Setting Sweep Boats

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Sep 23, 2021, 7:49:37 PM9/23/21
How does a coxswain get experienced masters rowers to set an eight? These are rowers who don't generally row together in a set configuration. Still, they don't seem to make much of an effort to fix their problems which consist of crashing to one side or another at the catch and making multiple strokes while down on a side. I've mostly been in bow or two seat and feel these effects to the point where I often can't row effectively.

The regular coxswains don't seem to be making an effort to correct the problem.

Some coxing calls that come to mind are:
1. Each of you owns the set on every stroke.
2. if you are down to port, ports pull in a little higher and starboards a little lower.
3. If you are down on your side at the catch all of you should have the boat set by the time your blade is out of the water.

I know these are very general and don't address specific issues but it seems
important to me to focus crews on the set at all times. In our little world, I
expect to occasionally end up in the cox seat and want useful things to say to the crew.

My recent years of experience have been self coached in a pair so the set is always on my mind and now, sitting in bow and 2 seat of an eight, I'm experiencing major culture shock. The above calls are in my head on every stroke in the pair but are they relevant in an eight? I also realize that we all have to work together to fix the set. In the pair I everything I do affects the set. In the eight I feel powerless to fix problems.

The coach has to many boats to manage so it seems to me that it really falls on coxswains to deal with set issues. I'd like to ask the coach about
making the set a point of emphasis for the coxswains but would like to have
some effective ideas before bringing it up..

This has to be one of those eternal issues in Masters Sweep Rowing Clubs.

Any suggestions on useful things to say from the cox seat?



Andy McKenzie

Sep 24, 2021, 4:38:47 AM9/24/21

I think you are right that it's a common problem with mix and match crews in sweep rowing club. Without claiming great cox/coaching expertise things I have found that help:

1. Relentless focus on balance! Often starting from when the boat is stationary. I'll give crews a 'zero tolerance' lecture if the boat isn't level when at easy - even if people are adjusting footplates or taking a drink. Call them out every time a stationary boat isn't level.
2. Analysis of why the boat is losing its balance? It pretty much has to be down to one (or more!) of catch timing, hand height during the stroke, inadequate squaring, uncoordinated finishes or blade height on recovery. This is where I find that eyes closed drills can work. Eyes closed for the cox! I can sometimes feel the lurch better than i can see it.
3. Once you know why the boat is losing its balance you can address the specific thing (or individual) that's creating the balance issue. Could be a stretcher adjustment might help someone finish later - or maybe one side can pull through a bit firmer at the finish so as not to get caught in at the finish, while you ask the other side of the boat to lean back a bit more at the finish. Work on fixing causes, not symptoms.
4. Single stroke drills really help to reinforce the actions and disciplines to re-balance a boat, and I'll do them obsessively, but if the boat is losing balance because of an identifiable factor, you are fighting a losing battle.



Sep 26, 2021, 4:57:46 PM9/26/21

I can use those comments in my presentation to our coach. It points again to the need for coxswains
who can correct problems in the boat while the coach is doing triage elsewhere. In a row last week
the coach came up at the end and saw how the boat was locked down on one side and apologized
saying that, if caught sooner, we would have been rowing by sixes. I think the cox should have tried
to deal with this and not necessarily rowing by sixes which goes to your point of fixing causes not

Since each row is different as crew lineups change, I was wondering if you or others have some
thoughts on roughly matching port and starboard rowers and how effective that can be wrt the set? My
thought is that finish timing is difficult to match without taller rowers making sacrifices but perhaps
you only need to have a tall port match a tall starboard and ditto for shorter rowers. Rower mass
matching also comes to mind as well as the power of the rowers. It seems to me that if you can
approximately match these features in the crew, you have a better chance of a reasonably set boat
remembering that these are masters club boats where you work with those who show up. If you
can roughly balance forces between port and starboard, you may have the chance of a better row.

In my experience we each have a limited range of boat conditions under which we can manage to
make a good stroke or to effect the set. Once outside of that range, sweep rowing is no longer "fun".
In this regard masters boats don't have to be perfectly set, just set well enough so that rowers can
make good strokes most of the time.


Dick White

Sep 26, 2021, 7:06:15 PM9/26/21
It has been a few years since I was associated with a masters sweep rowing club due to political issues within the club leadership/club membership culture. I now scull exclusively in a single or double with a different club. But back then I, like you, alternated between bow pair and cox. In my experience, the women's boat was set very well because they needed superior technique to offset lower strength, and were willing to listen to good coaching. On the other hand, the men's boat where I was trapped was only interested in flexing their pecs and biceps to heave the boat downriver as fast as they thought they were going under brute force. Add to that a disinclination to listening to coaching expertise, and you have a hot mess. When I was in bow seat, I mostly had to worry about the boat suddenly lurching to starboard in the middle of a stroke/recovery causing me to bury the end of my handle in the rising port side of the shell, which was not a "problem" for those in the middle seats where the boat is wider. When I was in the cox seat, not much I said mattered. It apparently never occurred to them that they could go even faster if they paid attention and did it right.


