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Magic Calls - "Cry 'Havoc,' and Let Slip the Dogs of War!"
posted on July 15, 2002

The search for the magic, inspiring phrase has occupied the waking moments of coxswains as long as there have been coxswains. (If you find it, email it to me triple-encrypted -- and don't share it with anybody else.) Different boats respond to different things, delivered at different intensities. By race day, you'll have a good idea from practice pieces what gets the boat moving and what doesn't. Your rowers will already be more eager than the noblest phrase from Shakespeare could make them anyway; your job as coxswain is to avoid saying or doing anything to distract, make nervous, or dampen their spirits. Some coxswains scream really terrible things at their rowers, on the theory that they will pull harder when mad. Negacoxing seldom works, however, and remember: they're bigger than you are, and you will have to return to the dock sometime…

Tune yourself to your boat. The excitement will creep into your voice; tone and enthusiasm have as much effect as content, and you'll develop your own phrases. (Thus evolved the "Cry-havoc-and-let-slip-the-dogs-of-war" riff for the Head of the Charles.)

A group of junior coxswains at my high school once got hold of the videotape of a varsity 8+ race by one of our best-ever coxswains in which the V1 upset one of the top crews in the nation. He had also coxed at Henley. We thought "now we'll learn all his secrets and incredible calls." Ian, the JV 4+ coxswain, did something technical and clever to the audio track to raise the coxswain's calls above the launch motor noise, and we spooled it up for what we expected would be verbal fireworks and dazzling revelations.

The soundtrack was surprisingly prosaic and low-key: "That's good... We're doing fine...Open up some water...500 to go...that's right; that's getting it done."

The tape finished, and we looked at each other, thinking, "There has to be more to it." We had gone to a LOT of trouble to obtain that soundtrack. "That's all?" Ian kept repeating -- his mouth opening and closing with the same surprised popping noises that a water bottle makes when a boat trailer backs over it - "You mean that's it?"

"Little bastard held out on us."

"Play the tape again backwards; maybe there's a hidden message."

Gradually - full comprehension took months - it dawned on us that the key was not in what he said, but in his total, confident calm, and in the firm, definite way he said it.

Seize on every positive thing to talk about. For example, when your boat hits a particularly solid catch, "Yeah! nice catch, just like that, took half a seat on that one. Five more, just like that. Focus, getting stronger every stroke. Yeah! Heat on the blade; I could feel that one. Got 6's knees now. Keep that length; you're getting the job done. Nice!"

Interspersing that kind of 'uptalk' among the technical calls fills in pieces very well. Your rowers can either tune in to it if it helps them, or tune into their personal zone if they prefer, so it suits both psychological types. Give your rowers lots of info on where they are in relation to the other boat(s), whether they have they just taken (or lost) a seat, whether either boat is moving on the other. Let your rowers know at least every 250 where they are on the course. If you're boat is falling behind, it's tougher, but sometimes things like "we can still catch them, but we're running out of racecourse" can keep the tone positive and encouraging. When it's close, "We're bowball-to-bowball with them, THREE good strokes can win it for us!" pulls up the adrenaline.

There are certain reminder calls, especially towards the end of the race when your rowers are in the haze which comes from oxygen debt -- legs, sitting up, catch timing, breathing, etc. Keep your calls especially clear and simple in the sprint.

In a brilliant piece of reverse psychology, US National men's 8+ coxswain Pete Cipollone* inspired his crew at the World Championships by alluding to a newspaper quote by an opposing coach. The German coach had allowed himself to be quoted saying "the Americans row well, but they have no speed." In the third 500, instead of calling a power ten move, Cipollone simply said "On this one, the Americans have no f****** speed." The US rowers knew exactly what he was referring to, and they surged ahead to win.

Vocabulary changes aside, the rhythms of coxswains' patter have remained remarkably similar from the 19th Century into the 21st. For historical interest, here is an 1820s whaleboat coxswain encouraging his crew**: "Line your oars boys, and pull ahead - pull ahead I tell ye - long and strong, head boat - lay back, I tell ye (fiercely) - why don't ye spring - don't let that boat pass ye (despondingly) - spring, I tell ye. There they be, round and round with them, pull ahead (entreatingly). Now then, back to the thwarts; give her the touch; I feel ye (encouragingly) - everything - everything I've got I'll give ye - (boisterously) I'll give you all my tobacco, all my clothes, a double shot of grog; everything I've got in my chest. One minute more! Half a minute - O boys, if you want to see your sweethearts; if you want to see Nantucket (with emotion), pull ahead, spring [obscenity] - I tell you we gain her fast - (whispers) we are in her wake. SPRING!"

Some calls which have worked well (not my own; these are from other coxswains).
  • "Alright, we're at the 750; we've got a half length lead on __________; let's build on it."
  • "I've got their seven; give me their six."
  • "Break it open and let's fly!"
  • "No limits!"
  • "You're in control of this race now."
  • "No passengers!"
  • "No one is going to take this away from us!"


* Transcripts and audio of two master coxswains, Seth Bauer and Pete Cipollone, coxing their respective boats at the Head of the Charles can be read/heard at: (http://www.row2k.com/stories/sethpete.shtml)

** slightly edited from two accounts: Chase, Washington A Voyage from the United States to South America Performed During the Years 1821, 1822, and 1823 and Comstock, William, Voyage to the Pacific



row2k author
Rob Colburn
Rob Colburn coxed for St. Andrew's School and for Columbia University, and currently coxes for the masters rowing program at Carnegie Lake Rowing Association. He is still 3 lbs. under his college coxing weight.
Send Rob Email! Also, check out his new novel The Sultan's Helmsman

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