As summer winds down, it's time to transition to head racing season - lower the rating, lengthen out the pieces, and enjoy those long steady state rows. Unlike 1000 meter racing, which is 99% training and technique, head racing can often hinge on steering. We make a point of 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 precious seconds onto their time. 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 in the next lane, and lower ratings and a longer race make it easier to develop a rhythm. But the steering can be key.
First, get a map of the course. That along with Google Maps will give you a picture of where you'll be going. Note any particular landmarks - bridges, islands, buoys, major turns - and memorize where these points are on the course. You might also find a video on line that will lead you down the course. Better yet by far to get out on the course before your race. It will all look a little different on the water, plus you can pick stern points and find landmarks that will help you mark where you are on the course.
In a 1000 or 2000 meter race you hope not to do any steering, 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, (see the photo at the top of this article) this is when the boat is most stable. You want to disturb the boat as little as possible so as not to disrupt the 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 start using one long before race day. You can affix a mirror to your hat or glasses, and when positioned correctly, you should be able to see your bow ball and the shoreline. (I use a bike mirror, it doesn't have to be a special one for rowing.) A mirror is great at enabling you to see what's right ahead of your bow, which for most people is a big blind spot, but you'll still need to look ahead and to the side to maintain the big picture.
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, (ie it's their home course) 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 time. It can also help you see if you're catching the rower ahead of you or if you're falling off the pace.
Once you approach a turn, the goal is to steer the boat while 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 on one side at the catch, or draw through a little further on one side at the finish.
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 your 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 as it's too easy for the oar to get caught.
To finish, here are some smaller but still important aspects of race preparation.
Good luck and have fun!