Sep 26, 2021, 7:43:13 PM9/26/21
The cox'n fixes it by leaving the VIII in the boathouse and sending them all sculling until their watercraft improves to a point when they are 'allowed' back in the VIII again...

Andy McKenzie

Sep 27, 2021, 4:52:54 AM9/27/21

Definitely worth 'pairing' bow side and stroke side rowers in terms of size and reach, for a better set. My club tries its best to send out 'balanced' crews in terms of height and skill, but it isn't always possible, especially for mixed gender crews. I wouldn't be worried about having a couple of the crew balance the boat for part of the outing. It gives you space to work on technique and often it's easier for a crew to understand how to get a good stroke if they don't have to fight with set.

Dick's point about women listening more than men rings true. With men's novices quite a bit of the first few outings is getting them to stop trying to monster the boat down the river. Sounds like he has more patience than I do though, if a crew won't listen to coaching advice and at least try and improve technique I don't think I would cox them twice!


Walter Martindale

Sep 27, 2021, 2:34:13 PM9/27/21
One of the often overlooked contributions to balance is the apparent weight of the oar on the oarlock. If one person raises or lowers the oar handle out of sync with the rest of the crew, it will cause a wobble in the boat.

To get an on-land demonstration of this, take the crew outside of the boathouse, give each pair of rowers an oar. Ask them to take turns holding the oar out at arm's length where the oar sits in the oarlock, up against the button/collar/whatever you call it. Have the partner hold the handle, and perform a simulated rowing stroke (careful not to hit people with the blade).

One type of simulated stroke where the person takes the blade out of the water, feathers the oar, lowers the blade back to the water in the middle of the simulated recovery, then raises it above the water to square, and then enter the water... All of this above ground, of course. Then do a simulated stroke where the blade is taken out of the "water," feathered, carried to the "catch" at the same height, and then squared and put into the "water".

Ask the person simulating a rigger to hold the "oarlock" (hand) still while the person on the handle end is moving the handle up and down. After everyone has had a go as an "oarlock", ask them which type of stroke do they think would be easier to balance. Then ask each participant to imagine what's happening to a nearly round-bottomed boat when someone's pushing their handle up and down out of time with everyone, and the oarlock is, say, 84 cm from the midline of the boat... This happens because the mass centre of the oar is outboard from the oarlock...

I showed that trick to a world champion and Olympic medalist - she said that she'd had no idea how much weight was sitting on the oarlock in a whole bunch of years of training and racing at the international level.


Sep 27, 2021, 5:08:43 PM9/27/21
My main takeaway so far is that the set in a sweep club is a culture issue. If there isn't a sustained focus on the importance of setting boats, club members learn to live
with lousy rows and maybe won't care as they rarely end up rowing by eights anyway. I also have observed that the club women are the better rowers with a better understanding of teamwork and moving together.

I agree that any vertical motion of the oar not counterbalanced by a similar motion on the other side of the boat will cause wobbling. I twiddle the hand height a bit
in the pair. If someone wants to tell me I'm a bad boy for doing this, I'll listen. I'm no purist about the set. and don't throw a fit if blades kiss the water on the recovery or am
occasionally down to one side or another. I'll never be a much of a rower in the great scheme of things but I don't want to spend my life locked down or lurching to port or starboard in a sweep boat. I moved into sculling years ago but rowing the pair with a trusted partner is, for now, the greater thrill, requiring constant attention to the set.
I suspect that most of us, if we actually mastered rowing, would be bored and looking for something else to do.

Thanks for all the suggestions, I'll have a good list of ideas for training coxswains to deal with most setuations - if anyone will listen.


Mark Liddell

Sep 27, 2021, 6:24:42 PM9/27/21
I'd love to hear a good answer to this but suspect there isn't one. I gave up being in masters crews after two seasons of suffering unset boats with no prospect of improvement.

Imo the only real answer to this is to put everyone in a 1x, this is the only way people get direct feedback on how they treat a boat and so can learn from it. I don't buy the "I'm good in big boats but not small boats" I hear from people, this usually means everyone else is suffering or compensating for their issues. Yes, sculling it isn't sweep but it doesn't take long to transition over.


