They call the Head of the Charles " a coxswains race," and while any starboard who's endured the Eliot turn--and pretty much every sculler who can steer the thing backwards, sans mirror--might beg to differ, the twists, turns, and narrow arches on the Charles course put coxswains in the spotlight.
Advice on steering the race used to come the usual way: talk to someone who did it before, and study a well-loved, photocopied map that only had an aerial view. Nowadays there is enough information for coxswains--from on-line videos "row-throughs" to full-blown on-site clinics--that the folks at the tiller might want to look into getting a college credit or two by the end of the weekend . . . if they master the course.
row2k spoke with as many of the most experienced coxswains as we could run into at HOCR 11, to find out how they approach "their" race each year. We asked them five questions to get some insights into the hidden secrets of steering this beast of a race. . . we did not ask them about the famous Weeks turn. Everybody starts there when talking about coxing the Charles, and it's actually pretty simple: swing a little wide before the turn, then shoot through--watch any 18-wheeler take a tight turn and you've got that one.
So, to help the rowing world--which we imagine is deep into their post-HOCR post-mortems by now--here is how these coxswains approach the race, where they feel you can lose time, and where they know you can steer precious seconds off your time. They are champions all, and quite a few took their talents all the way to the World Championships and the Olympics. Here are the master helmsfolks we spoke with, and the crews they drove this year:
Rachel Lemieux, Men's Veteran Eight - Berliner Ruder Club
Kerry Quinn, Alumni Eight - BMA Boat Club
Bob Jaugstetter, Men's Sr-Masters Eight - 1980 RC
Vicky Curry, (sat this one out) - New York AC
Steve Segaloff, Men's Masters Eight - Penn AC
Stew Stokes, Men's Masters Eight - The Old Lights
Holly Hatton, Men's Sr-Masters Eight - Etats Unis RC
Dick Grossman, Men's Sr-Masters Eight - Team Attager*
Marcus McElhenny, Men's Champ Eight - USRowing
Cristina Caligiuri, Alumnae Eight - Friends of Brown's Women's Crew*
* = HOCR 2011 winner, and "Head of the Charles"
row2k: Lots of folks ask about the Weeks turn, but what is the second trickiest turn on the course?
Curry: Anderson--I find that Anderson is actually more important to the value of the race than Weeks.
McElhenny: The Anderson turn--people just don't expect it or anticipate it. The way the abutments are set up [makes it] almost counter-intuitive--the way you need to stay out--and no one prepares for it.
Quinn: Weeks is the second trickiest
Caligiuri: I think Weeks bridge is the second trickiest--Anderson is trickier.
Hatton: Maintaining a good course around the [Eliot] turn, because it is so long. It's a long sustained turn and then all of a sudden, boom, you have to really hit it get into the bridge properly.
Lemieux: Cambridge. It's a longer turn [to Eliot], its almost at the end of the race and folks hit it a little tired. There is the warm up lane, and those folks often cross into the neutral zone, and their oars can come into the racing lane--so if you are trying to keep your race line, you will often collide with crews who are warming up.
Segaloff: Eliot Street.
Grossman: After Eliot. In terms of what I see as mistakes. I think a lot of people will come through the [Eliot] Bridge and go too wide--they try to be tight on this near abutment, when they should be cutting crosswise through the bridge.
Stokes: The last turn, after Eliot: just watching how many folks don't bother to go over to the [Cambridge] side, so that's probably the most overlooked turn. They do Eliot early well, but then they keep going straight and they forget to go over towards Belmont Hill.
row2k: Where can a coxswain lose the most time on the race course?
Jaugstetter: Behind a slow boat! (laughs) You can lose the most time in that last 3/4 of a mile, that long turn to Eliot.
McElhenny: A lot of people actually lose the most time in the Powerhouse stretch: they go into it solid--"Yeah, Powerhouse stretch!"--and they make a big move, and they don't realize there another 700 meters left and it just becomes a dead zone. The turns can be exciting, you're moving around buoys and there's a lot of energy and adrenalin, but in the Power house stretch again . . . its just not properly addresses: you come out around Riverside, you bang out your fifteen, and then you've got four minutes to the Weeks turn and everyone just sort of sits. That's where I think you see a lot of splits drop.
Lemieux: After Week's footbridge, by heading over to the Radcliffe BH. If you can't make that turn you end up way over in the wrong bay
Caligiuri: I think Weeks Bridge, but you can also lose a lot of time coming out of Eliot Bridge
Grossman: The worst thing that you can do is to be trying to pass somebody on the outside around the big turn…that's the worst thing you can do
Quinn: Taking the outside of the turn before Eliot
Curry: Obviously, around the big turn. Going long around Eliot will kill you.
