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)

Steering...the bane of my coxing existence. Asking me for steering help is akin to the extraordinarily near-sighted leading the blind. Nevertheless, these brave souls queried on...

Submitted Question - John Kimble: Do you have any tips for steering in a wide lake where there's not much on the horizon in the way of useful points (e.g. Quinsigamond)?

Obviously, steering then gets a little tougher. If you're on a course like Quinsigamond with endless buoys, aim at the point where the buoys converge. Otherwise, a good idea is to mark off the center of your steering rope with a piece of tape that aligns with another piece of tape placed at the top center of your coxbox. Thus, if you can't see anything on the horizon, you can navigate by coxbox.

A problem I often had in an empty horizon course was veering gradually towards whatever boat I was watching. The tape mechanism should prevent that, if you're alert. Once again, the less you touch the mechanism, the better.

Submitted Question: - Anonymous I had a very poor season last spring personally, and this semester, I'm looking forward to steer the men's 8. I was away last semester... Needless to say, I got great experience, but being back, I want to erase the bad image I had, or may still have, as an inconsistent coxswain. I feel more experienced now, but I really want to improve on my steering skills. If you have any advise on that subject, I'd be very grateful.

If I'm reading your question right, you've got two questions: remaking your image or steering. The former is a tough one, which I addressed in an earlier column. Check it out!

As for steering, I posted some remarks about that ever-important subject earlier, including steering against the horizon, keeping parallel to a side-by-side opponent, and creating your own navigational instrument with tape. Some other points to consider, however:

  • Steer for the long-term. Your movement to a point should be gradual, not choppy. Short-term (a.k.a. "Nordictrack") steering will annoy your teammates and kill your boat speed.

  • When going around any kind of turn, novice coxswains will usually try to point their bow into the curve. Wrong. Instead, visualize swinging out the stern - the stern of the boat turns much much slower than the bow. (If you don't believe me, go get the Titanic DVD.)

  • When you're hard on the rudder, tell your rowers. Similarly, tell the crew when you've completed the turn. Also, don't be afraid to use unequal pressure ("Hard on Port, Easy on Starboard") for a few strokes to manage a sharp curve. Just remember to call "Even Pressure" once you're through.

  • Less is more. Instead of using both hands to steer, use one. After some practice, grip the side of the boat with the fingers of your steering hand and use solely your thumb and forefinger to move the rudder. If possible, keep your hand off the rudder completely, particularly in racing situations when your adrenaline-charged fingers will want to oversteer.

    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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