Passengers, or what can a masters crew do with a free rider

bunnies rowing

One of the glories of rowing is that a boat is only as fast as the slowest crew member.

bunnies rowing
Bunnies in a quad. Credit: Etsy

Unless all the members are contributing the boat will not be fast.  I say this is one of the glories of the sport because it means that, unlike a football team, a basketball team ora hockey team, a good rowing crew cannot be built from a couple of stars to carry the team and a few bunnies to make up the numbers.  A good crew needs everyone in the boat to contribute. Despite the banter about ‘three seat in the 8 being the place to hide the inept’ there is nowhere to hide in a crew boat.

How to build a rowing crew

The important word is contribute; not everyone needs to be super strong, though it helps.  Skill, fitness, leadership, all are ways that a crew member can contribute to a crew. The key though is effort.  The business end of a rowing race is a challenging place, a scary place, a very painful place.  Going into a dark place like this is easier if one is in a team, if there are teammates around to support, and be supported.  Going into such a place with passengers on board is not fun.

Most  athletes are prepared to accept that not every crew member is equally strong, the strong will accept that they carry a disproportionate load; it was ever thus. 

What is hard to take is a crew member that is not giving to to the limit of her ability.

Rowing in a crew where not everyone is contributing is not fun.  It is hard work because the passengers weigh on the shoulders of the contributors.  Metaphorically and physically they have to be carried.  Karl Marx the famous rowing coach said ‘From each according to his ability…‘ More  modern coaches have spoken of the freeloader problem.

The first piece of advice should perhaps come from a famous middle eastern coach … look at yourself first.

How to solve the rowing passenger problem

So what to do if you are, relatively speaking, free of sin but you have a freeloader, a passenger in your crew? 

One 8 I raced in when I was an athlete, had a relatively slight 7 seat who turned and snarled at the large person in 3 seat ‘Get that big useless hunk of meat moving!’  Not an acceptable reaction in a modern crew perhaps but maybe it worked.  The three man went on to win multiple world and olympic medals.

Start with the coach

Most competitive crews have an outsider, a coach, a selector, a guru of some sort who chooses the team.  This person is hopefully competent and able to see who is contributing and to weed out the useless and incompetent.

Not many Masters set-ups have this luxury.  The crew is a more or less random accumulation of people of about the same age.  This raises the problem of how to deal with a non-contributing member.  Few of us like conflict; Master’s sport should be fun, and ‘I get enough of this stuff at work anyway’ means that the issue often does not get addressed or voiced in public.

My advice is to be explicit. 

Get the crew together and set explicit goals, and from there work out what training, what performance is required.  It may be that turning up and having enough cash for a round of pints in the pub afterwards is enough.  If the goals are a little more serious, be realistic about what the group expects, set training minima or test requirements and have a system of monitoring, and, this is the big one, have sanctions.  If you don’t train, or if your erg test is below the agreed level you don’t race.

If you have doubts about a crew member offer help, offer to train with her, remind her that training with a buddy is easier than training alone.  Go the extra mile to reassure him, praise effort and success.

In the end though, you will have to choose – is the fun I get from being with the group worth the effort of rowing with a passenger. 

Just check your eyes for beams first!

Duncan Holland

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