When the Stampfli Express 24x stopped at the Head of the Hooch to takes its first-ever run down a head race course, the crew organizers and rowers were starting to gather when the coxswain who was scheduled to steer the boat down the course did not respond to announcements calling them to the staging area. Since a 24-person sculling boat isn't really a good candidate for steering with a toe, to say the least, and no volunteers were forthcoming to pilot the octuple bookended by two quads, resulting in a 144-foot long, 1000 lb. hull.
"Well, the best coxswain anywhere near here is out on the water, officiating," one regatta organizer said.
That coxswain was Tim Edsell; Edsell has coxed extensively at the college, club, masters, and elite levels, including the 2009 World Championship in Poznan Poland, and is also the developer and owner of coxnschool.com, the online e-learning coxswain education program. Edsell was at the other end of the racecourse, marshalling crews, but they gave him a call anyway. His marshalling boat slowly threaded their way to the launching area without waking out the racing, and Edsell was on. row2k talked to him last month about his experience racing the world's longest rowing boat.
row2k: You were given the call to cox the Stampfli 24 on very short notice; how did this come about? Edsell: I was a marshal along the course and received a phone call from the Chief Referee Tom Zakshevsky. Apparently, the scheduled cox did not respond to announcements for them to go to the staging area. The Hooch LOC were scrambling to find someone they could trust to get the Express down the course and my name was suggested.
row2k: What were you thinking about or trying to anticipate in the time between getting the call and getting in the boat? Edsell: I had about 45 minutes to get my head in race/coxing mode. I was "high" on the thrill of getting to cox that boat. But I wasn't dressed to race, and I was worried about becoming hypothermic as the weather was pretty cool and rainy - a huge shout out to Kirk Beckman and Boathouse Sports for saving me!
Then, I had to wrap my mind around using calls like "bow 12, row" or "stern 8, row". Calls like that which use numbers that I had never made before.
Another thing was speed. I was anticipating a very fast trip. I was excited to feel the power of 24 scullers as I have not coxed an octuple.
The length of the boat was another concern as I had never been in any boat that was 144 feet long. Trying to visualize coxing a boat that is nearly 50 yards long and 48 oars is tough. Steering was another issue as I was unsure how well the boat would respond.
row2k: What instructions were you given? Edsell: I met with Melch (Bürgin) and Dave Gabel. Melch explained that the boat steers well - he was correct - and that I shouldn't have much trouble with course. Turning the boat around was a different issue, as it takes quite some time to spin it. He gave me some suggestions, but once we launched, I realized that with the current being as strong as it was, I would have to improvise.
How did you handle getting the boat on the water? Edsell: First, I introduced myself to the rowers, gave them a brief bio to ease their minds and let them know how I would be referring to them - "bow 8", "middle 8" and "stern 8". Since the boat was in three sections, we had to get the boat on the dock and assemble it there, on the water, while still launching other boats. We had a very limited time frame to do this as we were racing near the end of the morning session.
The boat weighs about 1000lbs. We recruited a few more spectators to help us lift and carry the boat to the dock. We were able to walk all three sections down and get it assembled. We were off the dock in seven minutes, which was a record and a first!
row2k: What was your very first impression when you did get in the boat? Edsell: Damn, this boat is long. I can't see the bow 8. My heart rate was up and I was nervous as I had to get the boat turned in a relatively short distance to avoid hitting a huge abutment. The last thing I wanted to do was damage it.
row2k: What was different about coxing such a big boat? Edsell: It's not as fast as everyone thinks!!! Having 24 rowers with a wide range of experience who had never rowed together limited the opportunity to have everyone accurately getting the power on at the catch.
There is a much larger "blind" spot. I had to be much more aware of all the other boats during warm-up and not mowing them down and/or creating enough room to maneuver the boat after the race.
And forget about making individual calls like "21, you're skying", "13, going deep", "5, stop rushing", stuff like that; at least, not in this situation.
Ready to launch
row2k: What was the same? Edsell: All the usual things that can go on during a race or practice from equipment issues to crabs!
row2k: What about the logistics of running the boat - turning, turning around, warming up, getting to the line on time, getting the boat on the course, docking - what was that like? Edsell: Turning was a challenge due to the length and weight of the shell, and the current. Initially, I followed Melch's suggestions, but I rapidly realized that I may be able to turn the boat quicker by trying different combinations of rowers. Every turn I did was an experiment. Turning after the race was the most difficult. We had to turn 180 degrees against a strong current which pushed us a good 500m further downstream by the time we completed the turn. The rowers were spent. I'd like a chance to try that again.
