Athlete Diaries: Learning to Cox at University

Eve is studying Natural Sciences at Durham, and has recently started coxing for her college. She reached out and wanted to share the story so far of her experiences, and her advice for people wanting to start coxing.

My coxing journey started out with the obligatory swim test. You would have thought this would be easy, and yes, the swimming part was, however it turns out trying to cram 20 people treading water into one tiny part of a lane leads to injuries; for me that turned out to be a broken toe after being kicked. I’d have to say this wasn’t the best of starts, but I hoped that things would improve.

I was excited, if a little terrified at the prospect of my first session on the water. Thankfully I was saved by the solid day of rain before meaning that the river was too high to safely go out on. Instead I was almost scared off by the 2km walk down the river with our coxing captain telling me all of the things I need to avoid (I only took in about a quarter of what she told me…), when to start turning, and many other things, which with my lack of any form of basic rowing knowledge sounded like a foreign language. Fun fact: Durham has the narrowest row-able bridge in Europe. There’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end… If I am honest after I found out this fact not much else seemed to stick in my brain, I was, and still am, permanently worrying about the day when I will have to race through it.

It wouldn’t be another 3 days before I finally had my chance to go out on the river. This was also coincidentally the first time I’d ever even touched a boat. It was probably best that I was put in the oldest most expendable boat. The only issue with this is that the steering is, in a word, dreadful. It started off brilliantly, apart from I was on the wrong side of the river! The main aim of my first session was to learn how to steer; this is a lot harder than it looks and gets significantly more so with other boats on the river.

Top Tip Number 1: writing S and B on either hand to remember which side is stroke side and which side is bow side is one of the best things I could have done. I’m still doing it weeks later for that just in case moment.

The time came for my first morning session. I say morning, it was more like night still on my walk down to the boat house. However, the walk was more than worth it to see how stunning the river is in the morning with the mist across it just before sunrise. This was the moment when it first struck me that this rowing/coxing thing might actually be fun. That feeling was short lived when the senior men started to get out the brand new four. This was many thousands of pounds worth of brand-new equipment that they were about to put in the hands of, well, me, a novice with a grand total of 2 hours on the water. The session had a less than ideal start; getting an oar to the head in a bow-loaded boat, even though the double were gliding at a slow pace, is not what I wanted to be doing at 7 in the morning! After this initial mishap I soon got the hang of the insanely superior steering, we even ended up doing technique pieces! (Something which I am sure all you experienced rowers out there would think is rather dull but believe me I was, and am still, taking anything as a major victory.) I still am not sure what they actually were, but all the same it wasn’t a disaster. I can say without a doubt that that was the session in which I started to feel more settled on the water.

Top Tip Number 2: Less is more with the steering. Trying to not steer seems utterly counterintuitive, but it helps get a better understanding of your line on the river, plus stoke doesn’t really like seeing the boat meander down the river which is what happens with too much steering and overcorrecting. I got to know this rather quickly!

Then came one fateful Saturday… there isn’t much I can say about Saturday apart from it was in every sense awful. I’m not sure I managed to do one thing correct that day. Not even ashamed to admit I went back to my room and had a bit of a cry. But I got myself out of my blanket hole and decided to fix what went wrong. I spoke to the other coxes at the club, I messaged my friends who are rowers, I watched videos of coxing online, you name it, I did it. The thought of the previous Thursday motivated me to improve.

Back out the next day having a lot more apprehension than previously, I started despairing the fact I was once again in that boat. Determined to be better than Saturday, which if I’m honest was a low bar to get over, I challenged myself to come off the water feeling good about what I did. It was as if something clicked that session. I felt calm for the first time and knew what to do in terms of steering. We even decided to go through Elvet! There has to be a first time for everything, and I will take that fact I didn’t crash as a major win here. We did not go through anywhere close to race speed and only rowing with bow pair, but still it’s the small victories that count.

A new day and another new boat and a 3-hour session. I am learning that I need to be highly adaptive to the various crews, boats and session plans. That is something I was not aware of before I started, I had no idea that within a week I would need to remember the various warmups for all the different crews and they all have differing ways they want things to be said.

Top Tip Number 3: Write everything down in a little notebook. This will turn into your rowing guide of everything you need to know. Always have a pen as well, believe me it is the most useful thing I bring to every session.

My second early morning session was a lot less of a shock to the system. The sunrises are an unusual sight to a Uni student, but I would get up more often just to see them. Out in the band new boats again was a nice change, however, it is hard going out in 3 different boats within 2 weeks. Just when I feel like I have sorted the steering, I’m out in a new boat with a different crew forcing me to adapt everything I had learnt the day before. It is hard being the novice in a crew full of experienced rower, it feels as though you have let them down and that you need to improve faster than humanly possible but talking to my coxing captain it was good to know she felt the same. The best, if hardest, thing to do it to just forget about any mishap for the rest of the session and come back to it later.

Top Tip Number 4: LAYERS!! LOTS OF LAYERS!! It isn’t fun being cold, not in the slightest. Putting lots of thin layers on is the best plus would definitely recommend investing in a fleecy headband. I started off thinking thermals and a single coat would be over kill; my record number of layers so far is 8, plus 3 layers of thermal leggings and 4 pairs of socks. This was just about enough at this early time in a morning. If you are not yet fortunate enough to figure out the joys of heat packs, I’d recommend investing ASAP.

After only 2 weeks, minimal coaching, a grand total of 12 hours on the water, I am starting to feel part of the family. I can say without a doubt that starting coxing at Uni was the best decision I have made in the short few weeks that I have been here. I will continue to spend my life out on the river for the foreseeable future. Finally, everyone will have their bad days and it is important to remember that starting at Uni puts you at a slightly disadvantage. It is your choice whether to view this as something that will hold you back, or whether you chose to view this as the motivation to get better.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published