Coxing Your First Head Race -- What now?

by Jenn Josef | Oct 03, 2008
So you’ve made it through sprint season and managed to keep your boat in its lane for 1,000 meters. (Steering a straight course isn’t as easy as it looks huh?!)

So you’ve made it through sprint season and managed to keep your boat in its lane for 1,000 meters. (Steering a straight course isn’t as easy as it looks huh?!) Now it’s time to get through the twists and turns of three miles of unknown river. At first, head races can be intimidating. But with practice and know-how, you’ll be handling the trickiest of courses with confidence, saying: “Head of the Charles hear I come!”

Here’s my Top 5 list of things for coxswains to remember at head races.

1. Use the course map. Study the map closely before the race to familiarize yourself with the course. Look for places where the river might get shallow, for bridge arches to pass through and locations of buoys and landmarks. Even if you think you know the course, be sure to take the course map with you during the race (stick it in a Ziploc bag) so you can refer to it if you have questions before the start or during the race. It’s better to carry the map and not need it than to steer your boat into an unknown or dangerous area because you were uncertain about the course.

2. Use your pre-race time wisely. Start by warming up before you get on the water. You can’t always count on having space on the water for an adequate warm-up, so having your rowers warm up as much as possible before putting hands-on is a smart tactic. Once on the water and heading for the start, crowding and other safety issues may make it necessary to row at no pressure or with fewer than all eight rowers. Don’t worry about getting in a lot of full-pressure work; use this time to focus your crew on rhythm and swing. This is also a great chance to let your rowers look around, so they are less tempted to be distracted during the race.

3. Look behind you. Always keep an eye out behind. Glance behind on BOTH sides at least every 20-30 seconds to see who might be coming up from behind. Work with your stroke by having her warn you when she sees a crew approaching. When a crew is nearing your boat, look back more frequently so you’re ready to yield to them in a safe manner. Remember inexperienced coxswains often have a deer in headlights response to crews coming up from behind. Have patience -- often they’ve only been doing this for a few weeks.

4. Slow down if you have to. I like to say that it’s faster to slow down to avoid a collision than it is to ram a crew. Generally, it’s better to ease back on the pressure to avoid a collision or to move into a better position than it is to push through. Getting your crew safely down the river is always the coxswain’s number one job – and that means not ramming another crew or a bridge. In the heat of the moment during a race, this can be easy to forget.

5. Look ahead to the next turn. To steer the shortest course, you need to plan ahead for what’s coming up. (This is where that course map comes in handy!) As you approach each turn, it’s key to keep in mind where you need to be pointed to give your boat a straight shot into the following turn. Another thing to keep in mind is that hugging course buoys may not be the best strategy. Buoys are there to keep you out of danger or from hitting things; often they are not a good guide for the shortest line.

Fall head races are supposed to be fun. While they can and probably will have stressful moments, you can reduce the stress by following these simple steps: Breathe deep. Don’t panic. Yield to oncoming crews. And always remember that getting down the course safely is your number one goal.

MastersCoaching guest columnist Jenn Josef, former women's varsity coxswain at BU, now coxes regularly for MastersCoaching. Jenn has coxed boats to gold medals at the Head of the Charles and at masters nationals. To learn more about MastersCoaching, go to

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