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The Most Important Stroke of the Race – Calling the Settle
by Rob Colburn
posted on April 9, 2003

Some years ago -- very tentatively -- I went out on what I thought was a limb and affirmed that the first stroke of the settle was probably the most important stroke of the race. "Not 'probably' a national team rower later firmly corrected, 'IS.'" As crucial as the first strokes of the start and your first high twenty are, and as vital as the sprint is, the first stroke of the settle sets up the entire body of the race. Handled well, the transition can gain your boat a seat or two and put your boat in control of the race.

For coxswains, the art of calling the settle (or "lengthen" if you prefer) is well worth studying. Most of us begin our careers hating to call the settle - we'd rather cut our own tongues out at the roots than say anything which might slow the boat down. Coming off the start and high twenty, the boat is up to speed and flying like a rocket; now we have to say the S-word and kill all of that great momentum? The turbines are running fine -- you think to yourself -- howcome we can't just blast our way to the finish line just like this? Other boats (mere mortals) may need to settle, but surely not we? Beware that temptation. It will lead to bad things at the 1000m mark. It may also lead to buckets of fresh coxswain blood all over the boathouse floor after the race.

There is another way of looking at the settle. It need not be a deceleration at all. Properly handled, the transition provides further acceleration. Rethink it in terms of an addition to the stroke, rather than a subtraction. Your rowers are not so much slowing down their stroke as completing it by adding body swing, thus increasing length and hull run. The initial high twenty is often rowed somewhat vertically, for some crews almost as if it were legs-arms only, but in any case a bit shorter than base cadence. At the lengthen stroke, your rowers add the full swing. The boat should stabilize, and seem to glide away underneath you. The key is to have massive, unified leg drive on the first stroke of the settle, so that even as the rating is shifting down, the power is lifting the boat, and the hull feels as if it is on rails.

If the word "settle" seems to take the boat's energy level down, try more upbeat synonyms such as "lengthen," "shift," or "stabilize." You want the settle to be something your rowers to rise into, rather than sink down to.

As coxswain, calling the shift well is a key part of your race repertoire. First, it must be smooth, with everyone together, and that means calling it according to a clear sequence which everyone expects, without variation. Your call must be strong. A shift which is not together will not feel like a stabilization. During practices, while your boat practices starts/settles, develop a sequence of clear calls which your boat responds well to. Consult your Stroke particularly on this. If you are in a stern-loader, the two of you should be having a lot of eye contact at this part of the race. Once you've settled on a sequence which the whole boat is comfortable with, stick to it. This is one case where predictability is not boring. For example, you might call your high twenty (from the 8 of eighteenth stroke): "…8, lengthen in 2; breathe! 1, leg drive!, 2, SHIFT ON THIS ONE."

Your call must be determined, firm, a wave of rising energy which suits the transition. This is a good time to let your rowers know where the other boats are in the race, as well as to make a series of technique calls to help the boat find and keep its groove for the body. You probably already did this during the high twenty, but it is good to do it again.

The feel of the shift is more important than the actual numbers. As long as it has been clean and assertive, do not worry too much about whether the initial shift-to-base has hit the exact base stroke rating of your boat's race plan. Race conditions may vary, and you can fine tune the rating with a further shift as necessary. As long as you and your Stroke are reading off each other, you can make shifting cadence a tactic to exploit.