Warming-up was somewhat different, as after launching, we had to maneuver under a bridge, cross the river, turn into the current and pass back under the bridge to go to the start line. I wasn't using all the rowers during this process as I was unsure of our power. Once we were in a safe place and somewhat out of the main travel lane, we did some steady state rowing to get the rowers warmed up. After about a mile or so, I started doing some rating and power series to determine what we were capable of doing.
We were quite early to the staging area so we didn't have any issues with that. Apparently, we were moving much faster (on the way to the start) than what the LOC had been planning. So I let the current push us back about two hundred yards, then I'd use different combinations of rowers to keep them warm. I repeated this process several times while working our way through the staging locations.
Getting on the course had me concerned, as the port side of the chute is very close to shore. There is a very large metal river buoy that marks the beginning of the chute on the starboard side. Instead of taking us straight across and arcing my way into the chute, I pointed 45o upstream at the large tan silos and then turned. What the organizers thought would take 10 minutes, we did in two. That messed up their schedule…haha!
We were ready to go, but the last staging marshal upriver of the chute held us. This created lots of issues. Imagine having to back this boat against the current so that you don't hit the river buoy. Not fun. After a couple minutes of this, I had no choice but to pull into the top of the chute Eventually I explained that we had to move to a safer location in order to avoid hitting the buoy.
Docking was really different as I had no reference or experience with trying to dock such a long boat. The docks at the Hooch are at an awkward angle. Gauging the speed going up current, weaving our way through launching blind boats,; working with other coxswains to give way, when to time the turn, how many rowers to use to make the turn, what technique or combinations to use; etc., were all issues/questions I was having to answer on the fly. Without a doubt, this was more stressful than any other part of the experience. I don't know if we could have done a better job. The crew nailed it!
row2k: This was the first time the shell has raced a head race in the U.S.; how challenging was it to take turns, make calls, and run a race? Edsell: The Hooch is a relatively simple course. There is one large starboard turn that lasts about 2000m. The course is lined with large orange buoys spaced about 200m apart. Prior to entering the turn, I couldn't see the bow 8 until I got into the turn. Once in the turn, with the length of the shell, I could see the bow and began using bow's starboard oar as my guide to gauging distance from those buoys. Looking back, I would adjust that a little, as I could have been about 2 feet closer to the buoys. After the turn, the course veers to port going under a couple of bridges. I probably could have taken a slightly faster line.
row2k: What about coxing technique - with 24 rowers and 48 oars, the amount of variation in technique could be daunting; what was it like from your seat? Edsell: Haha… it looked like a millipede to me! It could have been a lot worse, but under the circumstances - and I've seen a video of us from the bow seat - not too bad!
Since I didn't know my crew mates by name, I kept my calls generic, mostly focusing on slide control and trying to get the 48 oars matching their catches. It was tough for the rowers as there wasn't much we could do to change oarlock heights and other things which would have made it easier for them. The rest of the calls were more informational and "focus 5s" during the body of the race. I used silence a lot so that I could focus on my course.
When we came into view of the spectators on the bridges, I shifted to motivational calls and tried to bump the rating to do a sprint with about 500m to go. I would have gone insane if I were to call out every flaw.
Edsell at the helm
I probably was leaning out of the boat more than I should have during the turn. I was trying to stay as close to the buoys as possible. To see where the bow was and judging the distance between the oars and the buoys forced me to lean more than usual. Fortunately, I didn't affect the balance due to the overall weight of crew and shell. Surprisingly, the boat set was a dream!
row2k: How did the race go? Edsell: Looking back, pretty well. I had a blast, as I hadn't coxed a head race in 4 years. There are a few things that I could have done differently, but not much. I'd love to do it again with 24 equally talented scullers.
row2k: After coxing the boat for a full race, what were your impressions? Edsell: Can I do it again? (laughs) I want to thank the Hooch LOC and Tom for giving me this opportunity. We had a few firsts: first time to have all three sections overhead and taken to the dock as one unit, fastest assembly time on the dock, first time that Melch has watched the boat cross a finish line, as he usually coxes the boat, and the first time the boat had raced for time in a U.S. head race.
As a cox, it was easy to steer and the enlarged rudder worked very well - maybe not as tight as a high-priced racing shell, but pretty close - for a 20-something year old boat. Any cox who has raced in the finals of a major youth or collegiate 8 championship can cox it.