Coxes Guide (full)

This guide focuses on controlling the boat, which is only part of the Cox’s duties.  All members should also familiarise themselves with the Health & Safety Guide, VHF guide, Emergency Procedures and the Self-assessment Checklist – Captain skills.

Learning to Cox really comes through experience on the water, getting used to the boats and crews, encountering different situations and conditions.  The aim of our induction and this guide is simply to give you sufficient confidence and knowledge to build those skills safely.

At all times remember the Basic Rules:

  • When at sea the Cox is in command of the skiff.
  • Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) must be provided for everyone in the boat and can be worn at anytime, and the cox is at liberty to decide if they must be worn. For non-swimmers the PFD must be a lifejacket.
  • The Cox must wear a PFD at all times. For non-swimmers the PFD must be a lifejacket.
  • Children must wear PFDs at all times.
  • All rowers must be in good health – if in doubt consult a doctor before taking part.
  • Rowers are advised to take drinking water to help prevent dehydration.
  • Beware of the elements (wind, rain, sun, snow…) and dress accordingly.
  • Contending with difficult weather conditions is part of the fun of rowing, but safe enjoyment is the aim, not recklessness.
  • If in doubt, don’t go out

Responsibilities – The Cox has many responsibilities, amongst them steering, giving commands, communication, strategy and coaching, but first and foremost is SAFETY.

We all have to take responsibility for our own safety and we each have a duty of care to others, but when at sea the Cox has a particular responsibility for the safety of the boat and crew.  The Cox is Master of the Vessel under maritime law and can be held legally responsible in the event of a collision or accident.  So keep safety in mind at all times and be alert to any potential hazards.

Avoiding Collisions – Rowing off Portobello Beach there are relatively few fixed hazards. There are the groynes and the remains of two groynes near the Swimming Pool, the rocks past Joppa to the east, and to the west past (Seafield direction) there is a low wall which is marked at the end with a post – quite far out. The wall is partly visible at low tide. Beyond this wall there are some rocks close to shore. But on regular training outings we tend not to go this far.

At times there can also be a wide variety of other water users; swimmers, kayakers, sail boats, jet-skis, the other skiff etc.

It is important to be aware of your neighbours at all times and be considerate to them.

Also keep in mind the Navigation Rules:

  • Motor gives way to muscle gives way to wind.
  • Keep right (starboard), particularly when entering/exiting harbours.
  • Overtaking vessels must keep clear.

But apply common sense to all situations and don’t rely on other water users knowing what they should be doing.

Be alert – Keep a good look out at all times.

Something might happen in the boat that attracts your attention; someone crabs, a pin breaks, a footrest comes loose etc.  You can’t ignore things like that but be careful they don’t distract you from what’s happening around the boat.

Remember – you’re the only one that can see where the boat is going.

Steering – You sit at the back and move the tiller in the opposite direction to the one you want to go in.  However, there are various factors that affect the steering of the boat:

  • The movement of the oars; forwards, backwards, one side or both
  • The rudder only works when moving through the water
  • The speed of the boat
  • The condition and the balance of the crew.
  • Currents and tides
  • The wind; the strength and direction (head, tail, or cross etc.)

Steering – basics

  • The Cox should remain still and balanced.
  • You should maintain a direct and constant course which takes into account the effect of tidal flow and wind.
  • The rudder acts as a brake, slowing the boat, so keep rudder movements small and subtle.  Try to anticipate steering so that the tiller is used only occasionally.
  • Making adjustments when blades are in the water affects the balance of the boat less.

Applying the rudder – Moving the tiller and applying the rudder pushes the back of the boat out, but doesn’t have much immediate effect on the bow.  So in effect you’re skidding the boat into a new direction.  That’s why you generally want small movements because any movement at all will act as a brake and slow the boat.  This a very important factor when it comes to racing turns.


There’s also a delay between applying the rudder and the change in direction, so be patient.  You’ll sometimes see Coxes over applying the tiller in one direction, then over correcting in the other, before over applying again.  This not only slows the boat considerably, but is unnecessary. Ideally you should be moving the tiller as little as possible.  There are only a few situations where large movements of the tiller are required.

Steering a course – Steering the optimum course can be very difficult as there are a considerable number of factors to consider; the balance of the crew, wind, currents and tides, other boats or hazards.  But frequently the optimum will not be pointing the boat where you want to go and trying to head in a straight line.


If you don’t take into account factors such as wind and tide there is a significant chance you will:

  • travel a longer route
  • use the rudder more, slowing the boat
  • or even put the boat in danger.


Judging the optimum course is not easy.  The wind is relatively easy to judge but the effect of tides and currents is harder to anticipate.  In regattas the course is at least repeated several times, so if Coxes communicate with each other you may be able to build up a picture of the best line to take.  It’s also worth watching what other boats are doing. 

Steering – wind – Wind can present real challenges.  We’re lucky in Portobello in that we can have fairly strong winds yet fairly calm sea conditions, but even with a benign sea you should think twice before taking a weaker crew out with a strong off-shore wind.  You also have to think about the balance of the crew; one side may be weaker than the other and find it very difficult to turn into a strong wind and so you may need to adjust your course accordingly.  Even the strongest crews can be brought to a standstill by a strong enough head wind.


