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)

Submitted Question: How easy is it to learn the game of racing as a coxswain? I have done very little side-by-side racing at high level, and I was wondering if there were some basic rules/guidelines that might help the chances of a crew. I regularly race in practice sessions along a non-straight course. Cheers.

Thanks for dropping by. Unfortunately, experience is the most important factor in side-by-side racing. The competition is so intense that your calls, etc. need to be instinctive. That being said, there are a couple of rules that should help:

1. Stay cool. You're going to be as pumped up as your crew, and your instinct will be to throw a screaming fit. Don't go there. It's ok and even helpful to be excited. But your crew wants to know that you're in control and collected. So, get all riled up , but don't forget your job. In short, think through the pain.

2. By the same token, your body will by tense with the fury of combat. If you're not careful, you'll start oversteering. On a straight course, find a point way off the horizon and stick to it. The less you touch your rudder, the better off you'll be. Keeping the boat straight through a loose touch will help you focus on the task at hand.

3. If you're side by side and you get any kind of seat on the boat, DO NOT SIT. Once you've begun your attack, it should be relentless. If you sit on the six-seat for twenty strokes, your boat will ebb and the enemy will be revitalized. Call a ten for leg drive, then call a ten for strong finishes, then call a ten for your ancestors...whatever. Just press the attack once it starts - in a straight race, there's no need to wait for a turn or bump in the course.

4. The farther away you are from a boat, the less distances seem to mean. This is a judgement call on your part, but if your boat is four seats down and the other crew is favored, you'll want to hug the far side of your lane. Conversely, if you think you can move through them fast, crowd them. Being one seat up means a heck of a lot more psychologically if you're 3 feet away then if you're 10 feet away. That being said, DON'T STEER INTO THEM, or you've pretty much screwed the pooch.

5. See if you can get your coach to run some side-by-side pieces. Any practice you can get beforehand will help you in the arena. I must reiterate - the biggest factor is not losing your cool. Don't get swept up in the moment. Hope this helps.

Submitted Question: - Anonymous I tend to be a Pattonesque coxswain at heart, quite competitive and serious. Last year, I coxed a women's eight at the high school level -- one that doesn't take well to that intensity level. It probably didn't help that they were the novice boat, and got switched around quite a bit -- never really getting a chance to come together until very late into the season. This year, I would like to be able to do more for my boat in motivation. I've even asked them what they would like. The answers range from "beat us with a riding whip" to "say only nice positive things". I know that an eight is the court of opinion, but these people can't get a consensus. What should I do?

I would say, forget what the rowers would like -- find out what works. (I would surmise that saying "only nice positive things" will help in the short term but close out too many options if the boat starts to row badly day in day out.). You've got tons of time to practice your myriad temperaments on your crew, so see which personas translate into speed. Different vibes move different crews, so don't be afraid to experiment.

That being said, certain calls do need to be tested "in the court of public opinion" -- namely, starts, lifts, and settles. In these three cases, you want all five or nine people in the boat on the same page. Tell the boat how you're going to call these situations beforehand, evaluate the success of the boat in practice, and then ask the rowers how they thought it worked later on the dock. Any sort of confusion about the start, lift, or settle will kill momentum and aggravate the oarswomen. In these cases, it's best to experiment until you find calls that everyone understands and responds to.

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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