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Coxswains Can Fly
by Lauren Mayne, Mount Holyoke College
posted on May 23, 2005

This is not the story of a first practice, or a novice race, or a monster crab. No. This is the tale of a first varsity eight and the day our coxswain learned to fly. The practice started out like hundreds before it; a boat meeting, a cheer, hands on, and quick on the dock. It is early spring and after two days of rain the Connecticut river is moving so quickly crews must have four rowers at half pressure simply to prevent moving backwards when facing up river. There are logs ranging in size from baseball bats to support beams for log cabins speeding down river, but this boat wasn't the least bit concerned. Our coxswain, V, is as close to perfection as one can come. This is her area of expertise; she has been coxing for seven years, first boat for three of them. She knows the river, hunts out even the best-hidden logs and steers us with complete confidence upriver. As stroke, I can see her eyes darting port and starboard during the entire warm-up, searching out logs, plotting her course, being our wonderful coxswain.

Today we are working on starts and ratings, rowing pressure pieces with a start, middle move, and sprint. We row two pieces heading up, with lower ratings due to the strong current.

The first of these two starts well, the power is on and we are at a comfortable 34 spm. V is calling for us to make our middle move "in two" she says…then that thud, that blood curdling, heart stoppping thud that no rower and certainly no cox ever wants to hear. We've been hit. I begin peering over V's shoulder trying to see the perpetrator, estimate the size of the horrible log and the damage it could have done to our precious boat. I'm looking, I'm looking, and nothing is surfacing, nothing. And then I see it, a four inch high twig sticking straight out of the water...that is all there is to see.

We will never know the true size of that log, we could not make it reveal itself. It simply struck us and continued on its way seeking more boats to hit, coxswains to scare, and more skegs to steal. Yes, I can feel it, I can see it in V's eyes: something is horribly wrong and she has absolutely no control. Suddenly we realize that we are swerving to starboard. "Ports, half pressure. Starboards pick it up!" We swerve back to port, "Even pressure, go, this is your last 300m of the race!" We swerve to port. "Ports ¾ pressure, starboards bring it around." We swerve to starboard. "Even pressure, full pressure." And so it continued for the rest of that piece and for the entire second piece upriver. As we spun the boat and prepared to continue our row heading down river, V and I looked around and then at each other, we both figured the situation couldn't get much worse. We were wrong.

Our coach pulls up beside us in the launch and passes the launch's paddle to V, instructing her to try and use it as a rudder. HA! So now we are supposed to row full pressure down river, with a strong current, at a 35, without a skeg, and use a launch's paddle (essentially a spatula on a 3 foot long broom stick) to navigate down the course and avoid all debris. But we are the first varsity boat. WE can do anything. We take the cards we are given and win with them. So, we begin.

V calls a start and a high 15, on the eighth stroke: "Ports up the pressure". Three strokes later: "Starboards watch out for the tire, starboards pressure". "Ports watch out for the log! Starboards weigh enough! Ahhha! Weigh enough!!!" All eight oars slap on the surface of the water as the eight rowers in the boat collapse over their oar handles, tears of laughter mixing with the sweat dripping into their eyes and V simply sits helpless in her seat clutching her paddle wanting to cry from laughter and frustration. We float past the tire and the 20 foot long log and take it up again.

Now V's determined, she will use this paddle to the best of her abilities and we will complete this power piece no matter how ugly we look doing it. We bring it up to full pressure and then start to veer to starboard. V tucks the paddle handle under her arm using the gunwale and her entire body weight to wedge it into place, braces herself for impact and then places the blade in the water. A spray, no not a spray a small wave, of water appears at our stern port side and the boat is actually heading straight for a moment. V is so concentrated with steering that she has absolutely no conception of where her paddle handle is until she sees me dive to port to avoid being clocked in the temple. V then removes the three foot long paddle from the water and rests it on the gunwale of the boat with about 2 feet of the handle hanging over the starboard side and the paddle blade itself hanging over the port side.

We begin to veer to starboard again, only now there is a bend in the river. V checks on port side with her paddle but it is not enough. "Ports, half pressure. Starboards put the pressure on! Even pressure. Ports half pressure. Even pressure. Start on the fly in two. One, two, ½, ½, ¾, ¾, full, lengthen." And that was the last call in the piece I remember. All I could see was my coxswain bracing herself against the boat and using all her coxswain might to check on portside; gripping the paddle handle to her side as a witch would a fast moving broom. That was IT…the final blow. The tears of laughter camee streaming back as I stared at my cox; her face contorted from physical exertion, calling for increased pressure over the microphone, and about to take off on her next scheduled flight on the broom handle coach had provided. Before I know it the piece was over and I was allowed to collapse into seven seat's lap, hyperventilating and coughing and crying from laughter. That was the day I saw my coxswain fly.