites the short man in me into a fearsome Irish rage. Sorry to break it to you, big guy, but alpha fe/males come in all shapes and sizes. If you don't believe me, see you on the court.

Submitted Question: I have been the bow of many toe-steered boats (with the toe in bow). In this position, I have run boat practices and done all the jobs of a coxswain while sitting backwards and trying to row at the same time. Getting back in a larger, coxed boat, I am extremely grateful for the coxswain resuming these responsibilities, but I have no sympathy for their errors when it is their only job and they are facing forward. Is this wrong? I really love my coxswain, but I think sometimes they make their job more difficult than it is. I'm interested to hear your view...

True enough. As there are lousy rowers in this world, there will always be lousy coxswains. That being said, if steering were the only element to good coxing, then enterprising coaches would train 30lb monkeys to do it. The problem comes when you layer technique, morale, race awareness, and rhythm atop of steering. Keeping all these wheels turning at once, while piloting a straight course, requires a mental balancing act that can only come from experience. In comparison, the "only job" of an oarsman is to row!

Like I said, I don't want to get in the business of making excuses for inattentive coxswains. But, let me tell you, it's much easier to steer a bowloader from the bow seat than it is from the coxswain's coffin in the hull. Since your eyes are on the same plane as the water, piloting a bowloader is roughly equivalent to playing Pole Position with your eyes half an inch from the TV screen. Add the fact that the only thing stopping you from gliding up and down the shell like an itinerant screwdriver is a foam pad pressing deeper into your neck with each stroke, and you can see why most coxswains relish the comparative luxury of the stern.

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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