A lot is said about rowers, but it’s important not to forget about the ninth person in the boat – the cox! A coxswain has a key role to play, and a good cox will make all the difference in a boat, helping the crew reach its full potential.
What does a cox do?
A cox, (or coxswain) is crucial in navigation of the boat, along with coaching and motivating the crew. Since the rowers face backwards in the boat, they cannot see what is in front of them. So, most boats rely on a cox to look ahead and ensure that the water is clear. This enables the rowers to focus on their technique and to move in time with the other members of the crew. Coxes also have a steering mechanism, called the rudder, with which they are able to navigate the boat. This is fairly simple to use, but again allows the rowers to maintain their focus without worrying about turning corners and staying in a straight line. From a coaching perspective, the cox is often in the best place to view the rowers’ techniques. Using their microphone, which is connected to speakers inside the boat, they are able to communicate with the rowers and explain how they can improve, often relaying messages from a coach on the bank. Finally, but most importantly, the cox’s role is to motivate the crew. Obviously, this is particularly important during a race, when the rowers will be giving their utmost to move the boat as quickly as possible. But, even during training sessions, it is important to keep the rowers motivated, so they stay focused. You ensure they are trying their hardest, getting the most out of the outing, every single session.
If you are interested in Learning to Cox at DCBC and want to know more, or already have experience as a cox and wish to continue your coxing career at DCBC, please contact Ryan Chung, this years Coxing Rep (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Additional information on what to expect can be found in the Coxing Handbook.
Ryan, our current coxing rep, gives us a look at his time coxing so far at DCBC, over the past two years:
I decided to give coxing a go at the beginning of my PhD after being intrigued by a few friends who rowed for their college. Whilst I’m a competitive individual, I had never really found a sport that I could truly physically excel at due my diminutive stature. When I discovered that coxing was more than just shouting at eight people, and much more technical and strategic, I realised I might have discovered my perfect role.
My first outing as a novice was a memorable but nerve-wracking experience. As I hopped into the W1 boat, anxious and not knowing what to say, I was greeted by a wonderful crew who helped teach me what to say, and when, and let me focus on steering round the bendy river Cam. As Cameron, W1’s regular cox, subbed in at the halfway point, I cycled back to the boathouse with a smile knowing that this was the sport for me.
As the weeks continued, I was assigned to the NW1 boat. My first race as a cox was at Clare Novices Regatta, a tournament based off 800m side by side races; an excellent opportunity to show the other colleges what Downing are made of! After we won our first race, a sense of joy and comradery overwhelmed us. We swiftly won our second race but unfortunately lost a very close race in the semi-finals. Nevertheless, the mood was absolutely incredible and we wanted to succeed even more. We continued to progress throughout the term and at the end of term we were getting ready for the Fairbairns head race, a 2.7km race from Jesus Boathouse to the Reach. This was my first opportunity to write up a plan for the entire course, a tip I had learnt from the senior coxes. I wrote down calls and memorised distance markers to motivate and push my crew through their longest ever head race. NW1 pushed hard and finished as the 5th fastest novice women’s crew.
Lent term 2020 began with the winter training camp in Cambridge, as I had graduated from novice to senior. Over the course of six intensive days of coxing, I had realised I had still so much to learn! With the guidance of the senior rowers, I became more aware of certain elements of coxing that I had never considered as a novice, such as reading the mood of the boat, and what to say to make the changes needed to improve any outing. I was given the opportunity to cox the W2 boat and I continued to refine my skills on the river whilst preparing for the highlight of the term – the Lent Bumps. We went into it with confidence, knowing that we had worked hard and pushed ourselves every outing.
Whilst some races were easier than others, my most memorable one was our third race where we found ourselves as the sandwich boat between division 2 and 3 after bumping in our first two races against St Edmund’s W1 and Lady Margaret W2. If we failed to bump up we would have to race twice the following day, at the top of division 3 and the bottom of division 2. We therefore had only one goal: bump Queen’s W2 and move into the Lent Bumps second division, a division Downing W2 had not been in since 2013.
We made a strong start and settled into a good rhythm. However, a boat-stopping crab meant that the progress made was quickly lost and we had to build it up again. It’s in these scenarios that all of my training was needed and I had to keep my crew calm as we aimed to catch up. We found ourselves seeing Queens’ come closer into view, stroke after stroke, and, as we approached Grassy corner, we were back within a station of them. Suddenly, as we approached the Plough Reach, we hear Ian blow his whistle to indicate we were a boat length behind. At this point I had been shouting for what felt like an eternity and lost my voice…a quick swig of water later and I was back shouting at my crew. Hearing two whistles, indicating we were half a boat length away, spurred the crew to push harder than ever before and as we went round Ditton Corner, we bumped Queen’s with a solid thump and breathed a sigh of relief. I still remember every detail of that race, from the gut-wrenching crab to the sheer sense of relief after we managed to bump, and it’s a race I will always play back in my head whenever I think of the most eventful moment of Lent bumps.
