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, 10/1/97)

"With the right pair of sunglasses," noted Alexander the Great during his Asia Minor campaign, "I could rule the world." Ok, maybe he didn't. Then again, he never really ruled the world either. Nevertheless, had the young Macedonian experienced the calm, confidence, and state of oh-so-cool arising from the right pair of shades, who knows how far the guy could have gone? I'll tell you this -- he would have won a lot of crew races.

Simply put, sunglasses are the coxswain's secret weapon. Like the ritual masks of bygone eras, sunglasses have become the modern vehicle for transcending one's identity in a secular age. In this case, when the countdown begins and the rowers sit poised to strike, flipping on your pilot goggles (or, as I liked to think of it, putting your blast shield down) will signal to both your teammates and your opponents that you have become Coxswain, and it's clobbering time.

As a crew's performance derives substantially from their confidence in their cox, a pair of shades is especially crucial if you suffer from a lack of poker face. Your stroke will set a better pace if he sees only his image reflected in your shades, and not his anxiety reflected in your eyes. Conversely, when the four-seat in the enemy boat, exhausted to the point of delusion, looks over and sees not a small wiry human screaming calls but a grinning eyeless demon driving his opponents to success, he'll be that much closer to check-out time.

Sunglasses' benefit to coxswains is not limited to race time. If eyes are the window to the soul, then the psychic shield afforded by shades can be of great use in the all-important pre-race coxswain meeting. Folks, everyone knows the racing rules long before this meeting happens. Its purpose, much like the weighing-in of boxers before a title bout, is to play psych-out. If you can worm into your opponent's brain and plant a few seeds of doubt before the big event, you'll have an almost unbeatable advantage over him or her at that critical moment in the arena.

The best way at these meetings to encourage other coxswains to crawl in a hole and die is an enigmatic smile and a unbroken stare into the very core of their being, as if to say, I can feel your fear. If you don't think you can muster the death glare, however, than a wry grin and a pair of sunglasses will make you maddeningly inscrutable to your adversaries. Particularly for novice coxswains, who at this point will be consumed with nerves, the idea of going up against a cox who seems more machine than woman will drive them to the brink of forfeit.

Having made the case for sunglasses, there are a few rules to choosing your trademark visor:

It will do you no good to look full of menace if you can't see what the hell is going on. In the tradeoff between psychological damage and clarity of vision, always choose in favor of the latter. Moreover, if you happen to be racing on a dark and cloudy morning, forget the glasses and get to work.

While you want to choose shades that reflect your personality, some glasses work better than others. For example, a pair of John Lennon roundrims may suggest a free spirit and an easygoing calm, but will do little to bring about the creeping fear you want to evoke in your competitors. Similarly, the mysterious allure of cat's eye rims, a la Grace Kelly, may make you the darling of the cafe crowd, but probably won't convey the razor-sharp edge you want to illustrate to your teammates. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator or Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. The operative emotions are poise and menace.

If sunglasses are going to inspire your crew, they need to be used sparingly. You can wear shades during practice, but you should make your crew feel that, once you put on a particular pair of specs, it's time to take the game to the next level. Moreover, you should switch up your goggles every so often to keep your crew on their toes. In my own tenure, I moved from Bono bugeyes to silver raver frames to, eventually, gold shooting goggles. It may be a gimmick, but so long as your crew doesn't tire of the same old sight, it's a gimmick that will add confidence and speed to your crew.

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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