Inside every crew boat that competes for Yale, amongst the brawny rowers, is a much smaller member of the team known as the coxswain.
Most coxswains at Yale are not recruited athletes, but they are trusted with an essential part of winning a regatta: steering the boat. In addition, coxswains play the role of leader on the boat, in charge of the coaching and motivation that can make or break a race.
“They don’t recruit a lot of coxswains. Some coxswains walk on with experience, having done it in high school and just not getting recruited. But then we have coxswains who just walked on totally novice,” said Grant Louis ’18, who was recruited.
Louis noted that of the six coxswains on the men’s heavyweight crew team, only two were recruited.
Louis’ Yale recruitment process began the summer after his junior year, when he coxed in the 2013 World Rowing Junior Championships in Trakai, Lithuania. He said that unlike rowers, whose recruitment is largely based on ‘erg scores’ indicative of overall fitness, recruiting for coxswains is not so cut and dry.
“You can send in a recording, but that isn’t a really great indication of how well you run practice and exist with your teammates,” Louis said. “A lot is based on the success of [your] boat.”
In contrast with Louis, Jack Barry ’18 had no prior crew experience and no plans to take up the sport when he arrived at Yale in August.
“On move-in day a big group of the heavyweight crew guys surrounded me and handed me a flyer that said ‘Small? Join crew!’ So I said yeah, I can do this! … I just kept showing up to their hangouts and the meeting for eligibility,” Barry said. “Before I knew it, I was going out to the boathouse every day. It was something that kind of just happened, and I’m glad it did.”
Louis divided the coxswain’s responsibilities into three parts: steering, running drills and coaching.
According to the rowers interviewed, a good coxswain should not be just someone who steers, but an engaged team member who dynamically leads the boat.
Dougall Hamilton ’18 and Clemens Barth ’15, both rowers on the heavyweight crew team, agreed with Louis. Hamilton said that a good coxswain will take control of a boat and set the tone of the practice, and Barth added that part of the coxswain’s job is to execute the coach’s plan when the team is off the water.
“On race day we’re completely independent of the coaches, and essentially our coach is the coxswain,” said Hamilton.
Barth agreed, saying the coxswain is almost the team’s “second coach.”
Members of the crew team said that one characteristic that separates a novice coxswain from a veteran is the ‘feel’ — which, according to Louis, enables the coxswain to improve the team’s rowing from his seat.
“They talk about a thing called ‘boat feel’ whenever you’re more experienced,” Barry said. “It’s being able to feel how the wind is influencing the boat, the water beneath it, currents [and] how the guys are moving in it. If you’re able to sense that something is slightly wrong, you’re able to pinpoint which rower it is, and what that problem is, and coach them through it in the midst of the race.”
Rower Paul Jacquot ’18 said that even if a crew has the best eight rowers in the world, it will not move forward without a good coxswain that can make the team work together.
“I think a coxswain is capable of making an average crew an excellent crew,” Hamilton said.
Barth noted that not only can a good coxswain make a boat go faster, but bad coxing can be detrimental to the boat’s success. He shared a story of one previous coxswain that simply counted the team’s strokes rather than offering any advice or feedback for the rowers.
Though the rowers do most of the physical work, Louis expressed frustration with contradictory expectations that coaches and teammates have of their coxswains.
“I’ll get yelled at for something, and then the next day, I’ll get yelled at for not doing that thing,” Louis said.
Despite the occasional inconsistencies and the additional coaching pressures, both coxswains interviewed said that they relish their role on the team, and all three rowers interviewed agreed that the coxswain is a vital part of the team.
The Yale men’s heavyweight crew team recently finished second at the Princeton Chase on Oct. 26. The regatta was the final race of the fall season for the Bulldogs.