Sliding-seat coxswains becoming fixture at Quidi Vidi

Kenn Oliver
Published on July 30, 2011
Robert Roach (right) and Ben Colbourne are two products of the local sliding-seat program who will be coxing crews in the fixed-seat Royal St. John’s Regatta. — Photo by Kenn Oliver/The Telegram

In no small way, sliding-seat rowers have breathed new life into the competitive side of the Royal St. John’s Regatta.

Through at least the past five Regattas, members of the St. John’s Rowing Club have put together crews of their own or have been part of some of the fastest boats on the pond on race day.

In 2007, sliding-seaters Brent Hickey, Adam Kavanagh and James Cadigan were part of the Crosbie Industrial team which shattered the old course record. In 2009, a crew with slide-seat rowers consisting of Allison Delong, Steph Davis, Jane Brodie, Alyssa Devereaux and Hilary Sinclair emerged as the ladies’ champs.

“We’re really involved with working together with fixed-seat to try to get lots of people involved,” says Ben Colbourne, a Canada Games sliding-seat rower in 2009 who coached Rogers Bussey Lawyers, last year’s men’s championship team. “In previous years, it was like two separate groups and I think that’s very poor for the sport.”

Just as the fixed-seat crews are turning to sliding-seat for strong arms and sound strokes, the top contending crews have now started using  sliding-seat coxswains to steer them on Regatta Day. On the men’s side.

Colbourne will steer Rogers Bussey and Robert Roach will cox the Toyota Plaza crew. Mark Hayward, the cox for the 2007 record-setting men’s crew, steers the top -ranked M5 in senior ladies.

Other Regatta Day coxswains out of the sliding-seat program include Zack Meaney, Brent Payne, Kiersten Van Gulick and Steph Davis.

Colbourne says the fixed-seat crews are turning to sliding-seat coxswains because they have put more emphasis on training.

“The big thing with fixed-seat is that they don’t have the infrastructure in place to teach coxswains and coaches,” says Colbourne. “We have that and most of our high-performance athletes can be coaches and coxswains as well.”

Roach believes the change comes back to crews wanting to shave precious seconds of their times.

“The technique of fixed-seat is evolving more towards the slide-seat because people are realizing it’s a quicker way to row and get their times down.”

The new technique involves quicker oar strokes, minimizing or eliminating the short pause at the end of a stroke that causes the boat to check — when the boat’s progress on a stroke is slowed by the rower’s movement into the next stroke.

“You can do quite well in a fixed-seat boat with poor technique, you can make the championship race,” says Colbourne. “But in order to go very fast, you need to have perfect technique.”

Another reason crews are interested in sliding-seat coxswains is that they are generally smaller than their fixed-seat contemporaries. Sliding-seat boats are considerably smaller in size and weight, so the emphasis is on having a cox with jockey-like proportions.

“If you’re rowing a boat that only weighs 100 pounds, then 20 or 30 pounds difference in a coxswain makes a big difference,” explains Roach.

The Regatta boats are quite a bit heavier, so it isn’t quite as noticeable. But the guys all say you can notice it’s a bit easier.”

Brent Hickey, the stroke for Rogers Bussey, says smaller is the way to go.

“You don’t want to be carrying around extra weight for no reason.”

M5’s Amanda Hancock says not everyone who can row can cox, but sliding-seat coxswains tends to excel in fixed-seat shells.

“When you’re coxing slide-seat, you learn the fundamentals of steering and it’s a totally different ball game than the actual rowing portion.”

While most of the coxswains skills between both types of rowing are transferrable, there is a learning curve for slide-seat coxswains making the transition.

“Keeping a straight course is a little more difficult because slide-seat races are along a buoy course. It’s much easier to keep a straight course than it is in fixed-set where it’s just open water.”

And since slide-seat shells only use small rudders to make course adjustments, turning the fixed-seat behemoths is something of a challenge.

“Having the basics of knowing how fast boats move makes it easy to learn, but at the level myself and Robert and the others are at, we now track the turns on GPS to try to have a turn that’s consistently within one second either way.

“If we go down there on Wednesday and smash up the record by one second, it’s huge. But if you have a turn that’s two and a half seconds slower than you should have had, well there goes that record.”

Colbourne says there’s no discounting the success old school coxswains have achieved at Quidi Vidi, and he feels there’s more room for cooperation.

“Over the last two or three years, the relationship have evolved quite nicely. We can work together and grow rowing as a whole instead of there being two different groups.

“We’ve come a long way and there’s still lots we can do.”