Safety is an often neglected aspect in day to day rowing that needs addressing. I want to make sure you are well informed. Safety should be everyone’s number one priority. As a coxswain your job, safety- wise, is to keep your eyes and ears open and use good judgement. All the things we will talk about in this book are important to safety: being aware of your surroundings, your steering, position on the river, working with other crews, listening to the coach, and being decisive. Collisions are ugly, sinking is scary, and all can be deadly, especially in cold weather. This is not to scare you but to give you the facts. This section will give you peace of mind because you will know that you can handle an emergency situation.

Priority Knowledge

The best preparation for an emergency situation is to anticipate and avoid one. This is everyone’s job. Use common sense and experience as your guide. The coxswain is the leader of the boat and needs to use those leadership skills. Do what is needed to stay out of harms way. If you have to give commands or orders to your crew, do so clearly and succinctly. Make sure you are heard by everyone. Most importantly in any situation is to listen to the coaches directions! Keep all these things in mind as you read through this book.

To start with, even before you lift a shell off the rack you need to do a safety inspection. During a safety inspection you quickly go over the boat and make sure that the shell is undamaged and safe to row. You should check: fin (or skeg) should be on tight, the center marker ape on the rudder lines is accurate, the bow ball is in good condition and on securely, there should are no cracks or other damage to the hull, and all rigger nuts should be tight. If your crew rows the boat everyday then you should be aware of the shell you use. If other crews use your shell also, then it is important to take a good look at things before you begin so you do not waste time and energy on the water. You also do not want to be wasting time because you failed to notice the crack in your shell that at this point has you and your crew sitting swamped, up to you waist in water.

The first rule is, when in doubt way-enough [stop]. A collision with another boat or obstacle should be avoided at all costs. Clashing oars with another crew happens from time to time, but more than that can lead to a dangerous situation for all involved. There is no excuse for hitting another crew. Never take an arrogant attitude and expect other boats to move “or else”. That is why it is important to be aware of where you are and what is going on around you on the water at all times. People have been seriously injured and even killed in collisions between boats. The side by to the way-enough rule is that you have to be aware of wind and current. And how they are effecting your shell. Either of these elements can push you into danger quicker than you realize.

Traffic Hazards

Learn the traffic patterns for the body of water you row on. Steering a shell is like driving a car, you need to know the rules of the road. Generally crews stay to the right and try to pass crews on the left. If you are on a body of water where there is regular motor boat traffic you will need to be aware of certain coast guard rules for navigation also. You will see buoys marked in either red or green. On a navigable body of water red is equivalent to port (left) and green equals starboard (right). The rule is that you keep red buoys on your left. Ask about and learn where obstacles and underwater snags (rocks, old pier pilings, sunken trees, sand bars) are located. Do this whenever you go to a new body of water to row. What you see can tell you a lot about what you can not see. There are obvious things like rocks, but those rocks can be a warning about other hidden snags beneath the surface right nearby. Rocks are like icebergs in the ocean: what you see is only about 10% of the total iceberg! Furthermore, logs and trees often get caught against rocks during storms and can be sitting where you can not see them. Those same sticks or logs poking out of the water, in other locations, are good warnings that there may be larger sunken logs below the surface or that the water is shallow in that area. Birds standing in the water are also a solid indicator that the area is shallow. Shallow areas include sand bars- areas where the sand has built up over time. Often times if you look closely you may even be able to see a brownish area in the water where the sand bar is located. Sand bars are often found between rocky areas, or near the shores around islands. Lastly, around the shore and near docks you have to be aware of old pilings or docks that may not show themselves except when the time is low. These items many times have bolts, cables, and other metal objects sticking out of them that can tear out the bottom of a shell easier than the pilings themselves.

Physical structures are not the only hazards you may have to contend with or be aware of, you have to watch for the human element also. First and foremost is other river traffic in the form of other boat traffic. Anything from fishing boats to canoes, kayaks, barges, sail boats, jet skis, and tankers. Even police and fire vessels should be watched closely because many of the individuals piloting these craft, and the ones listed above, may not pay attention to or be able to see shells. They may not be very skilled in operating or piloting their craft either. Nor do they understand how a shell steers, how close to the water a shell sits, or how vulnerable it is to swamping. Even if they are competent and aware they may not be able to get out of your way in time to avoid you, so that is why it is important to try and anticipate where they are headed and how you can keep your crew safe. In some cases the operator of a boat may even think it is a good game to cause large wakes for shells. In this case you can only use your best judgement in trying to avoid these ignoramuses and report them later to the authorities.

