Referee Tips

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Solving the Challenge of Floating Alignments

by John White | May 01, 2008
Aligning crews at the starting line without benefit of stake boats or a launch platform is always difficult, especially when wind, current or tides are in play.

Aligning crews at the starting line without benefit of stake boats or a launch platform is always difficult, especially when wind, current or tides are in play. It is an assignment that is only mastered by experience on the water and not something that can be conveyed adequately on paper. Although the process is never easy, I have developed a few tactics that have made it easier to get quick alignment. And that is the key factor – getting alignment quickly.

If you wait for something to happen on its own, it either won’t happen or, by the time it does, other shells will have gotten out of line. Then, you find you have to take corrective action again, and as you wait, more corrections are needed, and you get the picture – you end up chasing your tail.

To help referees gain a feel for this process, here are a few tips:

1. Think about all the shells at the same time. That’s not difficult for three boats, four is a challenge, five tests how fast you can think and talk, and six or seven is worse than herding cats. Give directions to one shell, and before waiting for the reaction, give direction to the next one needing to get in line, and the next, and the next, back to the first if necessary, and keep repeating. When several shells are moving at the same time, look for and anticipate that equilibrium when “all boats hold water” brings alignment for a short period.

Then, immediately raise the white flag and execute a QUICK START (alignment WILL go awry if you try a polling start.) Timing is key; you should be getting your white flag in the air just before saying “hold water.” Of course, the above assumes the shells are pointed for a safe start, but that is not the aligner’s job nor should it be your focus. It is the starter’s responsibility to achieve safe points. Some referees prefer to declare, “We have alignment” when raising the white flag, but following the less-is-more rule, that announcement is usually unnecessary.

2. Give direction to specific rowers that request specific actions. Address the crews by school or team name. Again, that’s not easy, but the response will be more positive than using lane numbers. Crews always know who they are, but they don’t always remember what lane they are in. I try to memorize all crews in the race. If I use all the names in sequence and address each crew initially, my name recall is better when I look back at a crew. Using your megaphone, announce the crew name and address the coxswain to set in motion the bow pair or bow four. Specify, the number of strokes you want them to take, and the force to use – “light stroke,” “one full stroke,” “two easy strokes,” “three strong strokes,” “one short stroke,” “two more strokes, more pressure,” “another stroke, less pressure” – are the directions that work best. The key is to give commands that the rowers understand. (“Up three feet” or “move out six inches” or “forward a tad” mean nothing to a crew sitting ready for a race.

Not all crews row the same, of course. Men generally have less finesse that the women – “bow four, two full strokes” to a women’s novice eight may net you less movement than “bow pair, one short stroke” to a men’s varsity four. Fours are usually very responsive and less direction is usually preferable. The most difficult shells to align, I find, are the men’s fours because they always seem to over-correct.

3. Adjust your approach as you watch the momentum of each shell. If you can see that a boat’s movement appears to be such that it will stop short, address that crew before it stops and ask for another stroke or two. As we all know from inertia lessons in high school physics, a body in motion tends to stay in motion (and is easier to keep in motion), and one stopped requires more force to get moving. The opposite also applies: if you see a shell is going to over-correct, stop it short so that it coasts into the right spot.

4. Align to the majority of shells. For me, picking one and bringing all the others to it has not worked well (and I emphasize the “for me”), and keeping all the shells moving a bit helps the crews aim down the course. Points are lost while shells are at rest, and keeping shells moving helps keep them pointed in the right direction. And, except in unusual circumstances, always align by moving the boats forward – when a shell is directed to “back it up,” the process stops and everyone loses "the edge" waiting. Again, it is imperative to achieve alignment as rapidly as possible.

5. Tell your launch driver to try to stay abreast the bow seats or the splash guards. That usually puts you pretty close in line with the bow balls. Try to keep the launch bow pointed straight down the course. That gives a rough perpendicular across the course on which to align. Begin giving instructions to crews about 50 to 100 meters in advance of the start line, depending on weather and other conditions. That will usually give you time and distance to have a relatively close alignment.

Finally, one other tip to help with specifying crew names: I often write the crew names on the bell of my megaphone in dry ink so that they are in my line of sight when I have the megaphone up to my mouth. Water-soluble pens also work too. However, they require a damp rag or tissue to erase and are useless in the rain. So-called grease or wax pencils, also known as china markers, also can work.

Without a doubt, a floating alignment is a challenge, however, an excellent, close alignment is very achievable. Be patient…practice on the water will give you the skills to master the art.


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