Wolfson College Boat Club, Oxford

View from the Cox’s Seat

Nanda surrounded by Wolfson's victorious M1: Summer VIIIs 2009

Nanda surrounded by Wolfson’s victorious M1: Summer VIIIs 2009

6am, alarm, sleep, no, yes, out of bed, kit, drizzle, bicycle, gloom on the river, morose crew, balance terrible, freezing hands … That is what coxing is like at its worst. But roll forward, maybe only half an hour … “finishes”, “finishes”, you suggest some balance exercises, the coach is giving inspired advice from the bank, suddenly it clicks and the boat glides, the sun touches the water, the crew are really trying. Back in the boat house they are elated: “that’s the best yet; we’re getting there; what an improvement …,” the Head of the River is all of a sudden an exciting prospect. This is, really, what coxing is about, being there when it matters, encouraging, watching, saying the things that make a difference. It is what makes you someone special in the crew.

The rest is icing on the cake, and I can describe plenty of it in from just one season’s coxing for the men’s first eight: steering my crew down the Tideway at the prestigious Head of the River; the well deserved post-race beers, cake and camaraderie; the summer morning outings on a river bathed in sunshine; watching the crew go from strength to strength and the individuals determinedly improving technique and training records; the mad evenings in the bar; the glorious four races at Bedford regatta; elated exhaustion and more pots at Oxford City regatta; and, of course, Summer Eights 2002…

After years as a rower I thought coxing might be frustrating, that I’d sit there wanting to be pulling an oar. But the cox’s role is something else, a big responsibility. You have to be alert to everything that is going on, to steer, to encourage, cajole, admonish, to say the things that matter. And you have to be cool in a crisis, which brings me inevitably to Summer Eights, the highlight of the Oxford rowing year. The first day was every cox’s nightmare: Somerville steam up on us from behind, they are half a length away, a quarter, a canvas: stay calm, we haven’t done a push yet, we’ll do it in a bit and do it well: “in two, in one …”; a bit of nifty steering through the narrowest part of the river and Somerville are now a length down, they won’t get us now. And they didn’t. Of course, they tried again the next day, and the next, but on the third, buoyed by earlier successes we started nipping at the heels of Oriel II, half a length ahead, a quarter … By now we were approaching the finish, passing the boathouses, the cheering was deafening. I don’t know what I said to the exhausted crew, what they heard, we were all just in it together, one crew, a single determination that we would get our bump. The Oriel cox weaved across the river to avoid our bows, I chased him down, the finish line was approaching: “they’re there; we’re on them”, and then we were, the cox’s hand went up and the crew collapsed, jubilant.

Of course, most of this is a reason for rowing as much as coxing, but a cox can win it and lose it for her crew much more easily than an individual rower. If you like to take charge, to organise and direct, to be quietly authoritative, then coxing is for you. It helps if you have rowed, but it is by no means essential and there will be opportunities at Wolfson to do both. If you want to get fit you can train with the crew and they will appreciate it. If you are small and authoritative, if you want to be part of Oxford’s most exciting sport and a member of one of its most sociable boat clubs, then get yourself into the cox’s seat. It is the place to be.

Nanda Pirie