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Rowing 101: Head Racing

Now that we are fully into the fall competitive season, it is time I wrote a description of head racing.  In many parts of the world, most fall races are head races while sprint races are more typically raced in Spring and Summer.  Certainly, there are exceptions to this generalization which I will describe later.  For a closer look at sprint racing, see my post on Race Tactics.  First I should describe what a head race is.

Boats on Parade

Head racing is essentially a long distance time trial.  The courses are typically 3 miles, or 5000 meters in distance.  However, there are plenty of races which are longer.  Rather than lining up several boats and racing them head to head, competitors are sent down the course one at a time.  Typically, the interval between boats is about 15 seconds which gives enough space for competitors to safely navigate the course while close enough to feel like they are competing against the crews around them.

For spectators new to the sport,  this can be a confusing arrangement.  The first boat that crosses the finish line is not necessarily the winning boat.  However, we can sometimes make a few assumptions about the finish order based on what we see.  If you have the proper start order information, you can determine if one boat passed another boat during the course.  You can also look at the final margins to tell if one boat got closer to, or farther away from their competitors.

However, these are only assumptions.  Sometimes boats are sent out of the planned order because of crew readiness or the conditions at the start.  Also, the 15 second gaps at the start are only approximate and can sometimes extend to 30 seconds or more if there is miscommunication.  Also, a crew could get penalized or even disqualified if they take a shortcut by not steering properly around a buoy, or impeding another crew.  We won’t really know the results of a race until the start and finish times have been calculated and the final times posted.  This can sometimes take a while.

A Coxswains Course

Head races are often referred to as “coxswains races” due to the turns on the courses, the length of the races, and the fact that competitors sometimes have to pass each other on the course.  All these factors make the coxswain a far more important asset in a head race.

Since courses are longer, very few protected bodies of water allow for a straight three-mile distance.  This means turns.  Some courses, such as the Head of the Snohomish course in Everett, have some very simple turns which are easily navigated.  Other courses, like the Head of the Charles in Boston, have more intricate turns under bridges which demand far more prowess on the tiller.  Still others, like the Head of the Lake in Seattle, have big 180 degree turns which requires crews to ease off on one side to make the turn effectively.  Much like a race car driver coxswains need to study the course and understand exactly how to take each turn to maximize boat speed and minimize distance.  A famous example is the infamous Weeks Bridge and Anderson Bridge combination of turns at the Head of the Charles.  The first turn is a sharp port turn under the Weeks footbridge, followed shortly thereafter by a deceptive turn to starboard.  If the coxswain fails to take the Weeks bridge turn correctly, they can end up too far to the starboard shore to make the Anderson turn.  In this case they will either have to ease off on Starboard to make the turn and lose boat speed, or end up on the wrong side of the course after the turn which will result in a penalty and a possible collision with crews that are warming up.

The length of head races is often 15 to 20 minutes which requires not only the rowers to maintain their intensity for that duration, but the coxswain as well.  The cox must be able to keep the crew sharp by keeping their focus on the task at hand.  This can be a particular challenge for inexperienced coxswains who may start to repeat themselves over and over, or just fall silent.  A good coxswain will keep their crew “in the moment” by helping them only focus on the immediate task at hand; be it passing another crew, taking ten strokes to focus on legs, or getting them to the next landmark.

Although crews start one at a time in a head race, passing often occurs during a race and is often the most exciting part of head racing, especially when these passes happen on a turn.  Some races have specific rules around when and how a crew may pass another such as “no passing zones” in particularly dangerous areas.  The general rule is that the passing boat has the right to demand their favored course by requesting the boat being passed to move to one side or another.  Generally, the passing coxswain will demand the inside of the next turn, as rowing on the outside of a turn can sometimes mean the difference of 5 – 10 seconds of additional time.  In these cases, you can often see coxswains yelling and pointing at other crews to move out of the way.  Unfortunately, some coxswains are oblivious and may not realize what is being asked of them.  In these cases, the passing coxswain has no choice but to pass on whatever side they can and possibly lose time as a result.  Even in racing situations, safety trumps speed.  Often the boat that fails to yield will receive a penalty or be disqualified.

History of Head Racing

The origin of head racing comes from the Head of the River in London.  The original idea in 1926 was to create a race that encouraged long distance training over the winter months.  This spawned a number of other similar races throughout England in the subsequent decades.  Head racing began to take hold in the US as a fall race format in the 1950’s.

Here in the US, head racing is almost exclusively rowed during the fall and sprint races during the spring and summer.  As spring became the “Championship Season” with crews seeking to peak their training year in May and June, long distance training and racing becomes more desirable earlier in the training year.  In Europe, and particularly England, head racing still takes place during much of the year.

For a truly different take on this type of racing, check out bumps racing.