row2k Features
Setting the Boat and Ways the Coxswain Can Help
May 2, 2006
Rob Colburn

Good set is crucial to boat speed, but not easy to achieve. Coxswains are in a unique position because they can feel and see the set perhaps better than anyone else on the boat. At the same time they are not in a position -- at least not directly -- to do much about it. It can be very frustrating because simply calling out "set the boat," or "off starboard" or "off port" doesn't help much and doesn't give the rowers much useful information. Even a call such as, "ports raise your hands" can do as much harm as good because everyone on one side might suddenly raise their hands too much, causing the boat to crash down to the other side. We've all had practices where the more we concentrated on the set, the worse it became, until by the time we docked, it looked as if we'd taken a torpedo hit on the port side. Good set requires tiny, almost unconscious, corrections, and this is by no means easy to accomplish.

Fortunately, there are calls coxswains can make to help the rowers a lot. Assuming that your boat's catch timing (which is a set issue requiring its own set of solutions) is good, here are examples of calls which can make a difference.

Quieting the upper body is the biggest step to good set, and here the coxswain can make a number of good reminder calls. "Eyes up," and "eyes to the stern" are two very good general sharpeners. In fact, they've become something of a magic bullet for me because they seem intuitively to help so many things in addition to the set.

If you look at a video or photograph of a national team -- indeed any successful boat -- there is a certain look to the eyes, a straight-to-the-stern, no-nonsense focus. (You know the sort of boats I mean, the ones that surge along with a bow wave like a World War II escort destroyer and whose set is so firm you could balance a fountain pen on their foredeck.) The chins are level, and, most importantly, the heads aren't moving. If the eyes are level, the head will be level, and if the head is level, chances are good the body will be controlled and properly placed as well. Many times, just calling "eyes to the stern" will cause the boat to snap into a solid set because all the other details of hand heights, lean, etc. seem to follow naturally from it. This in turn will often clean up problems where the boat is dumping to one side at the catch.

If the set is bad on the recovery, a likely cause often is too much upper body movement while on the slide. Nine times out of ten, this is caused because the hands did not come fully away before the shoulders came out of the bow, (and sometimes as a result, the shoulders did not get fully into body-over position before beginning the slide). As a consequence, the arms and shoulders are still moving and the oar is wobbling as the body comes up the slide.

"Assertive hands-away" is the call I often make in this situation. This tends to work better than "quick hands-away" because saying "quick" can cause the rowers to snap the hands or alter their speed, which is not what we want. A firm, clean, and definite hands-away motion which helps plant the body in a controlled position so that it can follow the oar handle back down the slide is what we're after. (As a bonus, the sense of following the oar handle often mitigates slide rush problems as well). Hands-away and bodies-over pause drills, as well as any time you are rowing on the square, are good times to work on the assertive hands-away.

Firming up the finishes so that the boat has a good send will also help keep it set on the recovery. I once had a crew that could send the boat so hard that, frankly, it didn't matter a muskrat's fuck whether their oar handles were level or not. I could have climbed out on the stroke's rigger and danced around the oarlock on the recovery and I doubt it would have affected the set at all. That was heaven, and not all boats have it. Quarter-feather drills, and rowing with feet out are good for sharpening the finish timing.

Your bow pair is key to setting the boat because the hull is narrower there, and any correction more sensitively felt. If they are experienced enough, consider putting them in charge of it and let them make subtle corrections, rather than having the whole boat attempt to do so (because the effects of four or eight rowers all trying to adjust will often be too much). For more detail on what I mean by this, see my earlier column "Bow Pair -- Making the Most of Your Front End," 25 May 2000.

Obviously, set is very subtle and complex, much more than can be described in a column, or even, I suspect, a good long book. You may have noticed that I barely addressed the causes of a boat dumping at the catch, for example. This could be because
- a) I'm hoping to convince you that none of my boats have ever actually experienced this problem,
- b) writing a history of Linguistics, Hermeneutics, and Mathematical Philosophy from 500 BC to the Present would actually be an easier task, and take about the same amount of time,
- c) those are technical subtleties to do with individual rowers and which are best viewed from the launch and corrected by your coach.

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