Why coxes matter, especially on the Tideway
Coxes are valued members of the club. Everyone realises how important they are not just to racing success but also to safe navigation on the Tideway. If you are an experienced cox you will have the chance to cox men’s and women’s eights and fours in heads and regattas. Novice coxes will have the chance to build their Tideway experience, supported by the coaching team. A cox is unique in sport - helmsman, coach, and tactician. The rewards include being part of a team, developing leadership skills and the social side.
A cox can be very cold and uncomfortable for hours at a time, especially in winter training. Even in summer there is no actual exercise involved to enhance fitness. So what does a cox gain from our sport? Trevor Cave is one of Sons fairly experienced coxes and has coxed about 400 outings for the club. He offers below some encouraging reasons for becoming a cox.
I coxed initially from 1971 to 1975 basically because I was small enough. I was persuaded back in 2001 and was struck immediately by how many really friendly people there are in rowing and how much so many of them welcomed coxes. Almost every club is perpetually short of coxes and rowers generally remain very appreciative, sometimes quite touchingly so. The expressed recognition from crews, for example that particularly Tideway trophies are significantly due to the cox steering well on the stream, makes them more special than mere straight-line regatta pots.
That many clubs try to poach coxes from others must indicate a perceived need at least, if not always appreciation. Even relative novices are much in demand. One novice had been coxing at Sons for less than 30 outings when she was asked to cox a Henley crew for another club.
A great majority of people in rowing are exceptionally fine and congenial. We form a machine of 2,4,5 or 9 people, so we have to work together well. The feeling in a crew can be very special even when one is not fully conscious of it. I had my 50th birthday party at a regatta. My Sister Janice was so struck by the rapport between me and my crew that she began to understand, for the first time, why people enjoy sport. My crew at Henley Women’s 03 was certainly pleased to celebrate together despite losing in the first round to an American University crew (in the Club event!!)
Training with any crew, a cox can feel gratified by helping the development or at least knowing one has steered usefully. They simply must have a cox for an 8; it’s really a 9. Many coxes are also accomplished rowers and scullers. They enjoy, surely, helping their clubmates perform well on the water. Certainly too they can offer greater understanding of technique and motivation. Though some might be a bit heavier, their knowledge can overcome that penalty fairly readily.
(The speed penalty due to weight is only about 1/3 of the percentage change in overall weight of the boat and crew.)Steering well still gives great satisfaction too. Carving precisely through the pack at Heads of River and brushing the reeds is exciting. Coxing can yield a return professionally as well. Several work colleagues noticed how I became much more interactive after I started coxing again, more of a "team player" in fact, which I had not often needed to be in my career. I have often had to encourage and guide younger or less confident colleagues and I find myself "coxing" them. They often notice and appreciate it. One can be more comfortable in command of unusual situations and more ready to take a lead. I surprise senior management sometimes with my confidence in approaching them. One was 6ft 6 and a former 2nd row at rugby. He had been quite aggressive as he probed my arguments. He apologised afterwards and I responded “Not at all, I shout at eight meat-heads your size in a boat quite often.” He was quite amused and we worked well together after that.
I have had many occasions to be delighted at the success of my crews, sometimes with me, others when I have won after someone else trained with them and sometimes vice versa. Seeing the pleasure of the other coxes and coaches involved is itself rewarding. For Sons, I steered the Veteran C Novice 4 in the "Fives" Head 2005, after one of our novices had coxed them for training, while I was working away from home. She expressed great pride in what the 6 of us achieved. Our chief competition that day was a Vesta crew who were clearly both bigger and faster than we. I took account of our lop-sided crew where bow side was much stronger and somewhat younger than strokeside.
I set the boat to the right of the stream such that it steered more or less correctly all the way. The Vesta cox did not know the river so well and steered waywardly. We beat them by 45 sec in a 23 minute race. We won the trophy too.
On the other hand I was ill for Oxford Regatta in 2006, so John Axcell, a very good cox from the Army, won the novice pots for my men’s squad. I was very pleased and proud of them all, even though sad not be there for it. Later, with Sons IM3, I beat John coxing a college crew at Dorney Lake and I was really chuffed to have done so. My WN crew in 05 eventually won its pots with Jessica Griffing coxing at Molesey when I could not be there. I was delighted for them too.
If one has the time to train regularly, even a modest cox can reach quite a high level. Although most of my coxing has been at club level, I have subbed for a GB cox and one GB cox has subbed for me. I have coxed Olympians about a dozen times and in 2004 I started one young woman towards her Paralympic Gold in 2012.
So coxing can give a lot back to the right type (size?) of people who might enjoy a sport in which they can fit well.
So why did I settle at Sons?
I have found Sons to be about the friendliest club in London and the most sensible about training coxes. Rowers have done land training to allow a cox to be shown the river in detail - see my Tideway Tour guide below. If you are already a cox, all clubs will want you but Sons will offer you a nicer choice of activity and recognise sensible degrees of availability and commitment. If you don't cox yet but might try, Sons knows how to train you effectively.
