Tips on Rowing a Safe and Successful Head Race From a USRowing Referee

by Rachel Le Mieux | Sep 30, 2015
Welcome to the fall head racing season. The purpose of this article is to provide coxswains and crews with some insights on what referees look for during a head race to ensure that fair racing is conducted and that the fastest crew on that particular day is crowned the winner.
headracingWelcome to the fall head racing season. The purpose of this article is to provide coxswains and crews with some insights on what referees look for during a head race to ensure that fair racing is conducted and that the fastest crew on that particular day is crowned the winner.

But, let me start this feature with some of my favorite head racing quotes:

“Overtaking crews have the right of way.” . . . “This stretch of the river may by narrower and twistier than you are used to.” . . . “Good steering is essential!” . . . “Hopefully you have explored the course map before you launch.” . . . “The boat being overtaken must yield.” . . . “Failure to yield to the passer is one of the most serious infractions of competitive conduct.” . . . “Why the @$?! don’t you get out of our way – don’t you know who we are?” . . .  “If you don’t move over now, I am taking out your stroke.”
I have been a competitive coxswain since 1979 and this is my favorite time of the year. This is the time that our crews get to show their toughness, discipline, strength and speed over 6,000 or so meters of turns, bridges, narrows and river currents. It’s also the time that coxswains get to have some fun and influence the outcome of the race.

A coxswain who can think his or her way through the entire race, as well as return the boat, oars and rowers safely back to the boathouse in one piece, is worth their weight in gold. But, a coxswain who does not understand the intricacies of a head race, such as when to slow down to avoid a collision, or when to stop to avoid serious injury to the rowers or other competitors, can be the cause of serious time penalties or even disqualification.

During a 2,000-meter sprint race, referees follow the race in progress with the purpose of ensuring that a safe and fair race is conducted. If a crew strays from its lane or faces some other obstacle on the course, the referee is right there to provide guidance to avoid any unsafe situations, including stopping a crew if necessary.  

In a head race, however, referees generally do not follow the races. Instead, referees are positioned at various observation points throughout the race course. These observation positions may be on land or in a launch. In either event, the referee’s primary jobs are the fair administration of the race through observation and the assessment of penalties to crews who violate the rules. Safety of the competitors tends to be in the hands of the competitors.

What I mean by this is only the sculler or the coxswain can make the judgment to avoid a collision. Most of the time there is no referee or race official close enough to the situation to provide instructions to the crews. However, there are referees close enough to assess penalties and disqualify unsportsmanlike crews.

Every head race course is different. Some are more challenging than others. Because of the variability in race courses, there really is no standard set of rules governing the conduct of head races – EXCEPT THAT SAFETY IS ALWAYS PARAMOUNT!  

Because there is not an all-encompassing set of rules for head races, it is extremely important that all competitors familiarize themselves with the rules for each course on which they race. And, not just the first year you raced there, but each and every time you race there in the future. Rules on conduct of the race frequently change from year to year. When and why penalties will be assessed also can change from year to year.

I cannot tell you how many times a competitor has come to me after a race to protest a penalty with such excuses as “that penalty wasn’t assessed the last time I raced here, or when was the no passing zone implemented – you didn’t have one three years ago.” Referees rarely have sympathy for a competitor who fails to read the rules for that particular day.
Although local rules may vary, in general referees are constantly looking for the following situations (offered in no particular order and not all inclusive):

1. Does the overtaking crew try to inform the slower crew that it is being passed and to what side it is going to be passed?

2. Does the crew being overtaken make an attempt to yield the right of way?

3. Which crew caused the collision (by their action or inaction)?

4. When approaching a no passing zone, where it is clear there is not enough time to pass before entering the zone, does the faster crew slow down until it is through the zone?

5. Does the slower crew try to prevent a crew from passing when there was room before the no passing zone?

6. Does one crew force another crew to row out of bounds to avoid a collision?

7. Is the slower crew steering an “s” course in an attempt to prevent a crew from passing?

8. Was inappropriate or foul language used towards another competitor, race official or referee in any situation while racing?

9. Did a competitor actually use that oar to hit another competitor?

10. Does the overtaking or faster crew pass safely, without clashing oars or forcing the slower crew into the bridge abutment or other obstacle?

As you can see by the situations listed above, the referee is not just looking to protect the faster crews but the slower crews as well. Your crew may be fast, but if it overtakes a crew in a dangerous manner, is unsportsmanlike, causes a crew to go out of bounds, or goes out of bounds itself to pass, the potential penalties are likely to cause your crew to be several places down in the finish order.

It is never satisfying to see a crew with the fastest time end up in last place because of multiple penalties.

Finally, remember that a referee in a head race can only apply a penalty; they cannot restore a crews’ chance to win. So if you are protesting in a head race, the options for a remedy are limited. Remember, head racing is fun! The rules for the race adopted by each race committee are written to ensure a safe race for all crews. Before launching on race day, it is imperative that each crew understand the course and the rules for the conduct of the race over the length of the course.

SAFETY IS ALWAYS PARAMOUNT. So please, while passing or being passed, be safe and be courteous.

Rachel Le Mieux – Referee, Northwest Region, USRowing Safety Committee.
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