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The Hot Seat

Coxswains prepare to psych out the competition at the Head of the Charles


Click on the slide show above to see crew practice on the Charles.


They’re up before dawn. They spend countless raw and rainy Saturdayswith their crewmates on the Charles. They sit nearly motionless in theshell’s stern while their hulking teammates work up a sweat pullingoars through the water. And what do they get for guiding their boat tovictory?

Tossed in the drink.

No, life ain’t easy for a coxswain — an athlete who hardly flexes amuscle, who’s half the size of his or her crewmates, and whose complexrole is a mystery to the uninitiated. Coxswains do more than shoutstroke commands; they steer, serve as an onboard coach, and psych outopponents.

"We’re the eyes of the boat, the cheerleader, the parent, and theboss," says Maria Escallon (SHA’10), a cox on the men’s varsity eight."We’re the first to get blamed and the last to be thanked. It’s ahumbling position."

But Escallon loves the camaraderie. "These are my 26 olderbrothers," she says. "Of course, racing is a big part of it. That’s ahuge adrenaline rush."

And yes, she says, "I’ve been thrown in the river several times. It’s tradition."

The list of a cox’s responsibilities is as long as an oarsman’s isshort, from correcting technique to whip-cracking to ego-boosting.Shrinking violets need not apply. David Padgett (SAR’99, SED’08), men’svarsity assistant coach, describes the role as an extension of thecoach and says confidence, even cockiness, goes a long way. "’Napoleoncomplex’ gets thrown around a lot," he says. "It’s a littlestereotypical, but you do have to be of that mentality."

The primary duty is steering. With thumbs and forefingers, coxespull and push a thin cable connected to the rudder, making adjustmentsat precise moments during the stroke to cause the least disruption andloss of speed. All the while, they cajole a wall of grimacing rowersand keep an eye out for buoys, bridges, and other shells (safety istheir first concern).

On race day, they lead stretching exercises, try to intimidate othercoxswains from behind pitiless dark sunglasses, and get the shell tothe starting line on time, all the while exuding Zen-like calm. "If Isound tense or nervous in the boat, the rowers will feel the same way,"Terrier cox Bianca Wieczorek (CAS’11) says.

During competition, they dictate the race plan while keeping theoarsmen abreast of their speed, the distance to the finish line, whento make a move, and the location of other crews. Coxswains used to haveto shout through a megaphone; now, there’s the Cox Box, a microphoneand mini-PA system (speakers are mounted along the shell) that alsodisplays stroke rate and time.

During a recent practice, Escallon calls out stroke commands, thendrops her voice into a deep, almost demonic growl. The rowers respondto her change in tone, and the boat picks up speed. Water slaps at thesides as eight blades slice and feather above the river’s surface, nowstreaked gold by the first rays of the sun rising above the Prudential.

Later, Escallon tells Padgett the light is out on her boat. It’sclear who’s responsible for that, too: "Make sure you get it checkedout, Maria," he says.

The 44th Head of the Charles regatta, the world’s largest two-day rowing event, takes place Saturday, October 18, and Sunday, October 19, along the Charles River. More than 7,500 athletes from around the world are set to compete in 55 different races. Some 300,000 spectators are expected.

This story was originally published in the Fall 2008 Bostonia.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


One Comment on The Hot Seat

  • Anonymous on 10.17.2008 at 9:33 am

    Best of luck. You go!

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