What’s the Best Place for a Coxswain?

In 1929, London Rowing Club experimented with ‘syncopated rowing’ whereby each pair in an eight took the catch a quarter of a stroke after the pair in front so that four oars were always in the water. As the system demanded more space between the rowers, a longer eight was built with the cox seated in the centre between ‘4’ and ‘5’.

6 February 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch has some suggestions on where to put the small shouty person.

Asked ‘What’s the best place for a coxswain?’ many rowers would be tempted towards Biblical revenge and turn to The Book of Revelation, suggesting that the noisy deadweights all be sent to steer on the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. The justice of this can be debated but the question here is actually ‘what’s the best place for a coxswain in a boat?’

For singles, the question of coxswains rarely arises, and nowadays coxed pairs are almost non-existent (especially since they were dropped as an Olympic event in 1992). In fours racing, bow-coxing is universal for higher status crews while stern-coxed boats are reserved for the less experienced club crews. In a piece titled “Revenge of the bowloader”Rowing News of 19 July 2017 noted:

The first boats to feature a lie-down cox were pairs, developed by Georg von Opel in Germany in the 1950s. They were immediately successful. Within 10 years, the bow cox had spread to fours.

Rowing News also held that the last time a stern-coxed four won an international event was in 1972:

In one of the most famous coxed four races ever, at the… Munich Olympics the bow-cox East Germans raced down the course with the West Germans in a stern cox. The West Germans, dubbed the Bulls of Konstanz for their musculature, caught the ‘Easties’ in the last 100 meters by rowing in the forties. People who were there describe it as the most frenzied, loudest crowd ever to cheer for a rowing race.

The obvious advantage of a bow-coxed four is that, with much of the coxswain’s weight below the waterline, the centre of gravity is lower, making for a more stable boat. Some claim that the weight of the five bodies is more evenly distributed in a bowloader but in fact there is little difference as moving the cox to the bow requires moving the rowers to the stern. It may be easier to steer a bowloader down a straight buoyed course but there is a great advantage in a cox in the stern being able to see the crew and their bladework.

A centre-coxed four was built by the Soviets in 1979 when they experimented with syncopated rowing. A women’s coxed four succeeded in mastering the style but concluded that it gave them no speed advantage. However, they rowed the boat conventionally to win World golds in 1979 and 1981 and Olympic bronze in 1980.
Another view of the Soviet centre-coxed four.

As to eights, it would seem that coxing from the stern is the only choice. However, in the 1980s the Soviets, in particular, experimented with bow-coxed eights. Probably only Empacher made them and veteran umpire David Biddulph thinks that, in Britain, Walton RC, Lea RC and Westminster School BC each had one. Walton still has theirs (rigged as an octuple) and Lea certainly did have one, I raced against it in the late 1980s. Thus, if bow-coxed fours are dominant in high status racing, why do not eights use this system? A clue may be gained from my race against the Lea – the east Londoners were disqualified for steering into the boat racing alongside them.

Cranmore School sculling in Walton RC’s bow-coxed octuple in 2018 (the cox is not visible in this picture).
The Soviet bow-coxed eight in lane four in the 1988 Olympic final. They came second. Video of the race is on YouTube.
The Soviet bow-coxed eight racing at Henley in 1989 with the coxswain’s head arrowed. In 2002, at least, the Russian junior women were in a bow-coxed eight for the FISA World Rowing Junior Championships.

The rudder on a rowing boat steers by swinging the boat at the stern, the bow stays fairly still. Thus, a cox in the bow has little feeling for how far the stern has moved. This effect is not too great in a four, but it is a problem in a much longer boat such as an eight. Another bow coxing problem exaggerated by an eight is that the cox cannot judge the distance between his or her boat and one alongside them. Because of this, in the UK in the early 1990s, both the men’s and women’s Head of the River Race banned them. They are still allowed under British Rowing and FISA rules, but the consensus seems to be that they confer no advantage in speed and that the coxes of eights can be more effective in motivating and coaching when they can see the crew.

Perhaps eights could throw away their cox permanently? Oriel College, pictured here, did it temporarily when they went Head of the River at Oxford in 2019.

Finally, as we have coxless fours, why not coxless eights? Someone clever at Oxford University has studied The Effect of Weight in Rowing. Section 7 is titled ‘Effect of Deadweight on Boat Speed’ (coxswains are, of course, ‘deadweight’). After lots of difficult sums, the conclusion is:

(The) percentage loss of speed is one-sixth the percentage increase in mass. An example: assume an VIII, total mass 800 kg (=8x80kg rowers + 50kg cox + 100kg boat + 10kg oars). An extra 10 kg (=22 lbs) represents 1/80=1.25% increase in mass. So the boat moves 1.25/6=0.2% slower. Over a 6 minute race (eg 2000m) this corresponds to 0.6 sec, or 4m (about 1/5th of a boat-length). How fast would a coxless VIII be? Minus 50kg represents a 6.25% decrease in mass, so the boat would be 6.25/6 ~ 1% faster.

Theoretical maths aside, this is how coxless eights racing would probably look in practice. Conventionally coxed OUBC and Oxford Brooks boats clash during a fixture held in 2018.

Thus, the theory is that coxless eights would be faster. In practice, six competing coxless eights would actually take about an hour to cover 2000m because the race would have to be restarted every few metres as crews repeatedly veered into each other, any small deviation from a straight course magnified by the long, fast boats. However, this scene of carnage would delight a non-rowing audience, the general public much preferring swampings and clashes to boring old uneventful (if fair) racing. As FISA is desperate to entertain such people in order to keep the sport in the Olympics (suggesting such things as the ridiculous ‘beach sprint’ rowing), perhaps we will see eights sans coxswain in the Paris Olympic Games of 2024. The winner would probably be the last boat that was not disabled or disqualified.

3 comments

  1. As has been pointed out on Twitter, not only Empacher but also Janousek made bow-coxed eights. As I posted a picture of Walton’s bow-coxed Jano, I should have known!

    • As well as the examples given, both George Watsons College and George Heriots School had Janousek bow coxed eights in the 90s. My view was that they reduce the role of the cox to a steersperson, and the vital communication between stroke and cox (hence crew) is lost.

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