Rowing: A look inside a Deerfield Academy coxswain’s mind

  • Deerfield Academy coxswain Neha Jampala takes a quick break during a past event for the Big Green. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A Deerfield Academy four-seat boat with coxswain Neha Jampala (wearing hat) wades in the Charles River during a race last spring. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For the Recorder
Published: 5/3/2022 6:18:49 PM
Modified: 5/3/2022 6:17:17 PM
May 15, 2021: THE CHARLES RIVER

As I traced the river’s race course one last time in my tiny waterproof notebook, I simultaneously called to the rowers: “starboards, run your oars [off the dock], seats back. Ports, one foot in… and in. Starboards, one foot in… and in.

“I’m getting in now, hold onto dock.”

Once I squeezed into the narrow forward-facing “seat” in the bow of the 44-foot racing shell, plugged my CoxBox into the boat’s cord, adjusted the mic band on my visor, and flipped through my warmup drill notes, I called: “we’ll adjust shoes on the water, shove off in two, one, two, SHOVE! Two seat, take a few strokes, tap it up, bow pair, weigh enough [wane-uff], adjust and count down from stern when you’re ready.” 

This entire routine was done in almost 30 seconds. All that simply to push off the dock and get about five feet away from it.

We were the first Deerfield boat of the day to be racing against the Winsor Crew — they looked like tough competition. At the time, my crew had just started rowing recently, being entirely off-season for the previous year and a half due to COVID-19. Aside from a few informal races, this was our only, real, legitimate race — and our last chance before the 2021 season ended to prove ourselves. Throughout entire spring 2021 season, I coxed my crew of four in our endeared Helen Childs Boyden (HCB) shell, starting with my Bow Seat: Georgia Sackery ‘23, 2 Seat: Natalie Meyer ‘23, 3 Seat: Ginger Berry ‘21, and Stoke (Port): Sloan McClure ‘23.

From the very moment we ate lunch, boarded the bus, changed into uniforms, unloaded the trailer, rigged the boats, and launched off the dock — we moved as a single unit. If any one of us was astray, it was the equivalent of no crew at all since we worked like cogs in a machine, each with a specific role… essentially, I was the oil.

My role is often misunderstood as “the small kid who tells the rowers ‘row, go, or stroke,’” but such menial description is hardly enough to encapsulate all of my responsibilities to my crew. I compare the brain capacity needed to the physical capacity of four strong rowers. Stepping into the coxswain’s seat wasn’t as easy as it first seemed; the learning curve was a lot bigger than expected, and earning the respect of our rowers isn’t the easiest and most comfortable thing to accomplish right off the bat as an underclassman. I had to tell the rowers what to do from A to Z, including calling coaching techniques on form and timing, running practice drills, making race plans, handling boat equipment, and managing proper communication between all team members and coaches. 

Once we finished warming up, during which I took mental notes of the wind direction and the best ways to steer around the currents, I brought our boat up level to the Winsor crew. Their bright black and red unis and racing shell starkly contrasted our deep green unis and white shell. I made eye contact with their coxswain, and locked in. My left thumb hovered over the start button on the timer of the CoxBox, my right hand gripped the steering lever, and I was hyper-aware of the waves slapping against the sides of the shell. The coaches called “Deerfield” and I felt my rowers sliding up to a three-quarter slide, squaring their blades slightly against the water tension. In the next half a second, my mouth was prepared to call our first racing command, “PRYYY,” and we were off. The water pushed out from under the shell so fast, blades picked up in such perfect synchrony, creating tiny puddles swept up by the rush of current. I was on Winsor’s two seat within three strokes, so I called: “I’m on their two seat, pull me up to their stroke seat in the next four strokes!”

In my peripheral vision, I could see the slight turn that our boat was approaching and braced myself to make steering adjustments. Keeping a clear “point” with the bow ball sounds simple in theory, but being parallel to shore does not necessarily imply that the boat is pointed straight on the river itself (due to turns). One messy adjustment on your end can throw off the points of all other boats and will soon enough send coxswains squabbling across the river. While steering, I simply had to pray that my 44-foot (or 60-foot) boat would move just the right amount in the right direction with the three-inch rudder. Sometimes, steering can create a slight drag on the boat — so it matters during races to be cognizant of every adjustment made since every tenth of a second is crucial.

Once we resettled, I was right back at eye level with the Winsor coxswain who had picked up her crew ahead of us thanks to spacing leverage in the middle of the river. So I called my crew up to a Power 10, and our bow ball was back on their three seat within about five strokes. I kept my rowers pushing at a relatively high rate, wary of them burning out, and soon enough we were under the middle arch of the Eliot Bridge. I called, “Lock in, drive with your legs, sit tall, breathe, and SEND!” right as we crossed through the bridge, leaving an echo in our wake. We were well ahead of the Winsor crew by the three-minute, 30-second mark, so I had my rowers settle into a base rate to recover before the final sprint.

I could slowly feel their energy waning, and the orange finish line buoy was coming into close sight. But we weren’t quite there yet. I had to tap into the pushiest motivational calls I could make to keep them going up: “Bring it home girls! Send that boat forward! Looking good ladies! Stomp down on those footplates and push ‘em off!” Motivation, which may seem to be the most important duty, is least focused upon since it must come naturally. If motivation sounds rehearsed and awkward, it becomes counterproductive and the rowers tune out the calls — a coxswain’s nightmare. 

Soon enough, my crew crept on the mental landmark I had made earlier — the blue tent which indicated our last 500 meters to sprint for the finish. We were well ahead of the Winsor crew, but I still called our boat up to an ambitiously high stroke rate for the final sprint. This was the hardest part — we had to keep it together, quick and efficient strokes, each one deliberate and strong in midst of the rowers’ mental battles to keep pushing and me on the brink of losing my voice. Everyone was watching this last sprint, and that meant it had to be the best part, to prove ourselves with a seamless finish that looked easier than it felt.

In a blur of second-nature I called out: “Here we go ladies! Hold ’em off and bring it home! Show me you want it! Stick with me here! Lock in, and SEND! Make it look easy! Empty those tanks and power through! THIS IS OUR RACE!” We were through the finish. The cheering that ensued was caught in the frenzy of my rowers trying to finally catch a full breath in a light paddle to recover. Once we turned and paddled back down to the boathouse, we were satisfied to catch our coach — Melanie Onufrieff at the time — wink at us and hint a smile under her mask.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic cost us a season and set us back on training, the dedication and thoughtfulness each person brought to the team every day is what helped us succeed. With almost an entirely novice (but incredibly strong) crew, we were rowing one of Deerfield’s top varsity boats, each of us getting smarter, stronger, and faster while building a bond that we treasure to this day.

There’s something unique about the way rowers connect with each other through their shared pain of burning muscles and flushed faces, but there’s something even more unique about the way coxswains connect with their rowers. Acting as the ultimate controller of an incredibly powerful crew, we step out of the way in many instances (to avoid getting snapped at when they’re in pain and can’t think straight), but also keep a constant eye on their safety, productivity, and well-being. 

As we get the boats moving fast this spring, I look forward to a season where we all grow and rely upon the leadership of one another. Throughout my time coxing, I have learned valuable skills beyond leadership, communication, and decisiveness. To be a coxswain is to be in charge for — not of — your collective crew.

Neha Jampala is a student at Deerfield Academy.

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