On her way to two Olympic gold medals, an Olympic silver, and five Worlds golds, Mary Whipple became a mainstay in the US women's eight during the first part of what is now an ongoing run at the top of the world ranks in the event. She also coxed in eights during her time on the Washington men's team - so suffice to say she has a lot of experience steering eights.
When not training in the eight, the US women usually train in coxless boats, and at Washington, much (tho not quite all) of the selection takes place in pairs. As a result, Whipple has coxed in fours only a handful of times since her early college days.
When she got the call to cox a four at the Head Of The Charles last October, Whipple didn't give much thought to the fact that she hadn't been in a four in a while, and hadn't been in a bowloader four since, well, the last century, save for a handful of times.
Add to that the fact that Whipple is left-handed, and the steering apparatus was set up for a right-hander, and she was in for a more interesting ride than anticipated. row2k talked to Whipple about her experience during a break from her activities running coxswain clinics and camps through her Web site, The 9th Seat.
How did it happen that you had never or so rarely been in a bow loader in your long career as a coxswain?
I was an NCAA champion in the women's 4+ way back when I was a UW freshman in 1999, but since then I think I can count on one hand the times I've raced in a bow loader. I've spent some collegiate practices in the boat, but the women on the National team row 2-'s and 4-'s when not rowing the 8+.
When you climbed into the boat, what was your very first impression?
I had a few... I'm uncomfortable. I can't hear what's going on behind me. Why is the steering on the right? This steering mechanism doesn't make sense to me.
What about the point of view being in front of the boat, and so low to the water (maybe even below the water line)?
I think the viewpoint is awesome because there isn't a blind spot right in front of you. However, I also feel like I'm stuck in a hole and have to sit up a bit to look at what is around me. In an 8+, I feel like I've got a better handle on situational awareness because I'm higher above the water and have a 360 degree view.
What about steering - how was it different?
It does make you think about turning differently. In an 8+ everything is in front of you: most of the rowing shell and the rowers. You can see the trajectory of your boat from bow to the coxswain seat as you are preparing to turn and during the turn.
In a bowloader, for me, I have to remember that most of the boat is behind me so my turning reference points have to be executed differently.
You are left-handed, and the tiller was on the right; how did you deal with that? Was it tricky?
I couldn't trust my right hand to be subtle. I tried using my right hand, but I felt like I was too jerky on the rudder. So I decided to reach across and use my left hand while bracing with my right. If I had more time to spec out my seat, I would have attached a PVC pipe on the gunwale in front of me to for my Garmin. I also would figure out a way to insert small footplates like in a sea kayak and a wider back strap. Since the boat was loaned to us, I just got in and dealt with it.
What about making calls; was this harder to do? Just different?
I remember hating being in a bow loader in college because I couldn't see the technical mistakes and I didn't have that great of boat feel. As my boat feel increased, it was fun to make technical calls and to feel the change. During HOCR, making calls was fun; what helps me is to visualize and think who you are talking to while making calls.
I also make sure to listen and feel the change before communicating to my crew that the change made a difference in speed. I also made sure Lindsay Shoop, bow seat, told me when or if we needed to move in order to avoid being hit during the practice and the warm-up. Bow seat has to be your eyes in the back of your head.
What were the most important differences compared to sitting in the stern overall?
Instead of getting to see the physical reactions of your teammates you have to rely on boat feel. Boat feel is the key to being an effective coxswain in a bowloader. And even if you are a guru at boat feel you still are going to be one step behind on the jokes and conversations being had behind you.
As a coxswain, coach, and coach of coxswains, do you have any thoughts about the use of bowloaders in the early stages of learning to cox and row?
Learning to cox in a bowloader or any coxed boat is hard unless you have guidance and expectations set from your coach. It is very easy to zone out and lose awareness in a bowloader because you don't' have anything to focus on visually pertaining to blade work.
It's harder to have conversations with your teammates, to learn from them about what they feel in the boat in a bowloader. Coaches have to make sure that they speak directly to coxswains because it is hard to hear lying down in the bow. I could go on for many more paragraphs but above all, coaches are the key to a coxswains' development in any boat, but especially in a bowloader.
Do you have any advice for coxswains first getting into a bowloader?
Take the time to adjust the back strap, your neck and vocal cords will thank you! Also, speak up if you are not comfortable in the lying down position. There are ways to support your body because no one wants 110 lbs. getting thrown back and forth inside the bow deck while racing.