“Steersman” or “cox” is used here to describe either male or female rowers with control of the rudder.
It is everyone’s experience that a bad cox can do more harm than anyone else in the boat. Also there are rarely praises for steering well, only recriminations for bad steering if the race is lost. The job of steering in a race is often a thankless one, however the cox or steersman can take their own pride in a job well done, without which defeat might be snatched from the jaws of victory.
In all boat types, coxed or coxless, the rudder is a source of drag whenever it is applied, since by definition it deflects and disturbs the water flow past it. The cox or steersman therefore has the duty of choosing the best course and then ensuring the piece is completed with the absolute minimum of rudder use. Hence this is another place to avoid or reduce boat-stopping.
On the multi-lane straight course the key is to avoid any “snaking” particularly off the start and then to hold a central position in the lane, allowing the crew to avoid tension in the race, which aids their confidence. Also even in one-on-one racing at Henley everyone is aware of the risks coming out of the Island…..
Practise rowing with the rudder disconnected or removed, so as to get the crew alert and focussed on avoiding stroke variations which may roll the boat or “pull it round” by change of pressure. Let them understand also what is needed to correct any drift off- course, when one buoy-line starts to get too close for comfort. The cox may simply call “hands off the rudder” for a set distance, to see what happens in windy conditions, particularly cross-wind.
On the river, knowledge of the bends, stream patterns and varying wind effects around features on the bank are all vital study for coxed or coxless crews, not least because often there will be advantages to be gained, whether going upstream or downstream, in either head or tail winds.
Train to make decisive steering calls in all possible conditions so as to help the crew reduce or eliminate the need for rudder use. Much can be lost by leaving these calls too late prior to a bend. Let the crew learn where the stream is strongest and what action they should take in such places to help hold the best course with minimum rudder, thus they are thinking all the time of avoiding slowing the boat down.
No advice is offered here about boat set-up, which is particular to each crew. However a number of mechanical friction factors should be addressed as part of regular boat maintenance.
Oars and sculls: Is the oar shaft distorted with age, or the spoon damaged? Wear at the sleeve may give a false pitch setting. Examine and if need be, have any or all sleeves replaced.
Collar: This item will wear with time. Routine check for wear, tightness and correct positioning, that no slipping has occurred. Replace periodically
Wheels: They make millions of rotations in their life time, so wear and tear arises and bearing friction increases. You are merely heating up the environment by friction with worn wheels!
Inspect for free running, nicks and profile wear. Replace them regularly.
Runners: The other half of the running gear friction source.
Inspect for roughening, wear and scoring. Clean them after outings. Replace them regularly.
Oarlocks: Often these become sticky and may not swivel freely, soaking up energy with every stroke.
Avoid over-tightening the top nut. Check the washers are correct and not getting pinched because there may be one too many.
The Gate of the Oarlock: Over time the sill becomes worn down by the sleeve rotating with each feathering and squaring movement . This wear, which looks like a worn mediaeval doorstep, reduces the accuracy and “feel” of your blade control. Replace the oarlocks, all round if need be.
Pitch Inserts: These take all the drive input and will wear, becoming loose-fitting on the pin, compromising (generally reducing) your pitch setting during the drive phase.
Wiggle them to detect wear. Replace them as needed.
Riggers: Slackness of the pin mounting can creep up unnoticed by the crew, reducing the effective response to power input. In extreme cases the span may be altered if the pin slips.
Tighten bottom nuts.(A 17mm or 19mm spanner should be in your crew kit).
Check backstays (if used) for tension/compression which may strain the pin and affect pitch, particularly in hot weather as a result of metal expansion changing the backstay length. Check C-cup mountings are not loose, which may change the lateral pitch (this can cause the boat to steer off course every stroke).