Visitors to this web site are invited most warmly to come to Sons and try it.
Trev's Tideway Tour
The following notes are from our own Trevor Cave, an experienced Tideway cox who has developed a close appreciation of the river.
This is by no means a complete, definitive, exhaustive treatise but a useful start. These are the sort of things I show new coxes and bow steers in the light of about 500 outings I have coxed on the Tideway's Championship Course, between 2001 and 2012.
Obviously in a Tour we emphasise the PLA steering rules and appropriate landmarks throughout. This is best done normally on mid to lower half of ebb tide e.g. H + 4 hrs.
I have been coxing on London's Tideway for about 8 years. During that time there have been some 400,000 outings from over 20 clubs on the Tideway. I have heard of about 90 sinkings in that time, half due to collision and half due to bad weather. I have done over 500 outings myself in which I have damaged a boat badly on a rock once, run aground about 6 times, had one major collision, been worried about sinking 4 times and almost sunk once. Thus, dangerous incidents are not very common but more likely than on, say, the Cam or Upper Thames. There is up to 20 ft tide and stream of up to six knots.
A major concern is "wind over tide". If a strong wind opposes a strong tide, waves build up in parts of the river that can swamp a boat. 2006 Boat Race is an example, 2007 Men’s HoR another. I always brief a crew in bad weather to alert me to water entering the boat, in case I have not seen it. I consider where to beach and am prepared to ask people to jump out if necessary, then step carefully on the river bed lest they tread on a jagged rock or broken glass etc.. If landing with a swamped boat, do not try to lift it full. Walk it out again into the river and turn it over first to empty it. It willbe much easier!
In rough weather always be ready to abandon an outing, especially if not ideally equipped. I was once nagged by a men's crew to cox them in a women's boat on a windy day and I refused. 20 minutes later the Fire Brigade boat came by at speed, almost swamping a passing four. It would have sunk us and the chaps were duly apologetic.
Just a thought about big wash from launches or cruisers. Our captain recently demonstrated a textbook safety trick by asking all the crew on the side nearer the incoming wave to lift their blade handles, tipping the boat away to avoid being swamped. If close inshore, be aware this may wash a boat towards grounding too.
Features in order from leaving Putney
(Assumes going up river first on an ebb tide but first I insert a good point from a fellow Son, Jan Madakbas. When turning between the line of boats and Putney Pier into or outof Putney, always aim for the up-tide side of the gap. The stream is often strong and it can require some effort from a crew to pull away from the other side against the tide. Sons being half way up the Championship Course, we don't go down to Putney so often.
Touring up past boathouses note spits on Surrey, especially near Beverley Brook and quite varied shoreline. Note fairly frequent rocks. Discuss red buoys and recognising high tide turning line of water on wall. Tide turning zone from flood to ebb runs up river at about the speed of an outing, beware crews in wrong direction at these times.
Note that if water level is still on bricked walls, little danger of grounding etc., as the reinforced part is a steeper bank, but beware overhanging trees. Once the tideline is on mud and shingle, generally there are few "small" hazards on Surrey until crossing point at Chiswick Steps but note the type of rocks and twigs etc. and be aware of how far down the shore is sloping at 15 degrees or so, It flattens much lower down. On Surrey it is possible to ground blades and hull together, harder on Middx up river from Dove Pier.
Note the very shallow water near Middx and Fulham Flats but do not think of beaching there at anything above moderate tide as one may not climb the wall. (Note usual right hand steering rule for all but race days below Putney Bridge.)
Just below Barn Elms ramp is a nasty few rocks on a shoal that could catch you at the wrong tide, easily grounding hull before blades. Indeed on wider, straighter sections, there is more shoaling than on bends.
Up towards Hammersmith Bridge, note a separate rock just down below 2nd or 3rd set of steps from Bridge. Note the "step" on the bridge parapets.
If the water is more than 6" below that, always take the middle arch, close to the parapet. If possible notice the rocks under Surrey arch, to see what must be avoided.
Something I only experienced late 2007 was the eddy near the Hammersmith Bridge parapet. Due to a bizarre circumstance of traffic and avoiding a veteran sculler I was nearly drawn into the bridge on the downstream side of the parapet. I had to take strong avoiding action like full pressure one side and ghost pressure the other.
The Surrey shore of the Tideway from the Bridge to St Paul's has lots of nasty jaggies and again, inside blades can ground after hull at low tide. Look at these whenever possible and report removable ones to TRRC via the club safety officer. There are two significant spits above St Paul's ramp at low tide and below Sons.If opportune, notice how to aim just behind downstream boats for crossing.
Significantly something I have noticed more recently is that on Middx below Eyot, where we seldom go, and on Surrey below St Pauls, there are several places where the bank shoals upwards further out. I found this on Middx for 07 VHoR too at Fulham.
There is a nasty spit just up from Sons pontoon on Middx and several jaggies further out at very low tide. I have cleaned foreshore from roughly a length above Sons pontoon to Latymer such that few big rocks still hazard landing.
