An Ode to Coxswains

When I first learned about rowing, I wanted to be a coxswain. I wasn’t athletically inclined, and the idea of contributing to a sport but not doing anything physical sounded awesome to me. Where do I sign?!

Ha. I didn’t know the half of it. But now you will.

Like every position in a boat, the coxswain is crucial to success. (You’ve seen those office “teamwork” rowing posters? Corny, but true.) The basic role of a coxswain is to steer the boat. They are the eyes looking forward as you row backward. They will get you from the boathouse to the dock, onto the water and back, in one piece.

However, the job doesn’t stop there. A coxswain is your coach in the boat. Your coach is usually in a coaching launch (boat), or maybe even on shore, but definitely not rowing with you. Your coxswain will run your practice, telling you when to stop, start, and who’s rowing when. During a race, their role is even more crucial. Coaches can't have any contact with their rowers during a race, so the coxswain keeps you calm, executes the race plan, makes strategic changes on the fly, and steers you down the course. No small task.

To be successful, coxswains must lead. Plain and simple. The best are confident, committed, positive when needed, critical when they have to be, creative, inspiring, and humble. If they spend enough time with the rowers on their team, they know exactly what to say to each rower to inspire them to do better. They work to earn the respect of their team—just like everyone else in the boat.

What quickly washed me out of the coxswain corps was the physiological factor—coxswains shouldn’t weigh very much (at 5’8”, 150lbs, I couldn't very well lose 40lbs.). As a rower, you want to pull the lightest body possible down the river or across the lake. So coxswains tend to be small…but mighty.

My favorite “celebrity” coxswain is Mary Whipple. She was the coxswain for the U.S. Women’s 8+, leading them to Olympic gold medals in London and Beijing and to gold in five world championships. Have a listen to her coxing at the finals of the 2003 Rowing World Championships. Her crew is sitting on the line to compete in the FINAL OF THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS (!!!), and she sounds as calm as someone ordering a latte at Starbucks. Love it!

Next post, we’ll talk about Oxford vs. Cambridge...a.k.a. the Dark Blues vs. the Light Blues...a.k.a. The Boat Race. One of the most wonderful rowing events of the year.


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