row2k Features
Carlo Zezza's Racing Guide
'Winning Head Races'
September 23, 2015
Oli Rosenbladt, row2k

The author and his wife enroute to a win at the HOCR (photo: SportGraphics)

As we roll into the fall season, rowers and coaches have an added resource for their "Rowing How-to" libraries this year. "Winning Head Races," by masters sculler Carlo Zezza ( is designed to be specifically applied to head racing, and covers equipment preparation, as well as special equipment considerations for head races, steering for big and small boats (including collision avoidance and "detangling" advice), and also touches on training for longer distances.

The book is well-annotated and well-illustrated, especially in the sections pertaining to steering and special fin designs for head racing (a particular favorite of Zezza's), the book is engaging on its topics without being simply a dry, technical tome.

A decorated competitor out of Boston's Cambridge Boat Club (including wins at the Head of the Charles), Zezza was keen on sharing his insights. row2k caught up with Zezza for a conversation in September.

row2k: What inspired you to write "Winning Head Races?"

Carlo Zezza: No lightning bolt, just realizing that despite millions of words about rowing fast, plus a few million more on other rowing topics, published material on head racing was close to zero, even though more individuals row in head races than in straight side-by-side races.

r2k: In "Winning Head Races" you cover a lot of territory from hulls and steering to custom fin modifications and training; is "Winning Head Races" geared for high-end rowers only, or could a casual rower gain from reading the book?

CZ: “Winning Head Races” is certainly not aimed at anyone who is still shaking off the wobbles, but any crew in a head race is at least one step above ‘casual’. The book should aid rowers, coxes, and coaches at any level. On a head race course, heightened awareness and mental focus are huge time savers, especially for head race newcomers. Even some “high-end” rowers and coxes don’t fully appreciate the mental demands of racing on a winding river.

Here’s a recent example from two days ago at the CRI Classic Head. A faster sculler should have passed me in the first mile. But he steered the center of the course, and it probably cost him a hundred meters, or about 25 seconds. The course was beautifully marked with buoys every 150 feet. I rowed with my oarlock over the buoys on the turns, which held off the young rower chasing me, who went wide on every bend. He didn’t pass until the last mile. If he had come around the bends with his oarlock over the buoys, I would have yielded the line to him – my cost and his gain. Why didn’t he? Simple answer, he wasn’t thinking.

r2k: With the wealth of information available in "Winning Head Races," which recommendations in the book would you consider most important? Those relating to equipment, steering or training?

CZ: For a single most-important recommendation, I choose good coaching and adhering to a well-adapted training plan. The book is not about speed, but speed is fundamental in any race, head or otherwise. Apart from that, refer to page 77 "Summing Up" where equipment and steering are compared in terms of seconds on the course. It's clear that steering has by far the biggest impact (as in the anecdote related in yesterday's email). Avoiding collisions should be included in the steering category.

r2k: Much of "Winning Head Races" is predicated on your home waters in Cambridge and the Head of the Charles. How applicable are the techniques and preparation in the book to head racing in general?

CZ: Most of the text examples are drawn from the Head of the Charles, because it’s the most attractive and best known of all head races, and because the course offers so many challenges to illustrate. But the notions presented are applicable to any long course that’s shared with other boats.

Apparently simple courses can have traps for the unwary. To quote Jim Dietz – “there is a Weeks and Eliot turn on every river!”

r2k: For many athletes and teams, the head racing season is more about "fun" than "winning;" what can rowers gain for their fall racing and year-round training from the methods and preparation you describe in "Winning Head Races?"

CZ: Training year-round is best left to coaches. “Winning Head Races” includes training for long distance, intending to offset some coaches’ and rowers’ tendency to over-emphasize high intensity work and risk burning up endurance. In fact, training for endurance is an essential year-round proposition. Besides the aerobic benefit, long steady-state rows are a way to fully enjoy the pleasant pull-and-glide that brings us to rowing in the first place. “Fun” for most of us is doing our best, and in that context, “winning” is not only about medals, but is really relative to expectations and past performance. Before publication, the text was circulated to many rowers. One complained about the title, saying that he could not expect to win, given that he was about to enter his first Head of the Charles. The book includes my answer to him, that any race well rowed is a victory, especially if it’s better than the last.

r2k: Besides your own insights, were there any individuals or coaches who were most helpful in writing the book?

CZ: Many good folks are noted in the Acknowledgments, for their role in commenting and correcting the text before publication. My great coaches over the years are also mentioned, and one of the book’s messages is that good coaching is essential. The substance of “Winning Head Races” is based on a wealth of folklore and shared experience, i.e. years of dock talk. In writing the draft, I felt more like a dutiful scribe than an original thinker, and my personal contribution is more organizational than original. Readers with a penchant for numbers will find some calculations to quantify the value of a fin change or a course option, etc.; these can be claimed as new. For the rest, thank the generous spirit of our rowing community, for sharing and questioning the best way to get from start to finish on a long, winding course.

r2k: What's the single most valuable piece of advice you've ever received regarding rowing or racing?

CZ: This is hard to answer, like asking what's the most important piece in a jigsaw puzzle. I've had so much useful advice and it all adds together. For simple advice that I repeat to myself, I would choose Andy Washburn's remark, about 250 meters into a tight doubles race. I was stroking and we were behind. From the bow, I heard, "calm down". This has a lot of extended meaning; it's a reminder to stay focused and aware, even in the heat of competition.

The book "Winning Head Races" can be purchased on the web site. It's also worth noting that, for each copy of the book purchased from his web site, Zezza will donate $2 to the National Rowing Foundation in support of USA athletes training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

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