row2k Features
Matrix Algebra on the Fly -- Hotseating and Hotboating
December 19, 2003
Rob Colburn

Oh, but this is the truly fun part of large, complex regattas. The part where either your crew really is a well-oiled machine, or else everything unravels in your face because somebody grabbed the wrong set of oars. There's nothing like 7-minute centers between races to invigorate one's day; the smaller the centers, the more exciting hotseating [rowers switching boats] or hotboating [shells switching crews] becomes. It's matrix algebra on the fly, and these organizational skills transfer perfectly to 'real' life. After our 'Cooper River 3-into-2-makes-8' quickstep, complex currency transactions and stock option swaps hold no terrors. Looking back, it was one of the moments that season which truly defined us as a crew, as an unbreakable unit, and as a team. (That, and managing to lose more competitor credentials at a single regatta as a club than all the other competitors combined.)

The situation was this: three of our lightweight fours - in defiance of the odds -- qualified for finals. All three of those crews, plus the crew of another four, also composed our two eights in the lightweight eight final 42 minutes later. Good news for our club's standings for the points trophy (The Doors' quote "They got the guns, but we got the numbers" comes to mind), but...ARE WE INSANE? It's not a one-off exercise either; our heavyweights will be executing a similar maneuver at two races spacing from ours. A lot of things are going to have to happen very quickly.

You can't win races without taking risks.

Challenges are what we came for, so -- huddling around a sheet of architects' paper -- we choreographed Finals Day step by step. "After the fours final, you coxswains land -- in sequence, Charlie, Laura, Rob -- on top of each other's sterns. I don't want to see daylight between you. Get into formation as you're paddling toward the dock. The eights...ready in," (Coach draws parallel lines and some arrows on the sheet next to some cross-hatched symbols which -- we'll take his word for it -- indicate trailers) "ready for you to grab and go. We'll set up three pairs of empty slings -- that's these x-shaped marks here -- near the recovery dock ahead of time to dump the fours into. Brian, and…let's see… Rob -- since you're the extra coxswain out on this round -- you switch the twelve oars from recov dock to launch dock. The remaining four oars will already be there. Don't worry about the bow numbers; the dockmasters will be taking care of them. Just memorize your own. Oh yeah, Laura and Charlie, remember to let the dockmasters know ahead of time this lunatic thing we're doing. Judging by the heat sheets, there are at least two other boats who could also be hotseating, so calling "hotseat" as you land will get you no priority at all."

And whatever you do, act as if this is the most normal thing in the world.

Absolutely, coach, we do it all the time. Besides, the row back down to the starting line is east to west, so we'll gain a little time from crossing time zones...

Our little squadron of fours flies through the finish line; pausing barely long enough for the official's white flag and clearance to depart the finish area, then fast-paddles for the dock. Charlie digs in his port oars, turning like a RAF spitfire pilot on snap rollout. Laura, following on his stern, goes a stroke farther to set up perfectly with the opposite side of the dock like she's on rails (bowloaders totally rule for these fleet operations). My boat turns parallel to follow Charlie, all three of us in a formation that would have done Admiral de Ruyter proud. (Yeah! Did someone say 'teamwork'?)

It takes the dockmaster a moment to realize that -- by signaling Charlie to land -- he is getting the 3-for-1 EconoPak. A brief expression of horror crosses his face as it dawns on him that nearly two and a quarter tons of crewshells are bearing down on the dock 'with intent'. Just to add narrative interest to the scene, there's a New York 4+ (also hotseating) landing in formation with us. The dockmaster shrugs as if to say, "well, they're your boats, on your heads be it," and shoots us that special look reserved for people one meets in airports who claim they were Henry VIII in a past life.

All four boats coast to the dock almost the same instant, crews bailing out in one smooth motion -- oars in hand. It occurs to me later (with a small chill of narrowly-escaped disaster) that, in order to do this, they must have already undone the oarlocks while we were still on the water. (Some things coxswains are happier not knowing at the time.)

The fours go into the waiting slings and the rowers scoop up the eights, almost without breaking stride - except Charlie's boat won the race and thus has to be taken to the official's tent be weighed, which will cost them an extra minute or two.

The eights barely touch the water before our coach is slinging extra water bottles with reassuring 'thunks' into the hulls for the trip back to the starting line. "Drink as much of this as you can on the way up there, but do not tarry. You have 32 minutes. Go away."

They're already shoving as he speaks. We watch the silhouettes of the two boats grow smaller on the water. I try not to think of their burning muscles and the incredible demands they are making on their bodies to do this thing.

"I'm proud of them."

"I am too," he said quietly. "God, I hope this works."

I knew, without being told, that he would load all the blame onto his own shoulders if it did not.

"You can't win without taking risks..." I quoted his words back to him.

"Somehow, I just knew you were going to say that."

The risk paid off. They made it to the line on time. ("Aw heck, we had seven minutes to spare." ) And they made it to the other much more important line 2000m onwards, both boats very much on time. 1st and 3rd. Big points. Would we do it again?

In a heartbeat. And we'll probably have to.

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