At the end of Lent Bumps, we had achieved the incredible accolade of super-blades by bumping five times in five days and cemented Downing W2’s place in the second division. Five months prior, I had no idea what coxing was about. Now I found myself celebrating with an incredible team as they threw me into the river as per tradition, and the months of early mornings to get to this point had paid off.
Unfortunately, my coxing career was interrupted between March 2020 due to the pandemic. During that time
however, I often found myself re-watching the videos livestreamed from bumps and reminiscing of the fun I had at the boathouse as a novice and senior cox. When rowing started again over a year later, I found myself in a familiar spot – at the back of the boat with rudder wires in hand and a microphone strapped on my face (with an additional face mask this time around). I coxed W2 through the June Eights Regatta and we earnt our place as the fastest W2 boat on the river, beating 12 other W1s in the process.
I often find myself rambling on and on about things that I’m enthusiastic about to friends and family. Coxing is one of those things. I never imagined the impact coxing for DCBC would have on my life; it’s made me more confident and assertive. Coxing is difficult but the rewards that are worth all the early morning starts and the outings when things don’t work out. Everyone I’ve met at DCBC have been so welcoming and supportive and has made the entire experience incredible. I’m looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm with novice and senior coxes alike and if you’re interested in giving it a go, get in touch with an LBC!
Ryan Chung – Coxing Rep 2021/22
Cameron, the previous coxing rep, shares some of his experience coxing at DCBC over the last 3 years:
I began my coxing journey as a fresher at Downing without any previous experience. I arrived excited to get involved in a new sport and found myself quickly immersed into the DCBC experience. I wasn’t really a sporty person at school, preferring to watch the rugby from the side lines or help score the cricket, so coxing was the perfect opportunity for me to be part of a team without any of that ‘exercise’ business. However, I soon found that coxing was much more than just ‘steering the boat’…
My first time on the water at Downing was in the Senior W1 crew, who guided me through the basics (and knew to ignore me when I was wrong!), and as soon as we got back to the boathouse I knew that coxing was the job for me. In my novice term, I was assigned to NW2 and occasionally helped out with NW3, which was a great experience because the crews were all friendly and living on the same floor as a few of them made getting up for those first few 6:45am alarms that much easier. Throughout novice term, I experienced real comradery with my crews as it felt like we were all getting better together. The novice races were really fun, except for the time I was roped into QErgs (sorry about that one, NM1), and the coaching I received from DCBC legend Bram Mulder was absolutely fundamental in starting my career as a cox.
After novice term, I found myself as the only novice cox remaining from my cohort and travelled to beautiful Lake Banyoles with a mixed team of novices and seniors, which was where the real training began. I learnt skills there that I am still working to perfect to this day, such as reading the mood of the boat, learning to motivate every member of the crew, and how to bring a boat out of chaos and back into order. These are the skills that separate a novice cox from a senior cox. The Olympic-sized lanes of Lake Banyoles are nothing like the twists and turns of the River Cam, so bringing those skills back from Spain was a separate challenge, but the time in Banyoles was invaluable.
For my first term as a senior cox, I coxed M3, W3, and W4, which kept me in contact with many of the friends I had made in novice term, but also introduced me to many of the veterans of DCBC. I would often use the old joke during that time that “I am at Cambridge to cox and I do a degree on the side”, as I spent almost twice the number of hours each week on the water as I did in the lecture halls. At the end of that term, I scored my first bump during the 2019 Lent Bumps as the M3 cox, which began what has been so far a successful series of Bumps campaigns.
During the Easter Term of 2019, I spent most of my time coxing W2, which elevated my standard of racing coxing to a much higher level and developed my motivation skills (as well as how to sit still- which is surprisingly difficult!). Summertime rowing is by far the best type of rowing (citation not necessary), both for the pleasure of being on the water in afternoon for once (rather than cold winter mornings) and for all of the great social events in DCBC, including Segreants Day, Tribal BBQ, and Pimms and Punting. The term ended in another set of great Bumps results for me and my crew, going +1 overall but adding another two hits to my name.
At the start of Michaelmas 2019, I gained a promotion and found myself at the helm of W1 again, but in a very different position from where I began a year ago. I had become a fairly decent cox and I was proud of the progress I had made. However, I knew that taking full responsibility for a first boat was a big step-up, and even that was an underestimation! The first few weeks of W1 were the most challenging weeks of my coxing career, because I was learning so many new skills and was receiving a really high intensity of coaching. However, I knew that I needed to grow into a better cox and so stepped up to the challenge. I made mistakes- quite often in fact, and sometimes with quite awful consequences. The crew was patient and forgiving and helped me become the cox they needed me to be. And after a point, it all came together perfectly.
