Preparing & Steering: Head of the Charles

By Marcus McElhenney | October 10, 2014

Fall racing is my favorite time of year. Instead of getting just five and a half minutes of racing, we get to race much longer distances. This allows us coxswains to use more calls where we really get to work strategy in a much more significant way. Additionally, steering aggressive turns comes into play and we are really allowed to strut our stuff. The interesting thing about all this, is that it is so very different from what we are expected to do the rest of the year. So preparing for these types of races can be a very challenging task. This is particularly true when preparing for the Head of the Charles. Since I so often get asked how I prepare for the Charles, I figured I would share that with you all.

To do well at the Charles, a coxswain has to be mentally prepared. In order to do that, one needs to look at it in a certain light. The Charles is not some elite, fair, balanced and objective race where the best truly win. In actuality, it is quite the opposite. The Charles is a total circus. Generally there are too many boats, the weather is terrible, crews are improperly seeded, coxswains are unnecessarily aggressive, many are using borrowed equipment, and the course is challenging. I do not say this to knock the regatta, but instead to point out what most coxswains do not expect. There are many pitfalls that one needs to prepare for when racing in Boston. If a coxswain or crew admits that there are too many boats on the water, then they will know that they will not be able to get a good warm up on the water. They can then plan for this and practice longer land warm ups the week before and day of the race. This can be applied to all of the trials and tribulations that the Charles will throw at any coxswain and crew. So first things first, be aware that the Charles will be a nightmare. Know that nothing will work out according to plan. And know that it is all to be expected. Once you do, you can start really preparing for the race.

Once I get into that mindset, I try to account for everything that can go wrong off the water. With a bunch of guys traveling in for the race I need to know where our equipment will be, and in the event of an equipment failure, where I can get some replacements. This applies to boats, oars, spare uniforms, ergs for warming up, you name it. Obviously we don't all travel with spare boats, but we should have spare cox boxes, watches, skegs, tools and hardware for rigging. We should also know where we might be able to find or borrow a boat in case ours get damaged in transit. While this is technically the coaches responsibility, a good coxswain will always have a reliable suggestion or two for the coach in case of emergency. This will come in extra handy to get you out of hot water when you get into a scuffle on the water with Syracuse and they put a hole in your boat on Friday evening's practice run! This list is not exhaustive, and a coxswain should prepare for anything. But it does give an idea of a few of the more important items.

Once I prepare for all the off the water stuff, I start to prepare for the on the water. This starts at least a week out so I can get my athletes mentally prepared. I will write out my race plan just like I would for any other 5k race. I include the calls and focuses that I plan on using on race day. I get out my map and I break it down into usable chunks that make it easy to remember. The first part is easy with the start, then magazine beach, then the powerhouse stretch. The second part of the race begins with a hard turn at Weeks bridge, a quick straight away, followed by another hard turn to starboard. The final part then takes over with a long easy turn to port, followed by the Elliot Bridge turn and the last 500m. Once I break it down like that, I can pick out markers to signify how far we have gone and I will know where we will want to make our moves and technical changes. Once I have that all written out, I start to practice it with my guys. When we might be doing a 5k steady state piece, I will do some race rehearsal where I call out the markers, technical focuses and some imaginary opponents. I get my guys into the mindset that they will have to be on race day. They focus on the rowing, where we are and what we need to do. I focus on letting them know about all of the obstacles and how to avoid them while implementing the race plan. I do this over and over again, so that on race day, there are no surprises. One thing I know about rowers, is that they hate surprises and perform better when they know what is coming.

Once I have the mind set established and the race plan laid out, I start to focus on my implementation and course. Many coxswains get all worked up about how difficult it is, and if they just sit back and relax for a second they will realize it is not that hard. There is just so much unnecessary hype around the regatta that they get caught up and focus on the wrong things. But if they do what I have already described, then they will be too busy to notice the hype and instead will be focused on their boat and actual race. When preparing for the steering, first I make sure not to over think it. This race has been going on for over 50 years and of the hundreds to thousands of coxswains to make the run, almost all have made it down unscathed. I speak from experience when I over thought it in 2004 and almost hit the Elliot Street bridge. Anyway, when planning for these turns, just know and be aware that they will be difficult. Before the race I will try to make some of the turns like I will on race day. I do this as much for the athletes as I do for myself. I get them prepared to go harder on one side and easy on the other. I get them used to how disrupting the rudder will feel on the hull and how it will decrease the boat speed. I also get them used to getting the rhythm back as soon as we are straight. You only have to do it a few times and you and your crew will be prepared. It is really that simple.

Finally, I prepare my guys for dealing with idiots. And during the Charles, Boston is full of them. There will be coxswains trying to cut your boat off, rowers trying to clash blades, people yelling terrible things and traffic so bad it would make Mother Teresa swear. You name it, it will be there. I prepare my guys for it, so we can stay above it. I will go to any length not to clash oars or get my guys aggravated. Not only can that annoy my athletes, but some things can actually put them in danger. I rather lose a race then injure one of my guys. They know that, trust me, and love me for it. I also prepare them for the circus so that they are not distracted by it and instead focus on the rowing. This allows them to get that boat down the course as fast as possible.

So while none of this is a super secret to success, it has allowed me to do well and win this event several times. The best way to prepare for the Charles is to get ready mentally. The rest will fall into place. Good luck, steer well and go fast!