Ask anyone what a coxswain is and the response, if not “a what?,” will be something along the lines of “stroke, stroke, stroke!” The purpose of the coxswain on a rowing team is not well-known but, unlike the individuals themselves, is quite colossal. Many tight races come down to the ability of the coxswain, and they often separate the best crews from each other.
Settled in a tiny seat in the back of the shell, the coxswain serves as the eyes of a team that never faces the actual direction they are moving. Steering and monitoring the opponents are two of the basic tasks designated to the seeing-eye of the crew.
“A coxswain’s main job is to steer and steer straight,” said heavyweight varsity coxswain junior Jimmy Germano, who was recruited to Cornell as the top coxswain in the country. “They are basically like a jockey with a rudder.”
Steering becomes critically important during a race when a wide turn or hitting a buoy can tack extra seconds onto a 2000-meter race.
“It’s really important especially during the race that you’re right on course and that you have the shortest distance possible,” said women’s varsity coxswain sophomore Caitlin Runyan.
And while steering may seem like a skill we all mastered by the tricycle age, the rowers’ varied strengths on either side of the boat can pull it to the right of left with every stroke to make a perfectly straight route nearly impossible.
In addition to steering, the coxswain must ensure the overall safety of the boat, call out race plans, motivate the rowers during races and hard practices, correct technique, help coordinate and run workouts and keep the entire team on the same page. In many ways, the coxswain serves as a mini-coach.
“We are in the boat to communicate between the rowers and the coach on the water,” Runyan said. “When you’re in a race and losing by just a few feet the coxswain has to be able to communicate effectively in a way that gets the boat moving faster.”
“In terms of practice, coxswains are just like an extension of the coach on the water,” Germano said.
Becoming the nation’s best coxswain requires a unique combination of talent, hard work, and an extraordinary understanding of the sport of rowing.
“You really want a coxswain who is confident in themselves,” Runyan said. “Not only do you have to motivate but you have to have knowledge of the actual stroke itself.”
“A good coxswain can follow instructions and has the ability to take what the coach wants to do and put it out on the water,” Germano said. “You have to be a politician of sorts and make everyone happy at the same time.”
The worth of the coxswain is often overlooked because the majority of a boat’s speed depends on the strength and fitness of the rowers and how hard they are pulling. While a coxswain cannot contribute physically to the speed of the boat, certain actions and calls can help determine the tempo of a race.
“A bad coxswain can, without a doubt, slow the boat down and lose a race,” Germano said.
Perhaps the most obvious stipulation for a good coxswain is size. Before every race, the coxswains must weigh in as close to the minimum weight as possible without going over. If a coxswain weighs in at less than 125 pounds for men’s rowing and 110 pounds for women’s rowing, he or she must carry into the boat a sand bag weighing the difference. Since less mass translates into less work for the rowers and therefore faster times and more victories, good coxswains have developed methods of skirting around the weight standard.
“Once, in the past, I weighed myself at three pounds under on the morning of the race,” Germano said. “So I drank about a half a gallon of water, weighed in at 2 hundredths of a pound over and then went and peed it all out.”
So while most people hear the word “coxswain” and think “stroke,” the general notion that a coxswa.in’s sole purpose is to repeat a single word is rather erroneous.
“It is a common misconception that coxswains just sit there and yell ‘stroke, stroke, stroke’,” Germano said. “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever said that, ever. You say the word stroke because that is what you’re doing, you’re taking strokes, that’s what the motion is called. Coxswains will never sit there and say stroke to lay down the rhythm.”
“I’ve never actually said that,” Runyan agreed. “During the race I call out very technical things with a motivational focus.”
From a rower’s standpoint, listening to the little person yell motivational things in the back of the boat for about six minutes of intense pain might be other things in addition to helpful. As revenge, it is a long-standing crew tradition for the rowers to toss the coxswain into the water after winning a big race.
“Basically, the coxswain doesn’t really do anything physically during the race,” Germano said. “So it’s the rowers’ way of getting back at the coxswain for telling eight large men what to do while they are going through a lot of pain. They can celebrate by throwing him in the freezing water after a win. It’s a celebratory act.”
The Red’s coxswains look to spend plenty of time in cold water as the Cornell crews near the championship season.