W1 started winning race after race, improving across the board each time. Christmas training camp came and went before we could blink and soon we were facing our greatest challenge- the Lent Bumps 2020. We were starting 4th on the river, so the headship was an attainable but distant possibility, as luck needed to be on our side almost as much as skill. However, we had all honed our craft and were determined to be the best crew we could be. On the first day, our bow was scarred by the Emma stern. On the second, we lost our bowlight to a Newnham rigger. Now 2nd on the river with two days to go, we were anxious that the headship was almost in our grasp. On the third day, we chased Jesus all the way to finish, but couldn’t close the gap. We had to face the prospect that, maybe, being the best boat we could be simply wasn’t enough.
That evening, we prepared ourselves for one final effort. I looked back on how far I had come- at old race numbers, at now ancient novice term photographs, and at the notes I had taken from the DCBC coxing greats of my generation: Stephen Harris, Olly Boyne, Daniil Slavin, and Ruth Parker. The following afternoon, we gathered one last time to prep ourselves and agreed that we would either take the headship or go to down to 3rd- anything less would mean failure. At the starting line, I rehearsed my coxing calls one last time, prepared for every scenario, but most importantly that final call, that final push the crew would need. The cannon fired, and we flew. Blades geared up, we set off at a rate I had never seen before. The distance between our bow and their stern shortened with every stroke. I took each corner as tightly as I dared, to scrape off the smallest fraction of an inch to bring us closer. And then, we came around Grassy Corner. Our bow missed their stern by a sliver, but they were doomed- Jesus had taken the turn too wide. Rather than follow them, I gave the rudder a gentle nudge and set us on the destined and inevitable collision course. I shouted at my crew to finish it. I shouted at the Jesus cox to concede. I shouted at myself to go. Both boats shuddered, a hand went up, and I told the 2020 Lents Headship Crew to stop rowing.
That moment of glory would’ve been more than I could have dreamed when I began as a novice cox for Downing. But rowing swiftly became a core part of my life, and like life it has its ups and downs, its highs and lows. But the highs are so worth it, that it makes the lows feel insignificant. Coxing is a huge challenge, but my time as a senior cox and an LBC has taught me so much. It really is an art, at the intersection of F1 driver and motivational speaker. The cox holds the crew together and must channel their emotions into action. DCBC provides everything I wanted out of college life and is open to people of all skill levels and persuasions. As much as taking back the Headship for DCBC was my crowning moment, it would’ve been meaningless if it hadn’t been for the friendships and memories created when I was in the third and fourth boats. Coxing for DCBC has been a wonderfully fulfilling experience for me and I couldn’t imagine university life without it. So, come on down to the boathouse next taster day, get in contact with your LBCs, and, as a great man once said, “get involved”!
Cameron Watson – LBC 2019/20 and Coxing Rep 2020/21
Ruth, who coxed for two years, gives an account of her first year coxing at DCBC:
“I started coxing in my first year having previously taken part in a learn-to-row course. When I turned up at the boat house for the Freshers’ Taster Day and found out about coxing I’m pretty sure my eyes lit up. As much as I love sport, I’ve never been particularly good at it and so I jumped at the chance to get involved in a more strategic and thinking role. Oh, and I quite like the idea of getting to act like I was in charge…
I was absolutely terrified when I found out that as a novice cox, your first outing is with a senior crew. (Something I proceeded to tell the whole of M1 the second I sat in the boat and turned on the cox box microphone). As it turns out, everyone was really friendly and I survived the outing without breaking either a boat or a person and I cycled back to college having truly caught the coxing bug. The coaches and senior rowers who supported me in my first year were amazing and I gradually managed to get a hang of steering and build up a collection of calls designed to spur the crew on during races. It’s often said that the cox is “the coach in the boat” and as the year progressed I worked closely with my crew to improve balance, power and technique.
Whilst the ability to shout and motivate a crew is a key part of coxing, so is the ability to listen. As I moved through the terms I learnt the importance of reading the mood of the boat, taking the feedback of the crew and of moments of silence in an outing. As a cox you have to gauge how your crew is feeling and give calls to respond to this. Sometimes you need to build them up and get them to push when they feel like there’s nothing left and other times you need to be a calming voice that settles people down before the start of the race. When you get it right and see a change take place or when you feel a shift in power as people give it one last push, it’s the best feeling in the world.
Not only has coxing provided an excellent break from my work but it has truly changed me as a person. My family would probably tell you that I’ve always been chatty and a bit bossy but the truth is that I’m often quite shy and coxing has really brought me out of my shell. I’ve grown in confidence, become much more assertive and proved to myself that I can perform under pressure. Coxing is hard work but for every frustrating outing there are plenty more where you feel like progress is being made. Cheesy as it sounds, joining DCBC has felt like joining a new, admittedly slightly mad and rowing-obsessed, family. I’ve met some of my best friends through the boat club and connected with people from a variety of courses and years. Coxing is one of the most challenging and rewarding things I have ever done and I’ve never regretted the decision to visit the boat house as a fresher and get stuck in.”
Ruth Parker – LBC and Coxing Rep 2018/19