  • Wind conditions can change a lot quicker than sea conditions.
  • Rowing into a strong wind can be VERY hard work, even for a strong crew.
  • Don’t row with the wind for too long, or you could have a very long row back.
  • Row into the wind at the earliest opportunity so you can judge the strength.
  • Don’t go too far from shore

Steering – Waves

  • You may need the crew to vary the stroke length and stroke rate, to suit the conditions.
  • Long swells are fun and the Cox can aid the speed of the boat by calling for faster shorter strokes as the boat rises on the wave. In this way the boat is borne along on the crest of the wave and can attain high speeds.
  • If the boat is heading directly into waves it can become very hard work for the rowers. The waves check the speed of the boat and may break over the bow. In these conditions it may be more comfortable and faster to angle the boat to the waves.
  • Short breaking following seas are much more difficult to deal with. As the boat starts to accelerate down the face of the wave the rudder becomes progressively less effective. In these conditions there is a risk of broaching.
  • Keep the boat at right angles to breaking waves.

Steering – Broaching

The skiffs are very stable and unlikely to broach out at sea (the boat should not be out in conditions where this is a risk).  Broaching when returning to the beach through the surf is a more likely occurrence.  Broaching can be quite sudden and so preparedness is important.  If returning to the beach in a breaking following sea there are different possible approaches:

  • If the tide is high and the breaking zone quite short, one approach is to row hard right onto the beach, with the waves directly behind you.  The tiller becomes unresponsive in a following sea (with unusually large movements necessary) but by maintaining speed through the water there’s less risk of the stern being caught and carried by a wave.   
  • If the tide is low and the breaking zone quite long (due to the shallow gradient of the beach) there are three traditional approaches; stern first, back into waves, deploy a drogue to reduce speed.
  • Stern first – in very poor conditions row boats would come in stern first; point the bow out to sea and row backwards.  This has the advantage that the Cox can see what’s coming, but it could be an awkward process given our oar set up and what we’re used to.
  • Back into waves – row in normally with the waves behind you but back water into big waves so they pass under the boat rather than carry it.  This requires a fairly skilled crew as they have to switch easily from rowing forwards to backwards and back again.  Also the Stroke may have to advise the Cox as they’re in a better position to see the following waves.
  • Deploy a drogue – a drogue acts like a parachute in the water behind the boat.  It slows the boat so again waves tend to pass under rather than carry it along.  With a drogue deployed the tiller will be very ineffective so you may need to rely on the oars to steer, but the boat will be more stable.  A drogue is the simplest way to reduce the risk of broaching.

Steering – Turns 

Turning can be done in a variety of ways; rudder alone, rudder and oars, oars alone.  Other factors to be aware:

  • The wind; a turn into a strong wind can be extremely difficult so it may be better, and quicker, to bear away and let the wind help take you round.
  • You need to be aware of the capability of your crew.  The crew may be unbalanced, with one side stronger than the other, so the turning capability may vary.
  • Think about your course and the turns required to get back.
  • You don’t want to be side on to heavy seas.  If the sea is rough, pick your moment and turn as quickly as possible.


Commands – As a Cox you have to be able to communicate effectively.  You are in charge of the boat and have to give instructions to the crew.   On occasion you may also need to act as a coach, helping rowers improve their technique.  And as the only member of the team that can see ahead you need to let the crew know what’s happening and what to expect.

The more you Cox, the better your communication skills will become.  Try to keep your instructions:

  • Clear
  • Consistent with terminology
  • Concise
  • Firm
  • Simple
  • Positive and encouraging

It can be helpful to count the strokes to help the crew keep time.  But remember that Stroke sets the rate and count to their time.  Being in time is key.

In races in particular, you also need to warn the crew about changes e.g. “In 2-–Bow turn—1—2—bow turn!” and keep the crew informed about; the distance to next buoy, how close the next boat is, how well you are doing, how far to the end of the race, the stroke rate etc.

It also helps if Coxes are consistent in their terminology.  The following are what we tend to use but other skiff clubs differ, so if you have any guest rowers it may be best clarifying.

  • ‘Ready to row’ – Not a question, a command – rowers get ready to start rowing.
  • ‘…and row’ – no explanation necessary
  • ‘Oars’- stop rowing
  • ‘Hold water’ – rowers put blades in water to brake the boat
  • ‘Stroke turn’ – stroke side keep rowing, bow side stops.
  • ‘Bow turn’ – bow side keep rowing, stroke side stops.
  • ‘Together’ – all rowers to come back in following a turn
  • ‘Easy on stroke/bow’ – both sides keep rowing but one side eases off.
  • ‘One up on bow’ – bow side rowers take one stroke (used to straighten the boat up at the start of a race, or to go head to wind on a rough day etc.)
  • ‘Watch oars on stroke’ – there is an obstruction coming up on stroke side, be ready to lift your oars to avoid it
  • ‘Stop’ – emergency stop. All oars in the water and hold them there.

Conclusion – In practising coxing you will get a feel for how to handle the boat and can build your skills at your own pace and in a safe way.  If you’re unsure about anything or would like some advice on a particular aspect of Coxing then ask more experienced Coxes.