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)

From team unity to stretcher wrenches, power tens to public drunkeness, here are a few other edifying responses from the early days.

Submitted Question: - Anonymous. Kevin, I am pretty much just starting as a coxswain with a team of novices who aren't very friendly with each other or with me because they are frustrated by the fact that race season is two weeks away and we row like crap still. What we need is unity. If the team is unified we will row better Im sure, but we are from different economic situations, schools, cities, interest groups, and we have 6th graders to seniors. What can I do to help unify my team in and out of the boat?

Good question. While Michael Jordan could carry all kinds of deadweight to an NBA championship back in the day, a crew shell needs to be unified to achieve success. As the brain of the boat, it is up to you to dissolve controversy and foment accord within the shell.

First off, since it is your responsibility to forge a winning boat, try to cultivate a personal relationship with each rower. Find something you have in common or can talk about off the water with each person on your boat, be it class, politics, philosophy, or music. It's bad enough when two oarsmen in the same boat don't respect each other; it's even worse if a rower doesn't respect you. Thus, try as much as possible to stay out of intra-boat conflict. Moreover, make it known that you wish to stay above the fray. I've seen coxswains -- particularly upperclasspersons -- align against the younger members of the boat or take sides with their buddies against an outsider. Bad call.

If arguments arise that seem irreconcilable, either take each rower aside or, if necessary, have a team meeting over the microphone. Something along the lines of, "I don't care what you think of each other off the water, but in this boat it's all about rowing," ought to do the trick. Any committed rower will understand the necessity of ignoring her personal animosities for the sake of the crew.

Finally, remember that the crew that plays together slays together. As the coxswain, you don't necessarily want to encourage illegal or physically damaging behavior, but getting the boat together for a movie, party, drink, or any other kind of quality time will surely aid the boat in practice and in racing.

Submitted Question: - Anonymous. Great web page even if I am a rower and not a cox. Here's the question: I have not been rowing for very long, but I have, in the short time that I have been rowing learned what kind of coxing I like and what I do not like. My problem is the cox of the boat that I am most often in seems to me slightly ineffective. She is a wonderful person, but when we are in the middle of a hard piece she seems only capable of calling power tens. Nothing special, just power tens. To me, I feel that perhaps it might be more effective for her to call out power tens for something in particular, i.e. a ten for the leg drive, or a ten to squeeze it high into the chest, a ten for my fat momma, I don't really care, just so long as I have something to focus on. I feel that some of the other girls in the boat also feel the same way, however, how should we make our cox aware of this without making her feel as if she was being attacked?

Good question - I hope my third column addressed it. Perhaps you could send your coxswain to Rowersworld...

Well, in case you didn't believe me, folks, here's a rower's testimonial. Do Not, I repeat, Do Not simply call power tens. Anytime I was in a race and I heard my opponent call a "Power Ten!" or rattle off numbers, I immediately gained the burst of confidence I needed to shut 'em down. Power tens is Coxing-for-Dummies: If you've come here, you're already more creative than that.

Submitted Question: - Anonymous. To stave off the rigors of a long season, my team sometimes drinks heavily. Since I am a coxswain I am (of course) obliged to participate in these endeavours, but it sure is rough in the morning. Occasionally myself and some rowers will stumble out to the boathouse still buzzing and I have to kick myself to stay awake during long pieces. Is this normal behaviour and will a decrease in beer comsumption make us faster? Does being tipsy affect my coxing, and if it does, does it make me a better coxswain??

First, the university line. This type of behavior is extremely irresponsible, and you are endangering yourself and every rower under your command with such foolhardy practices. Lives can get lost! What if you steer into the path of an oncoming speedboat?

That being said, given that college is what it is and that coaches do seem to have a propensity for ridiculously early practices on Saturday morning, this scenario probably happens to every coxswain at least once in their career. I'd be lying to you (and a poor excuse for an Irish-American) if I didn't admit that there wasn't a morning practice or two over four years where the sky was too bright, my voice was too loud, and the whole coxing experience seemed just too weird for comfort.

Most importantly, if you're drunk drunk, DON'T GET IN THE BOAT. Your coach will be ticked off, but s/he will understand. Not only are you seriously endangering your crew (ever heard of drunk driving?), but you're bound to make the kind of mistake that'll ruin your coxing reputation for life. I know of one coxswain who was so drunk one morning she leaned over the side of the shell and threw up for five whole minutes. Guess what story came up every time her name was mentioned for the next three years?

If you're somewhere in that gray area between tipsy and hung over, and you feel ok enough to cox, take some precautions. Pull aside your stroke and your bow pair and tell them you're feeling a little sketched out. During practice, mind the water as if your life depended on it (it does). And if you can, get a 16-oz. cup of coffee before practice to clear the fog.

Now, a few more caveats. For you impressionable folks out there, my remarks are in no way intended to endorse the practice of drunken coxing. Coxing is a mental discipline, and alcohol will do nothing but screw up your game. Second, do not make a habit of showing up to practice drunk. Mistakes happen to everybody once in a while, but if you're showing up blitzed every weekend like George W., you need to find yourself a new sport. You have lives in your hands, and the stakes are too high to accommodate your habits. Finally, if you're going to drink, drink Guinness. Domestic beer is deplorable stuff.

Submitted Question: - Anonymous. Here's the deal, we've just gotten back on the water after winter training and my rowers just can't get the set right. We seem lean to port way too much but then we'll go 10 or 20 strokes leaning to starboard, and then it'll be back to port. Any suggestions on how to correct this?

Hmmmm...another good one. It's probably a timing issue -- make sure nobody is lurching into the catch, rushing their hands at bow, or dropping their blades in early. Also, ask your rowers to keep their mass in the plane of movement (i.e. coming forward on the recovery and springing back on the drive) -- it's possible someone is leaning toward or away from their oar.

That being said, I wouldn't worry too much about the set, especially if you've just come back from winter training. It takes a week or so to shake out the winter and get used to non-erg rowing again. Moreover, a bad set is annoying, but it isn't as much of a boatstopper as other problems you may have.

Submitted Question: Kind of a silly question, but do you know how to make a tool to loosen wing nuts on foot stretchers? Wrenches just aren't cutting it.

Sorry, I'm afraid I don't. During my four years at Harvard, I was spoiled by the best boatman in the business, the inimitable Everett Abbott. He had a ready supply of wing nut tools prior to my joining the program, and thus I never learned how to make them myself. Perhaps Mr. Abbott could be induced to make a guest appearance...

RW Note: Get hold of a piece of thin steel tubing 0.5" in diameter; get a metal cutting saw; make a 1" cut in one end as if you were trying to dissect the tubing along its length; affix the other end in a small piece of wood - the handle. Your final instrument should look like a "T" and work tolerably well depending on the quality of your steel... and the age of your stretchers.

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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