Sep 27, 2021, 7:27:28 PM9/27/21
On Monday, September 27, 2021 at 4:24:42 PM UTC-6, Mark Liddell wrote:
> I'd love to hear a good answer to this but suspect there isn't one. I gave up being in masters crews after two seasons of suffering unset boats with no prospect of improvement.
> Imo the only real answer to this is to put everyone in a 1x, this is the only way people get direct feedback on how they treat a boat and so can learn from it. I don't buy the "I'm good in big boats but not small boats" I hear from people, this usually means everyone else is suffering or compensating for their issues. Yes, sculling it isn't sweep but it doesn't take long to transition over.


Having experienced the US way of stuffing us in sweep boats to learn to row, I understand your views. I'd further postulate that sweep clubs have a built-in mechanism for
mediocrity by ejecting the best rowers out of their clubs for the reasons you mentioned. That is a major problem for smaller sweep clubs and is especially true for
community rowing where you accumulate sweepers who have no desire to improve but like being part of a club. I can't come up with a good solution but I can propose a partial answer - Covid 19. Our rowing club resorted to exclusively sculling last year and some long time sweepers were forced to learn to scull. They've even converted some of the fours into coxed quads. Now our typical coached deployment is two eights and three or four quads plus some doubles split amongst two coaches. The downside is that we are back to eights and the quad rowers need more time in singles or doubles. I postulate that you can row as badly in a quad as you can in a sweep boat. Novices are sculling so we'll see if your comment about the transition from sculling to sweep holds up next year.

Unfortunately for good rowing we have vaccines so maybe we need more variants to force us back into singles. The whole Chinook Performance Racing phenomenon in the US Masters scene arose so that skilled rowers could row with other skilled rowers who wanted to win but couldn't do it through their clubs. Chinook did well at Henley Masters a few years ago and they have dominated certain US regattas for years. From my observations, they still bicker and jockey as sweep rowers tend to do but they are winning...

Some wag once said to to me that to have a harmonious rowing club you need to ban sweep rowing altogether. Maybe that's the answer..


James HS

Sep 28, 2021, 4:28:47 AM9/28/21
Hmmmm - I don't think it is masters, or men and women, but rowers.

Where I find the boat is not set then I turn to drills - the drills are designed to remind each athlete where 'they' should 'be'.

dibs/spooning - whatever you call it - to set blade depth, and the feel the effect that being there slightly longer 'sets the boat' (no point being un-stable at the entry/drive!)
Pick drills and Pause drills - pick (arms, body, legs etc and legs, body, arms etc - as warm up drills and as pause drills) - they really show where hands are flying around and/or there are 'lunges'.
finish pauses - finish blade on the water - pause - for about 5-10 of them, then change it to finish pause with blade off the water.

I 'normally' find that 30 minutes of these can re-establish 'set' as no one element cures it all, and imbalance at entry is likely to lead to imbalance at exit.

I also find that these help the 'crew' to gel and work more as a unit.

oh, and no point doing them if it is just going through the motions - if they do not have the desired effect then a drink in the bar talking about old times is probably a better bet :)

James (coach of masters :)))


Sep 29, 2021, 2:26:11 PM9/29/21
Hello Bob,

Having had to coach/cox sweep beginners (mind you in gig boats, a bit
more stable) - my first question would be frontloader or not? When the
cox is able to see the blades, then there are a couple of things which
can be done.

- the most important one: have the rowers sit at frontstops with the
blade square in the water - the blade depth must be the same for all, or
the boat is going to be unsettled immediately. If the oars are too high,
too low for the rower, adjust the height of the gate - or make the
rowers aware that they have to row this particular height (may be
different for each seat).

- single strokes as previously mentioned are good, especially with a
pause at hands body away - to make the rowers aware that they have to
glide together forwards.

- and another thing which you cannot fix in a boat, but maybe before on
the ergo: many rowers don't move the oar horizontally - shoulders go up
and down during the stroke - doesn't help for balance. So show them/have
a demo done on an erg.

- last, the dips at hands body away - blade squared, so that they
understand what it means putting the blade together in the water.

I found that helped a lot - have fun! (and as it was said numerous
times, get them sculling)


Sep 29, 2021, 8:01:14 PM9/29/21
Thanks everyone.
I had a chance to go out in the launch with the coach yesterday and I have to admit that masters coaching is
a difficult task. Just getting crews to follow the plan is frustrating and there often seems to be
someone in the boat pretending to be deaf! Coach worked with eights doing pause drills like
arms away so that they can come up the slide in unison. I didn't bring up emphasizing the set
with the coach as there was no time. Afterwards, I had a chat about the set with the most experienced cox who
had coxed in college. She was pretty blunt about it. She says she tries to fix the set by observing
the boat and fixing issues. When I tried to plant my pet idea about rowers focusing on the set, she said
that, in the past, bringing up the set resulted in the masters rowers blaming other rowers for the
problems and it caused dissention (understatement).

