row2k Features
Head Racing 101: Steering
September 15, 2021
Charlotte Hollings, Calm Waters Rowing

Practice using a mirror before the race

As summer winds down, it's time to transition into head racing season - lower the rating, lengthen out the pieces, enjoy some long steady state rows.

Unlike sprint racing, which is 99% training and technique, head racing can often hinge on steering. John and I love watching crews at the Head of the Charles as they come through the Eliot Street Bridge on their way to the finish line. The final stretch to the finish, not much left in the tank and then boats go way wide on the corner, adding another minute onto their race, ouch!

And yet, I encourage new rowers to make their first racing experience a head race. There's no start to worry about, less pressure without having boats right next to you, and lower ratings and a longer race make it easier to develop a rhythm. Still, one added issue is steering.

First, get a map of the course. Along with Google Maps, that should give you a clear picture of the line you'll want to take. Note any particular landmarks - bridges, islands, buoys, major turns - and memorize where these points are on the course. I would strongly encourage a row over the course before the race, as it will all look a little different on the water.

Check the official course map as well as mapping apps
Check the official course map as well as mapping apps

In a 1000 or 2000 m race you hope not to do anything but go straight, but it's a rare (and boring) head race where you won't need to take some corners. Memorizing the course is the first step, but once out there, you'll need to turn your head to take in your surroundings, see what's ahead and where you need to go.

The best time to look is during the drive, this is when the boat is most stable. You want to disturb the boat as little as possible so as not to disrupt your speed. As we get older and lose flexibility, this aspect of steering gets more difficult. Learning to use a mirror can be a lifesaver. Like anything, it takes practice, so get used to it long before race day.

Look over your shoulder on the drive
Look over your shoulder on the drive

A mirror is great at showing you what's right ahead of your bow, which for most people is a big blind spot, but you still need to look left and right to maintain the big picture. Don't lose the forest for the trees. On race day, the mirror can be particularly useful, as you can sight off the person in front of you, and if they know the course well, you can just follow their line. Even if you don't have that advantage, the mirror will save you from having to turn your head so much and so often, disturbing the boat less and saving you precious time.

Once you realize you need to turn, how do you do it while going all out and losing as little speed as possible? In order to turn, you need to take a longer, stronger stroke on one side. There are basically two ways this can be done - reach out a little further, or draw through a little further on one side.

Let's say you need to turn to port during your race; if you're more comfortable at the catch, reach out further with the starboard arm while shortening the port reach. As you begin the drive, keep pressure on the whole left side - on the footplate, through the core, down the arm to that starboard oar. Meanwhile, go easy on the port oar through the beginning of the drive until the hands meet halfway or so through the drive and then finish together. Depending how much you need to turn, you can alter the difference in the amount of reach of the two arms.

If you're more comfortable at the finish of the stroke, simply catch together as always but put more pressure on the starboard oar while you float the port oar. When the starboard hand gets to the finish position, release both oars. The port oar should be well shy of the usual finish position. Practice both methods and find which works best and is most effective for you.

I would caution against keeping one oar feathered on the drive as you turn - that is, rowing with just one oar at a time while the other lies flat on the water - it's too easy for the oar to get caught and go deep, which could cause you to catch a crab.

Know the warmup pattern
Know the warmup pattern

There are also other smaller but still important aspects of race preparation.

  • Plan your warm up, at the least to the point of knowing how much time you'll need, so you can launch accordingly.
  • Know the warm up pattern, sometimes it's different on race day.
  • It can be helpful to watch the start of a race before yours - listen to the cadence of the starter, see what the interval is between boats, how long before the race are they marshaling boats.
  • Practice in whatever gear you plan to race in. You don't want to be distracted by clothes that are too tight or loose or simply don't fit well. This includes headgear.
  • If you usually row in the morning but are racing in the afternoon, figure out what to eat and when.
  • And finally, know where the finish line is. There's nothing like thinking you have 20 strokes to go only to find out it's closer to 50.

Good luck and have fun!

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