Sweeping the Cone of Invisibility - How to Handle the Blind Spot
August 30, 2005
"My crew doesn’t like me leaning out to look around because it disturbs the set. How do I make sure there’s nothing in my blind spot? There’s a lot of traffic on our river."
The question of how to prevent hazards (debris, buoys, other boats) from developing in the blind spot is a difficult one. If you are coxing an 8+ or a stern-loaded 4+, you tend to have a number of large, not-very-transparent people in front of you. It’s a choice between safety and speed, and you will have to look around occasionally because a coxswain’s priority is safety. However, there are techniques for minimizing the frequency with which you have to look around, as well as the effects when you have to do it.
The first technique is to "sweep the cone." When spinning the boat, or making a turn, a coxswain uses that opportunity to glance to the side to check that the "cone of invisibility" (the area which will be directly ahead of the shell once it is on its new course) is clear of debris and other boats. Once it is checked, the coxswain can keep it clear by using peripheral vision to make sure that nothing subsequently moves into it from the sides. Obviously, it is not safe to rely solely on such a method, as something could still appear in your blind spot from dead ahead, but it means that -- instead of needing to look around every hundred meters -- you can do it every five or seven hundred.
The second technique is to know where hazards are likely to appear from, and to keep a "mental plot" in your head of where other boats are -- or likely to be. This is a little like being an air traffic controller without a radar screen. On busy waterways, this may seem like a daunting task, but after a while you will get used to doing it almost subconsciously, and it make your job easier in the long run.
For example, if you are coxing a boat, and there is a shell or shells ahead of you, select your course in such a way as to make sure that you are not directly in its wake, i.e. that it remains visible to one side or another of your bow. If its course wanders (especially if it is an uncoxed boat, such as a single or double) and it disappears into your cone of invisibility, then at least you still know it is there, and can adjust your course to make it visible again. (Remember, uncoxed boats have right-of-way over coxed boats, whether you can see them or not.)
Likewise, if two eights started out upriver five minutes ahead of you, plot in your head where they are likely to turn around, and thus where you are likely to meet them on their way back. This avoids unpleasant surprises as you come around a bend. Ninety percent of avoiding hazards comes from knowing where they are likely to be.
It is crucial -- as well as less stressful -- to categorize traffic into that which is an immediate threat and that which is not. There may be a lot of boats on your waterway, but most of them are usually far enough away, or on separate enough courses that they will be "no factor" (to use air traffic control lingo). The coxswain can then focus on the handful which might require immediate action, rather than become distracted and overwhelmed by entire flotilla. It takes some time to develop a feel for which is which, especially as a boat which may be no factor at the moment might soon become one, but once the technique is mastered, it increases your concentration as well as safety.
Be predictable; don’t surprise other boats, and try to develop a sense of which other boats are steering good courses, and thus are less likely to surprise you. Try to develop a sense of whether they are also aware of your presence. Ask yourself, "Am I in their blind spot?"
Lastly, for those times when you do need to look around, there are ways to do it without disturbing the set. Cock your head to the side while keeping your shoulders straight, rather than moving your entire trunk. This minimizes the weight shift. It feels awkward at first, and you might still need to move your body a little (depending on the size of your rowers), but if kept to a minimum, your rowers will understand.
The above applies primarily to practices and head races. When racing on a sprint course, the coxswain should not need to look out at all, as the officials are there to make sure the course is clear of traffic.
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