I don't think a coach can fix the set unless the rowers are focused on it as well. The question now
becomes, how do you get sweep rowers to focus on the set without eating each other alive?
So I'm back to my original mantric thoughts:
1. Each of you owns the set on every stroke.
2. if you are down to port, ports pull in a little higher and starboards a little lower.
3. If you are down on your side at the catch all of you should have the boat set by the time your blade is out of the water.
Ala Emm:
4. Always start at the catch and wait until the boat is calm and set before starting.

I have observed that with decent rowers in fours, the set often starts out wonky but they soon get it straightened out.
They are obviously adjusting to each other. So what are they doing when they make those adjustments?
I can't believe that, in rowing, we are aiming only for that perfect mechanical movement up and down the slide.
There are to many external variables affecting the boat for that to be the only goal.
In my opinion each stroke is a living thing because the rowers are alive and continuously adjusting to each other and the boat as they row.
I'd further claim that it is the lack of boat awareness in individual rowers and the consequent inability to adjust, that ruins the set.
I'll further claim that almost any group of rowers with those skills, when thrown into a boat ,can figure out how to set the boat before the row is over.
How can masters rowers learn to do this if they aren't focused on it?
Am I on afterburners and headed straight into the ground on this?


Mark Liddell

Sep 30, 2021, 2:52:13 PM9/30/21
I did enjoyed your response above :) I do really believe that unless rowers get direct feedback from their actions on the boat, significant learning will not occur and that verbal instruction will be of limited utility if there is no obvious feedback loop to learn. If they cannot scull, put the pairs in 2-, breaking the issue up is the best way to start to debug it. If the pairs can muddle along then it is time to look at things like rigging, the largest issue in my masters 4- was that both of us on stroke side came out of the water later than bow side due to longer strokes.
If this is absolutely not possible, start using video shot from a pole on the boat. You’ll see thing like people leaning away from their rigger and timing issues which can be the cause. Masters crews often suffer from very mixed heights and body proportions.

The other seriously answer is that you could just give up and if at race pace of 30+ the boat is set well enough due to the speed and short recovery time just accept this will be the case for steady state, as miserable as the training might be.


Oct 18, 2021, 6:29:40 AM10/18/21
So as noted there are several/many reasons why boat 'set' might not be achieved, but ultimately poor balance is caused by.. poor rowing. There are a handful of generic things that tend to help off the bat, namely (1) timing (it's boring but call catches and finishes, be the 'drum' in the boat to work off), and (2) as you mentioned ensuring people are finishing the stroke off correctly.

I'd alter/expand James' response a little further; "Hmmmm - I don't think it is masters, or men and women, or rowers, but *people*!"

The theme of responses seems to indicate a "lack of responsibility/care" particularly with male rowers, it's a comment that happens right down the rowing ranks, and I think is generally unhelpful. It encourages distrust and leads to a bit of a blame game. If you truly believe no-one else in the boat wants to row in a more stable boat/row better - and you do, then you either have to think about how you want to change that, or leave! But i think you'll find that actually people care more then you assume! It really get's my goat when someone says a comment along these lines after (or worse during) and outing, when I've done nothing but try all outing, and i've seen how it can beat down a crew when these comments persist.

So have a chat out of the water... cards on the table... do we want to row better? ok so how might be go about that? No blame, get people thinking about what they're doing, and what you might like to change.

e.g. turn;

"I'd further claim that it is the lack of boat awareness in individual rowers and the consequent inability to adjust, that ruins the set."


"How can we improve our awareness of what we're doing individually in the boat?"
"Are there micro-adjustments we can make along the way that may help us come together in different combinations?"

If you've got a coach great, they can help steer, but it's down to you as a group to buy into it, so it's better if you can come up with some things, and then you can also think about what you expect of each other when one of you coxes etc.

In terms of drills, I'd defintely considering things like doing a bit of rolling 6s, or rowing dirty blades (blade on the water), if they help give you a better platform for you to then go onto work/enjoy an outing, there's no shame! All it really does is scrub a bit of speed off the boat, but you can still work hard and work on the other aspects of the stroke! (I like to compare it to headwind cycling, the speed can drop significantly, for the same HR/Power, but if I 'accept' that then I'm more likely to ignore that condition and still have a lovely ride, and I'll be faster next week, vs destroying myself, probably failing to maintain some arbitrary speed for the day - skipping 2 sessions because I'm physically and emotionally spent!)

I'm afraid "just go single" to me isn't the answer, whilst it can be an invaluable learning tool in the right hands, I've rowed with people who've been sent to the "single till you can row, then you're allowed back" school, and they're just as disruptive when they came back into larger boats (despite turning into decent scullers), perhaps even worse! if you think they didn't care about the balance in a large boat, why would they care about if they only have to answer to themselves? : )
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