Note "popple" on water over shallows, especially over outfall just opposite Island and long spit opposite PLA driftwood barge moored below Chiswick Pier. Blades can be clear of ground both sides and hull or fin can ground on it; I have done that twice.
Do not start to cross until above top barge above Pier then do so fairly quickly. Steve Kerr of FSC has noted a very flat area on Surrey like the earlier spit noted above. After crossing, do not wait at crossing point. Along Middx, same point obtains about the bricked part of the bank being steep but also, on Middx from Chiswick Steps crossing to next crossing at Ship, there are few parts where ground slopes too gently. If shoreward blades are grounding, the hull probably won't except at Emmanuel Spit, note also sideways current there, pushing bows into middle of river unless approaching this spit from wide offshore and turn in to parallel the bank by Tradesmen.
En route look also at Surrey shore at lowish tide. Not too many rocks etc. Crews marshal here for major heads but do not be too close in. It would be a good place, however, to beach if swamped and too much traffic prevented landing at a club. Above bridge, Middx bank is quite crooked but usually slopes steeply enough that grounding inside blades is a useful warning. Note on Middx some shoring of bank. Such wooden posts are no hazard there but occur up near Pink Palace and on Surrey too above Kew Wall, where they might be dodgy at certain tides.
On Surrey just above bridge is drainage outfall, can cause deceptive swirls if travelling slowly down river. Note about 100 yds above White Hart, nasty mooring post, hazard at high tide if marshalling on Surrey for HoR.
Recognise Ship Tavern as crossing point, look for gap in boats coming down and aim behind last one before the gap. With a fast heavy men's crew beware the shallows on Surrey after crossing. I often have to ignore the red buoy at even moderate tide. Incidentally, re the red marker buoys. I saw one almost submerged at Brentford recently. Be aware of where they are and what they each indicate.
Also there is one new rock further down than one might expect which snagged the Sons’ W4- late 06. Note Univ Stone on Surrey and Post on Middx. On Middx, note landing for Tideway Scullers. They do not dredge this like I do at Sons and there are several nasty jaggies. We waited there for 20 mins and, as the tide ebbed, I was in danger of scratching the brand new boat for which I'd have been slung out.
Through Chiswick bridge, shallow spit on Surrey past Putney Town club, known as "The Nose" and caused by a WW2 bomb crater, then sewage outfall from new block of flats. Over on Middx, the muddy banks to Mortlake and Quintin can be very smelly because of this. When landing there for regattas, take wellies and / or bottle of water for washing crew's feet. Note crooked bank again and a new flattish spits where hull can ground before blades. Be aware of where to beach if washed down or punctured in collision.
Marshalling for major HoRR
Read marshalling instructions and comply with them!. You may have to wait for well over an hour. When waiting, be ready to use a stroke from any member of the crew to adjust position, e.g. 7 will pull stern towards bowside whilst bow will pull bows to stroke side. Stream near the bank can be very varied. One crew might sit serenely while the next two are tapping a couple of blades every 30 seconds. Beware snagging boat on other crew's riggers or numbers. Catch numbers drifting by and return them if possible. Tops off as late as we dare, half the crew at a time to maintain available propulsion and control. Turn as late as possible too so as not to need to back down when out in stream. By contrast, if starting just above the Bridge, turn when instructed by marshals.
Towards start, keep well up to crew in front but avoid overlap and stand by for marshal's instructions to slow down or stop. 3/4 pressure before Chiswick Bridge and line up according to instructions. They often have different lanes for odd and even crew numbers Beware occasional visiting crews, often college, which exercises the right to stop and make a standing start - havoc for the procession behind. Try to remember to start cox box timing; I usually forget. You should be broadly in the middle of the river for a downstream race.
At Putney, plough on a couple of strokes past finish to be sure, wind down but keep moving through both bridges. Turn as soon as possible after Wandsworth Railway Bridge as there is a shoal near Surrey on which we grounded in 04 4s’ HoR with boats passing on both sides while we stood in the river. Though not grounding, the shoals were observed on Middx for 07 VHoR too.
Maybe even go under Putney Pier. Don't do this at very high tide – a tall crew could bang heads. NEVER cross line of boats at Putney. I did once and was told how seven people have drowned before in various attempts. I saw one crew break in two trying this in VHoR 04. They told me that a marshal had told them to do so. Cox is in command no matter what a marshal says. Just opposite Putney Pier are steps in the Fulham Wall. This is the official crossing point and may also be one more place to try to land in appalling weather on Middx.
I have seldom travelled down river from Wandsworth and would not recommend it without an escorting launch. I found that at even moderate tides, the vertical walls reflect wash from cruisers, so it can be quite coastal. There is also nowhere to beach if swamped.
One thing I've never quite had to do is cope with actually sinking. Some visitors to Sons from Devon, who row near the coast, have told me that it is possible to row slowly under water even when swamped up to the waist. Rating is low and feathering very important. Squaring late is allowed as it is esential. I hope I never need to prove that nor need anybody reading. I doubt a crew could make much progress against a full Thames tide either. If anyone has such experience, please advise us...