Hatton: Being passed in the [Eliot] turn, which happened to me [this year]!
Stokes: The outside of Eliot, of course, but not many seem to bother to get the first turn, Magazine beach, under their starboard blades--people come out of that turn and then take it wide, so that is probably a deceptively slowing thing there. I would say either one of those two, but if you get forced to the outside of Eliot, it's over.
row2k: Is there a "sweet spot" on the river, where you can make up time?
Jaugstetter: Yes…it's a secret.
Segaloff: Weeks (laughs).
Lemieux: Powerhouse mile
Caligiuri: Powerhouse stretch is always a sweet spot, and also the turn before Eliot can be a sweet spot
Hatton: Weeks footbridge, totally. You can go in there with a boat literally on your stern and come out a length a open water length ahead, if they don't make a good turn.
Grossman: Weeks Bridge, if you nail it, because few people do it right…and what they tell you do isn't necessarily the best thing to do. If you just nail it, then that's where you make up time.
Curry: Anderson--if you can cut it really well at Anderson and get yourself a sweet line going around the big turn, you can make up a lot of time
Quinn: The [Winsor] dock over here, through Eliot, I think is a good point make up time.
McElhenny: I really like the very last turn, right in front of that last boathouse, Winsor. I like that you can get your blades so they are almost touching that dock, and there's people there cheering for you. For me, you're gonna take this turn, you've got buoys under your riggers, you've got people right there, and it like 500 meters to go.
Stokes: No, not that I'm aware of--but really, on any of those big turns, done well.
row2k: How do you motivate your starboards on the Eliot turn?
Segaloff: Tell 'em the ladies are watching from the Cambridge boat club!
Lemieux: Well, I steer a lot on the Eliot turn and I just tell them to keep on going, and we make it through.
McElhenny: Well, you just set them up with the who's better, starboards vs ports thing. With the National Team guys, we do a lot of that bucket racing--where you see in each pair who pulls the boat around--so that's how I set it up. It's sort of like bragging rights . . . and trash talking (we do a lot of that).
Quinn: I just yell at them--"starboards, starboards, starboards"--and I have the big rudder this year
Curry: (laughs) Well, I think that's the point when you are just like "this is all you guys, and you've gotta do it, and we're depending on you"--you give them the credit and then they want it. If you've got the right starboards in your boat, they want it.
Hatton: What we do is we don't so much motivate the starboard-- we "disengage" the ports. We do it all by the port side faking it--particularly in a eight, you cannot get the starboards to pull hard enough or long enough to overpower the ports, especially when they are rowing at full pressure.
Caligiuri: [laughs while 7 seat Catherine Star jokes: "Tell them the ports are freaking' awesome!"] Today, I felt like we just steered it; we lucked out a bit and I didn't get too close to the buoys . . . but usually? I don't know, right before Eliot I am just screaming at them
Grossman: If you have to, you stay on them until that last minute, and then in that last minute, you may have to have the ports go easy.
Stokes: I guess you just "pump their tires a little bit"--encourage them to stay long. During my race today, that Masters eight, it was just the guys yelling out the alma maters of all the other guys-and we had Chris Kerber in the bow, and he doesn't need motivation, I don't think. He was up there, I could hear him yelling.
Jaugstetter: I don't. I've always made it with the rudder.
row2k: Have you ever crashed at the Charles?
Hatton: Never--not since 1979, and I've only missed the Charles once.
Caligiuri: I have not, though our bow seats oar did hit the stern of a boat today…a little "love tap."
Stokes: Here? No, not at the Head of the Charles? No. Other times? Lots!
Lemieux: I have crashed: I was run into a few years back by a crew that initially yielded and then cut back in too soon and my seven seats blade caught on their bow and caught a massive crab. In that particular race, we were setting the course record, and wound finishing sixth instead of first with a new course record.
Quinn: Well, I had an "incident" in 2005, at Eliot: I was in the St Joe's Prep varsity and we were trying to get three boats through the main arch at Eliot, and my crew got caught up on one of the abutments…Not a crash, but we got hung up--an "incident."
Segaloff: Oh, yeah, I have! Women's lightweight four with, back in like 90 or 88--it was nasty.
Jaugstetter: Yeah, we've been cut off by other boats and hit…just as lately as last year!
Curry: Well, I've had folks crash into me! One time, at Anderson, I got crashed into on both sides, so that was pretty scary: I was in a bow-loader four and I almost lost my face.
McElhenny: Well, yeah, in 2005, we had some "issues" [with the National Team 8] . . . we actually didn't "crash"--we stopped, we just kissed the bridge. But it was what it was, and it worked out, because we won the next year, and we won two medals at the World Championships that summer, so it turned out alright] . . . hey, it's the Head of the Charles!