row2k Features
April 21, 2000
Rob Colburn

"No gale that blew, dismayed her crew,
or troubled the captain's mind,
the man at the wheel was taught to feel
contempt for the wildest blow
and it often appeared, when the weather had cleared,
he'd been in his bunk below."

Charles Edward Carryl

Water sluicing across your foredeck; ferocious gusts slamming your bow off-course; waves which can suck your rower's blades deep or cause them to miss water entirely -- yup, it's headwind season in the Northern Hemisphere.

A coxswain who can show him or herself as a blue-water expert, and who can control the shell in such weather will be doubly valued -- by coaches and rowers alike -- and can give a real advantage to his or her boat in a race.

Headwinds require non-stop alertness from coxswains; it is a constant fight to keep the shell out of the buoys, on course, and from colliding with any boat you may be practicing or racing with. If you are drilling, or rowing by pairs or by fours -- as boats often do at the beginning of the season -- you might not have enough steerageway to keep the boat on course against a really fresh wind, even with the rudder hard over. You've just come around that last sheltering point; 25 knots of wind is whistling unhindered down the stretch of lake or river -- kicking up the occasional whitecap as it goes -- and, with your coach putting your bow four through a pause drill on the square, you have that helpless feeling that the shell isn't responding to the rudder, and the bow is beginning to fall off the wind.

There are two tricks for dealing with this, depending on which set of oars is active. If the bow four are rowing, you can drag either your Stroke or Seven oar, using it as a paravane to help hold the bow into the wind. This will slow the boat, of course, but if you are rowing by pairs or by fours, you're not worrying too much about speed anyway. If your stern four are rowing, then periodically instruct your Bow or Two oar to take a few strokes just as if you were pointing the boat from a standstill. They can do this independently whenever you need them; it doesn't disrupt the others.

The stronger the wind, the more critical it is that you find a point on the shore ahead of you to steer for, and hold to that point for all you're worth. This is good steering technique anyway, but it is the only thing which will save you in a heavy wind.

Hopefully, the headwind, however strong, will not be an absolute dead-ahead wind. A wind ten degrees off either side of the bow is actually the least disruptive to your course, so, if you can, try to cant the bow into the wind just slightly and hold it balanced at that angle as you move down the course. If you do it right -- and the gusts are not too variable -- you will find that you can keep the boat pretty much on course. The secret here is not to let the wind get any kind of a foothold; you want to correct even the slightest deviation immediately so as not to allow your bow to begin swinging. Once it begins to swing, every degree off course you are blown increases the windage against your hull and makes it that much more difficult to claw upwind again.

Winds, of course, bring waves, which your riggers will gleefully scoop up in bursts of white water and dump as much of into the boat as possible. As coxswain, it is your job to bail the unwanted dihydrogen monoxide out of the bilge (empty sour cream containers are my preferred bailers) whenever more than an inch of it accumulates.

Buoyancy tanks are key in weather like this. You did remember to close the tank caps before you left the dock, didn't you? (It's the coxswain's responsibility to see that both the bow and stern tanks are sealed; even if your bow is always very good about doing this on his/her own, always check.)

Headwind scenario Two: you've just turned the boat around; your rowers are grabbing their water bottles, and the coach takes the opportunity to give an explanation of technique while you sit. You made your turn with plenty of drift margin between you and the land, but you hadn't counted on drifting for this much time, and the shoreline and the shallows are getting close. Dare you interrupt? Call attention to the hazard? Probably not. If you square all eight (or four) blades in the water, however, you will be amazed at how firmly this locks the boat in the water motionless, especially if your bow is pointed into the wind ("Heaving to"). Unless the wind is coming at your side beam-on, you can pretty well sit for as long as you need to.

All clouds have silver linings, and headwinds at least have the benefit that they help set the boat, as well as forcing a degree of slide control on the recovery. In a race, the headwind favors the biggest, heaviest boat. Inevitably, you will face the strongest headwinds earliest in the season when your boat has had little time to row together and its technique is most tentative. If your boat is experienced enough, tell them to roll off their feathers late (so that the wind has less time to work against the blades), and increase the layback into the wind. In a boat which is still uneven and unsure of its feathers, it's probably not worth complicating things by trying to adjust the style. Leaning into the wind is always worth doing.

One morning, after doing power pieces into a 25 knot headwind, the eight I was coxing returned -- exhilarated but drenched -- to the dock just as the National Team was launching to go out for its morning practice. Nick Anderson, who was coxing the US pair-with, was standing on the dock dressed head to toe in raingear whose completeness approximated the level of protection of a survival suit. Being the coxswain of a bow loader, he could expect to be bounced around quite a bit by waves which would soon be slamming across his foredeck into his face and pouring cheerfully down into the bilge for him to lie in. I had been in the relatively protected stern of an eight, and I was completely soaked. A pair in this weather would bounce around like a golf ball in a washing machine. He looked my sodden clothes slowly up and down, registering with a veteran's practiced eye what was in store.

"Yup, Nick," I nodded, acknowledging the look on his face, "you're going to get wet."

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