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, 1/13/98)

Now that y'all have picked out a spiffy new pair of shades, let's turn our attention to Mister Microphone. As with politicians, talking heads, trial lawyers, and hip-hop MC's, coxswains rise and fall on the strength of their lyrical savvy. Indeed, the enormous impact of the coxswain in a race is a testament to the force of language. If you turn the right phrases, you can whip your crew into the scariest bloodthirsty frenzy since Agincourt. But, if you regale your rowers with the wrong remark, you'll end up stopping the boat faster than that ubiquitous iceberg.

Since calls are the crux of coxing, and as midterm season approaches for the college set, I've broken down our discussion into a handy outline, roughly divided into Style and Substance.

First, Style.

Regardless what Strunk and White have to say on the subject, the most important element of style is Tone. As the prescient philosopher Marshall McLuhan sagely pointed out thirty years ago, the medium is the message. It doesn't matter what you're saying to the boat if you sound agitated and nervous. Particularly if your opponent is gaining seats, a quiver of fear in your throat or an adenoidal crack in your voice will give up the whole ball game. Conversely, if you sound cool, calm, and confident when the chips are down, your rowers will have that much more faith in their own ability. Try to keep your voice at a low pitch, even when your instincts push you to shriek. You don't need to sound like Barry White, but you do want to sound as if you are in complete control of the situation.

Next to tone, another key element of style is Rhythm. (Not for nothing did coxswains of the Ben Hur era carry around bongo drums.) Like a complicated trip-hop dub or a well-wound clock, a boat moves within a series of rhythms -- recovery-drive, catch-finish, legs-back-arms, etc. By matching your vocal cadences to any one of these rhythms, you can not only draw everyone's focus to that particular facet of the stroke, but also encourage your rowers to derive strength from the driving beat. Think of The Little Engine That Could ("I think I can, I think I can...") or the rhythm-induced trances of the Kalahari Bushmen. If done right, the oarsmen will move in time like pistons in the perfect machine, rowing as relentlessly and remorselessly as the rhythm of the shell.

I call the strategy described above as working "in the rhythm." However, you can also call "above the rhythm," which is a particularly good strategy for longer pieces and lower cadences. Rather than simply recreating the rhythm of the boat, play your calls atop that rhythm, in the manner of a rapper or freestyler. (And, while I think it would raise your game, you don't have to like hip-hop to make the point.) Calling above the rhythm allows for -- and, indeed, requires -- much more creativity on your part. The idea here is to keep making technique calls, but get a little zany. In head-style pieces, the biggest danger is for the rowers to veg out and lose their focus. If you can keep them entertained with your verbosity, they'll keep listening and rowing better.

At some point, however, such as in the third 500 of a 2K piece, the rowers will hit the wall and start succumbing to oxygen depletion. Now it's time for calling "outside the rhythm." In other words, shut up for a few moments, then deliberately talk without regard to the underlying tempo of the shell. The transition should snap the crew out of their blue funk, particularly if you've been talking the whole time.

Before we continue, perhaps a diagram would be useful:

In the Rhythm:
"Leg DriveNow, Gliiiiiide,Leg Drive! Now Gliiiiiiiiiide..."
12341 2 3 4

Above The Rhythm:
"Kick...Oh, that's gotta hurt!,Kick...What, you want some more?BOOM! Curtains for you, pal!...
12 3 412 3 4 1 2 3 4

Outside the Rhythm:
"Kick,NowGliiidde...Ok, listen up. They're hating life over there. We make our move in two..."
123 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

Having made the case for rhythm, the final component of style is Repetition. As an oarsman once put it to me, never underestimate the mind-numbing effects of oxygen dep. A few minutes into a racing piece and most rowers aren't thinking much above the eight-year-old level. At this point, it's best to simplify, simplify, simplify. Don't feel bad about calling "leg drive" over and over again for ten strokes - it may seem uninspired to you, but you're not heaving an oar through the water.

Next, Substance.

Now that we've covered the rudiments of style, let's move on to substance. First, as coxing is a public relations position, Spin is an important facet of all your calls. I once heard a story of a high-school coxswain who, down a length after 750 meters, wailed, "We're so far behind! We're overstroking them and they're STILL beating us!" Needless to say, that boat ended up losing by a lot more than a length. Now, you don't want to lie to your boat (Well...maybe you do...more on that below), or candy-coat a move by your opponent, but you do want to frame the situation so as to best maintain morale and motivation on your squad. If your boat picks up any kind of seat, immediately broadcast (hopefully, loud enough so that your adversaries can hear you) "Gotcha! I'm on the four seat - give me three seat in ten," or "I am now even. Stroke wants his lovely parting gifts, in ten..." If the other team advances, don't say "We're slipping!" or "They're catching up!" Go with "They're trying to make a move. Let's close 'em down, with a ten for (blank), in two..." or "They just put one of ours in the hospital; let's put one of theirs in the morgue, in two..."

Along with Spin, Specificity is crucial to your calls. There is nothing more pathetic in this world than a coxswain who screams generic power tens ad infinitum. If it's going to mean anything, a "power" ten or twenty should be used sparingly, perhaps four or five times in a 2K piece. You can still call tens otherwise, but call them for a specific part of the stroke, such as a ten for sharp catches, a ten for strong laybacks, or a ten for good circles at the finish. Moreover, when you call a power ten, tell your rowers from where to derive that power (as in "ten for leg drive"). And, never, never, just shout numbers.

Part and parcel with specificity is Uniqueness. In order to avoid monotonous, deadening, and frankly amateur number-bellowing, create imaginative "set play" tens which your crew recognizes from practice as time to move. The most obvious examples of these are "Senior tens" or "College tens" (As in, this ten's for Harvard!). However, you should think up some more on your own time to use against the competition. In my own experience, I found my crews responded better to an Irish ten followed by a Dark Side ten than they did to a generic power twenty.

Finally, the last, and perhaps most, important substantive feature of your calls should be Data. Your crew will want to know what's going on, and if you don't tell them, they'll start looking around themselves. Every few strokes, tell the rowers:

a. their cadence
b. the position of the other boat
c. the elapsed time, or...
d. the distance traveled.

Indeed, the team's confidence in you will derive directly from whether or not you're fulfilling their informational requirements. If oarsmen don't know where they are, they start getting antsy and rowing badly. Calling seats is particularly crucial, so don't forget to keep the team apprised of the score.

With tone, rhythm, repetition, spin, specificity, uniqueness, and data, there's a lot to learn here, but, fortunately, you've got hours and hours of practice to hone your calls. Don't be afraid to experiment with the various facets of your game - if anything, it'll liven up the water time for your teammates.

Much as rowers and coaches will disagree, I do believe a strong case can be made for the judicious use of misinformation. For example, I once had a boat that always seemed to get nervous and lose composure whenever I said the cadence was over 37. I soon discovered, however, that the boat didn't bobble if I called "Steady at 36!," even if we were moving at a 38 or 39. Similarly, if a boat takes some seats on you but you get the sense that their move will be temporary, hold off on mentioning it until you can determine whether they'll solidify their position. Don't get me wrong -- Misinformation is a RECIPE FOR DISASTER if used too often or if your crew can tell you're full of it. But, very rarely, in the heat of battle, tweaking the rules can be beneficial. This is playing with fire, folks, so watch that you don't get burned.

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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