The second kind of human hazard comes from people on shore. It is not uncommon to have individuals drop bricks or rocks off bridges onto crews going by below. You need to keep an eye out for fishermen and their fishing lines coming from shore that you do not want to get snagged on. Fishermen do not take kindly to having their poles ripped from their hands as you go by in a full pressure knot of fishing line. Lastly, just because you are on the water does not mean that there are not possibly people with firearms nearby. They could be hunters or thugs, but in either case crews have been shot at intentionally. In any of the cases discussed above your safest bet is to avoid a confrontation, keep your mouth shut and leave the area as quickly and safely as you can. If possible make a note of the description of the person or vessel that harassed you and call the authorities immediately upon returning to the boat house.

You must be careful around bridges, especially when currents are fast since water rushing through a bridge arch acts like a funnel and can pull you into a bridge abuttment (support) very rapidly. Try to keep the shell centered in the arch when rowing through and never turn your shell upstream of a bridge unless you are at least 500 meters away. Again, those quick currents can push your shell against the bridge very quickly.


It also doesn’t hurt to look at some of the same things a coach looks at before each outing. Weather conditions and reports, and water conditions are key. The weather can change quickly on the water and turn a slightly cloudy day into a full blown storm in a matter of minutes. Keep an eye on the sky. If you hear thunder or see lightning, turn for the boat house immediately.

One weather condition that can move in quickly and catch you by surprise is fog. Fog can set in and dissipate very rapidly. If you get caught on the water in fog slow way down, it is easy to lose all sense of direction and quickly end up in a bad situation. Even sounds get muted when you get caught in the fog, it is like having a wet blanket thrown on your head. In this case it’s best for everyone to remain alert and keep their eyes open. It will be harder to tell where other boats are, and harder for them to tell where you are, so turn your sound system way up and make lots of noise. Your coach will tell you what to do next, usually following the shore line back to the boat house is the recommended course of action.

Another usefulpiece of safety equipment on the water is a bow light. It is critical when going out on the water when it is dark. Although it is the coach’s responsibility to provide one, know that you should never be out on the water in the dark without one. A bow light is usually made by putting a plastic cone over a flashlight and then it is attached near thebow ball or on the washbox. It serves the same purpose as lights on a car, and is the best way to help other boats on the water see you. However, when rowing in the darknever assume that other boats will see the light, you must always remain extra vigilant under these conditions.

Swamping or Flipping a Shell

Swamping or flipping a shell is the rowing emergency everyone thinks about but doesn’t often prepare for well enough. The shells will float even if they fill with water, and the oars will hold a rower afloat. If a shell swamps, stay calm. Your first job is to do a head count and make sure everyone is alright. Next, keep everyone with the shell! Do not let anyone swim to shore! Furthermore, it is unadvisable to try and swim the boat to shore. Fatigue, cold, winds, and current can make a short distance to shore an endless, and deadly swim. Hang on to the hull and wait for a launch to pick you up. If the shell sinks below the surface or you need to get people out of the water because of the cold, roll the shell so the bottom of the shell points toward the sky. It will trap air underneath and float higher out of the water.

In cold weather try to have the crew move themselves together on each side of the shell and huddle together for warmth. Keep heads above water! The crew can also drape themselves on top of the hull. Keep people talking and interacting so you know their condition.

The crew, while holding onto the shell, should attempt to get the attention of other crews, coaches or motor boats on the water. Waving and making as much noise as is necessary to attract attention. If no crews or launches are on the water nearby, attracting the attention of people on shore is the next step.

Man Overboard

There is one other event that should be addressed that is similar to what was mentioned above: a rower overboard. A violent crab by an oarsman can throw them out of the boat. If this happens you should stop the boat immediately. In this situation, it is up to the ejected rower to stay below the surface of the water till the shell has passed; this avoids getting hit in the head by a fast moving rigger(s). The crew should stop rowing and hold water immediately so they can lend assistance. Have the crew yell to get the attention of the coach if they are not aware of the situation. The ejected rower should continue to tread water or move toward the stopped boat if a launch is not available. In the event that a launch is not nearby the crew can back up to the rower in question so the rower can use the shell as a floatation device. Back up slowly! It is also feasible to pass an oar to the ejected rower, so they can use the oar as a floatation device. If a coaching launch isn’t available to pick up the rower and evaluate them, the crew should help the rower get back into the shell and then go for assistance. Serious injuries are possible, so heading directly back to the boathouse so that their condition can be appropriately evaluated is very important.

The Dock

Another area that needs your attention is around the dock area. It is important that you be aware of where your shell is and who is nearby. This is not a place to play around. Warn people if you are moving a shell from place to place. Have the rowers at the front of the shell yell “heads up,” to alert people around you. Boats are heavy (200 lbs. plus the weight of the rowers) and have a lot of momentum when moving. It is easy to cause serious injury to someone if you hit them with the hull or a rigger.

Okay, you are ready to get started, but before you do I’m going to give you one last bit of safety advice. A very important aspect of being a coxswain is being prepared for anything. Being prepared means not only knowing your equipment, but having knowledge to overcome those random moments when things go wrong. Being prepared and being safe are the cornerstones of good coxing.