The position of the coxswain in a rowing race is absolutely crucial to the success of any team. The coxswain's importance spans leading the team, keeping the rowers in the correct mindset at all times, ensuring the best possible form, and managing the timing and rhythm of the stroke rate. It takes a talented coxswain to execute all of these jobs perfectly, and a large portion of a coxswain's talent is derived from her voice and the vocal effects that she uses during a race. It is because of this that a coxswains voice must be captivating, by necessity, or she would be unable to command a boat and lead a team to victory.
A perfect example of a skilled coxswain is Mary Whipple, a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and a five-time World Champion. This excerpt is from Whipple coxing the 2003 Milan World Cup Final. The excerpt begins just after the buzzer sounds, signaling the beginning of the race. Whipple immediately launches into encouraging the team to pull their hardest while keeping the rhythm of the piece. Whipple uses rowing jargon frequently to manage her boat. When she says "lengthen here," Whipple is instructing her crew to slow down their recovery, speed up their drive, reach as far as they can, and not rush the stroke seat (the rower that the rest of the boat follows). When Whipple states numbers such as "we're at a 43" she is referring to the stroke rate, or 43 strokes per minute. The phrases "coxswain on coxswain" and "we've got stroke seat" are ways in which Whipple lets her team know where they are in relation to the other boats hey are racing against.
However, for a coxswain, what they say is only really effective in the context of how they say it. The ability to successfully lead a crew is dependent on the authority a coxswain's voice commands as well as the skill in which she controls the boat via various vocal techniques. Through the five other excerpts provided, we will examine the various effects that make Whipple's voice worthy of a world-champion coxswain.
A coxswain's voice is most important in the context of how it is heard by the rowers she is leading. During a race, a coxswain has a microphone attached via a headband that she yells into. The sound is then transmitted to little speakers facing each of the rowers. Although the coxswain is always screaming during races, the mediation is necessary for her to be heard over the wind and locking of the oars. This excerpt of Darth Vader speaking allows for us to compare a coxswain's voice to another heavily mediated voice. A key similarity is the vocalized exhalation. For Darth Vader, this is simply a part of his breathing. For Whipple, the voiced exhalation is typically added to the beginning or ending of words to add intensity and rhythm to her phrasing. Regardless, the audibility of the exhalation is extremely heightened by the microphone mediation. Another quality the mediation adds is the crackling in the voice heard when it is played back over a speaker, as seen in the Darth Vader clip. This crackling in a coxswain's voice adds intensity by making it sound deeper and rougher than the woman's natural voice.
One of the most important jobs of a coxswain is keeping her crew in the right mindset, both before and during the race. This excerpt is of Whipple, before the 2003 World Cup, making sure her teammates are relaxed and ready. This excerpt is similar to the other one in the fact that Whipple's phrases are very calm controlled, intentional, and rhythmic. However, in the first excerpt, she strongly accentuates the beat during every single phrase with a louder staccato word. Before the race, when keeping her team's nerves' calm, she still speaks rhythmically, but this time it is more legato with very little accent. The tone quality and pitch of Whipple's voice is also very different between the two examples. In the first, Whipple is speaking in a lower, more raspy and rough voice. However in this one, her voice is clearly much higher and smoother, closer to her natural speaking voice.
This excerpt was recorded during an aerobics class at a YMCA. The instructor of the class is charged with a similar task as a coxswain: to motivate the class and correct their form. The technique she uses are also similar to a coxswain's. Her coordination of the beat of the song to the exercise encourages the group to hit every repetition. Additionally, she counts the repetitions in the same way a coxswain counts a "Focus 10" (10 strokes where the crew either pushes really hard or focuses on fixing a certain part of their rhythm or technique). However, the major difference between the two voices is their intensity, which is derived from the specific techniques used by a coxswain such as making their voice deeper and rougher as well as putting a sharp accent on every beat. The biggest trait that distinguishes a coxswain from an aerobics teacher is that, throughout the entire race, a coxswain is screaming every word. This gives the effect of the coxswain putting just as much physical effort into the race as the rowers, therefore bonding them under this similarity and giving the coxswain the advantage of leading as a teammate. The instructor, on the other hand, speaks very smoothly, implying minimum effort and reasserting the fact that she is the teacher and the rest of the group are her students.
A very important component that makes Whipple's coxing so good is her ability to maintain a flow of phrases on the same rhythm set by the boat. This idea is very similar to the phrasing used by an auctioneer. In this excerpt of a champion auctioneer, we hear how he uses filler words with essentially no true meaning to make his phrases rhythmic and continuous. Many of Whipple's calls serve similar purposes. For example, when she says "yeah" and "send", she is not only encouraging her teammates to pull harder, but also accenting every stroke to keep them in time with one another. An important difference to note between the two speakers is the length of their phrasing. The auctioneer's phrase length varies as he uses fillers for as long as necessary until he gets another bid. However, Whipple's phrases are all exactly the same length, corresponding to the even beat of the crew's stroke rate.
The above link is to a recording of a high school coxswain during a race, the assumption being that she is considerably less experienced than Mary Whipple. The two coxswains share many similarities. They use similar jargon and calls to help direct their crew in technique and effort. They also both share the characteristic lowered, raspy voice that comes from the technological mediation. However a key difference in the coxswains is the way they sync their phrases up to the rhythm of the boat. Whipple's synchronization is flawless, with every single phrase and word lining up to the rhythm she is trying to maintain in some way. The younger coxswain, on the other hand, lines up with the rhythm of the boat part of the time, but breaks away from it often. The ability to weave her instruction into tempo-keeping is a skill developed over years of experience, and is one of the things that makes Whipple so successful. In this piece, you can also more clearly hear the effect of the locking of the oars and wind on what the rowers hear.