Saturday, September 24, 2011

Will the single shell coxswain soon be joining the dinosaurs?

The shouts from the middle of the slow moving river glide over the water startling the Canada geese fertilizing the lush parkland that lines the iconic waterway. "Stroke. Push right. Left side, give a rest. What'ya say now right side?"

The coxswain is often described as the steering wheel of competitive rowing. Since the late 1800's this usually small, frail-looking outsider (often shunned by most of society) sits at the back of the narrow shell and valiantly attempts to get the individual rowers to work as a single unit.

"My job is to make many ... become one," said John Sedinski, a 4'11", 87-pound coxswain from Andover, MA, eating the second half of an Uncle Ben's rice cake he had saved from a lunch earlier in the week. "I steer, I guide, I yell ... I do everything but row."

The coxswain has climbed aboard every quad, double, single and eight scull race since 1871. Yes, that's correct, a coxswain also sits aboard a single-rower scull.

Sadly, and somewhat surprisingly, the United States Rowing Administration (USRA) has proposed eliminating the coxswain from single shells in an effort to save money, make the event faster, and, they emphatically claim, to "lighten the load of totally unneeded baggage."

"If their job is to make a team into one cohesive unit, then why are coxswains needed for single rowers? It seems unnecessary and ludicrous. I realize this is a difficult economy and we would be reducing the number of coxswain jobs significantly but this is the right move," said Diane Chalmers, a USRA official.

The news hit many rowing communities across the country very hard. Philadelphia relies on the rowing industry to provide thousands of jobs and the city is home to 70 percent of the sports coxswains.

"What am I supposed to do?" yelled Harry Clinton, 41, a professional coxswain based in Philadelphia. "All I know are single sculls. That's my life. My coxswain career probably has five good years remaining and that's too short of a time to learn double or eight rower sculls. What the hell am I supposed to do? What in God's name will I do with my life?"

"I'm a single rower and I would be lost without a coxswain," said Barbara Martinelli of South Philadelphia. "I can't seem to get in sync or steer the shell without one. Plus, we always have great conversations and they offer great advice ... about any aspect of life."

"It is a sad day but I will be joining the rally on Kelly Drive," said Burt Thomas, a longtime single rower on the Schuylkill River. "Hopefully we can influence the USRA's decision."

Thomas is referring to Saturday's Coxswain Rally near Boat House Row on Kelly Drive. If hundreds of rowing jobs are to be saved, this gathering may be the determining factor.

"I'm asking everyone to come out and support the cause. Together we can do this. Let's go! Also, there will be free t-shirts and hot dogs. We're working on free drinks as we speak."

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