Leading from the back: a look at Dartmouth's crew teams and the coxswains who steer them to victory

by Cody Fujii and Sabena Allen | 4/24/17 2:20am

by Nick Samel / The Dartmouth

An integral and often unnoticed part of a rowing crew is the coxswain. In fact, many consider the coxswain to be the most important member of the crew. That said, outside of the rowing community, few seem to have a clear understanding of what a coxswain does — or even how to spell it.

“[Being a coxswain] is actually a lot harder than you would think because you are essentially dead weight in the boat and the guys will work without you,” said Nikol Oydanich ’17, a coxswain for the men’s lightweight rowing team.

At its core, a coxswain’s role is to steer the boat. He or she sits at the back of the boat and wears a microphone to speak to the rowers, all of whom face backwards in the boat. During a race, the coxswain observes and corrects technique and ensures that the rowers maintain rhythm.

According to Oydanich, coxswains act as “mini coaches.” They have the front view of the rowers in the boat, whereas the coaches have the side view from the shore.

A good coxswain knows the course and the crew well and can add speed to the boat. The coxswain must be able to think ahead, keep the boat straight and avoid obstacles while traveling the fastest path to the finish. They act as the eyes of the boat so that the rowers do not have to be.

“My favorite part is feeling like you are adding speed to the boat,” Oydanich said.

Oydanich walked on to the team her freshman year having no prior experience as a coxswain or a rower. She was a three-sport varsity athlete in high school, competing in cross country, indoor track and lacrosse. At the beginning of her coxswain career at Dartmouth, she was more focused on just learning how to steer the boat. The more nuanced aspects of coxing came later, including how to increase speed, anticipate what the rowers need and make clear calls.

Oydanich believes that being able to communicate with rowers is crucial to being an effective coxswain. A good coxswain knows when his or her crew needs motivation or an extra push.

“You are not really that necessary except for the steering part,” Oydanich said. “But you become essential to the boat the more that you know where your guys need you.”

As a result, much of a coxswain’s preparation involves strategizing. Prior to a race, the team does a run on the course. Oydanich said she likes to take note of what obstacles and bends there are in the course. The coxswains and coaches will then discuss strategy for the course and for making calls before the race.

Cameron O’Reilly ’17, a coxswain on the men’s heavyweight team who has coxed for the 1V boat, finds racing strategy to be one of the most compelling parts of coxing.

“To be in a coxswain’s seat and watch things unfold and decide how to play the cards so that the boat moves properly is very exciting,” O’Reilly said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Coxswains’ preparation is not limited to strategy. They also periodically participate in the team’s lift sessions and workouts on the ergometer.

Oydanich noted that the extent to which coxswains participate in workouts depends on the coach and on personal preference.

“I love to run and will often run with the team,” Oydanich said.

A coxswain’s role as a “mini coach” continues off the water. O’Reilly said that he records times and data from lift sessions as well as makes sure that all the equipment and boats arrive at the competition site safely when traveling.

Although most of what makes a good coxswain can be learned, some of it is innate.

“It helps to be small and loud,” said Kelsey Biddle ’17, a coxswain for the men’s lightweight team.

Although it may seem unusual for a woman to be on a men’s team, Oydanich says most coxswains are women. This is due to the weight limits placed on coxswains in both men’s and women’s rowing. The minimum for coxswains of a women’s crew is 110 pounds, while both heavyweight and lightweight men’s coxswains must weigh a minimum of 125 pounds. Coxswains whose body weights are less than 125 or 110 pounds are required to carry extra weight, usually in the form of sandbags placed into the boat, until the total weight meets the minimum standard.

Biddle noted the unique experience of being on a men’s team.

“You get a very unique perspective on male team cultures,” Biddle said. “Sometimes they treat us like one of the boys and sometimes more like sisters. Definitely a very different experience, but I’ve liked it a lot.”

Biddle noted that women coxswains on men’s heavyweight and lightweight rowing are designated as male athletes for scholarship eligibility. However, she pointed out that men are not allowed to cox boats on the women’s team.

Being in the boat with the rest of the crew lends itself to a close team dynamic.

“A fun tradition we do is that the rowers in a boat throw their coxswain in the water after they win a big race,” said Katie Erdos ’20, a coxswain for the women’s rowing team.

Although there are many walk-on coxswains at Dartmouth, some are recruited out of high school. O’Reilly, for example, has been coxing since middle school. He was on his high school team but walked on to the Dartmouth heavyweight team.

When evaluating potential recruits, Erdos said that coaches request audio or video clips of a recruit running a practice or pre-race warmup or calling a race.

Coxswains are evaluated and assigned to a given boat based on specific skills such as steering, aggression and technical calls, according to Biddle. Lineups are rearranged each season to ensure that the fastest rowers and coxswain are in the top boats. Because of this, coxswains spend much more time with the members of their boat.

As a result, it’s critical for a coxswain to earn the respect and trust from the crew.

“If you’re always there [and] always ready off the water, then they know you will be always there and always mentally ready on the water,” O’Reilly said.