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Going Forward and Looking Backward

Imagine driving your car down the road backwards and closing your eyes for 10 seconds at a time. That’s pretty scary.

Our sport has perils. Not the least of which is the inability to see where we are going. What hazards or other boats are in the way.

That mean’s it is imperative that all rowers be vigilant and learn to steer their boats by turning their body and quickly visualizing their path. However, there are useful alternate methods, especially for those who don’t have the flexibility to twist around to see.

I have been using a small head-mounted mirror since my mid-thirties to help guide my steering. Like rowing in particular, (and most endeavors worth doing) it only looks easy, and practice is needed to perfect it.

There are many benefits including, safety, stability and rhythm.
And there are drawbacks. You need practice, field of vision and extra gear.

As we get older, our ability to be flexible and turn to view a full 180 degrees behind us becomes challenging at best and limited at worst. Now may be the time to consider how you can safely extend your rowing years.

The mirror is a tricky object because it has a limited range of vision and requires practice. But the result is the ability to see obstructions, potential collisions or simply the best course. And to do so with almost no intrusion upon your set is quite the bonus.

Many rowing suppliers carry a headband or cap version. I use a modified visor to hold my mirror in the summer and a small cap in the cold weather. Either one helps keep the sun off my face and the sweat away from my eyes. Cycling shops offer eyeglass and sunglass clip-on-the-stem versions. I have used both of these with success.

If you want to be a safer athlete on the water and are willing to train your eye(s) to adapt, you will succeed. It won’t be immediate. Let me give you four tips to get you started:

Range of Vision

Range of vision can be quite limited due to the size of the mirror. I have found that although manufacturers will put a small mirror out on the far end of a long rod, the closer I draw the mirror to my eye, the wider my range of vision. It also stops bouncing around and is more stable. I keep it no farther than 3 inches away from my eye. The rod can extend out to seven inches, which doesn’t work as well.

Single Eye Usage

You ought to use your dominant eye for usage with the mirror since that will work with your vision’s natural comfort level. To determine that, point at an object far away with the tip of your finger. Open and close each eye and determine which eye actually has your finger pointing at the object. That is your dominant eye. Maybe you didn’t know that! The manufacturers may set it up only on one side. There are a number of methods to convert it to your best side. (I have to do that for myself because my dominant eye is on the left and every rowing supplier I have seen so far have the mirror on the right. Zip ties are a quick and useful aid to remount.)

Although the view you will get through the mirror is reversed, it is not completely backwards. Objects on the left are on your left in the mirror, objects on the right are on your right in the mirror. Steering your boat should not be that counterintuitive. So although the picture is backwards the boat will respond to your motions appropriately.

Adjust The Mirror

Position the mirror so that you can see just the side of your head. You want it as close to looking straight behind you as possible. Most newcomers find the mirror is obtrusive and blocks forward vision even off to the side. That is necessary to some degree. The cure is to set the bottom of the mirror a little bit above than the horizon, by shifting the hat or band on your head. You do not want to block the horizon or other rowers’ blades from field of vision when not using the mirror.

When it’s time to take a peek I will raise my head just a little bit and locate the bow of my shell and extend my vision beyond where it is going. The bow of the shell acts as a compass needle pointing EXACTLY where is it going. Extend your vision beyond that and you can adjust or maintain your course.

Steering between glances, like normal turnarounds, is a chance to use your stern point to maintain your course. After you are pointed properly, lock the stern of your shell on a point in the distance and DO NOT allow it to drift. The shell will stay on course by steering from behind. This proven technique is lost on many and they will turn around too often because they are unsure.

It will take a while before you train your eyes to understand the mirror image of familiar sights. It won’t come in one outing and probably not even in one week. But it will get familiar, and hopefully before an incident!

It will also have two technical benefits. You need to keep your head still to view in the mirror. I have found that I keep my head very still and just move my eye and head a minimal amount. Those who are not used to keeping their head still (we have all seen them in our crews) may have a hard time adapting and training. This is a good rowing practice overall.

By moving ONLY your head through a 45-degree sweep, instead of a full body twist, minimizes the rhythm disruption, and, although ANY attention elsewhere changes your swing. Less is more.

During the first outings, place it on and follow my guidelines, but do not attempt to master it in the first few days. Just keep it on as a reference for when you are completely comfortable. Use your normal skills but slowly integrate the mirror into your habit. This way you won’t rely on it and get frustrated because it’s not working. It is an incremental and even monumental change for many.

You can expand your range of vision by rotating your head and scanning. Even though you can’t see the big picture all at once, you can scan and clearly see smaller pieces.

But be careful: once you are familiar with this, it is very easy to get comfortable and simply see that where you are going is exactly where you want to be. However, there may be perils out of your range of vision in the mirror, which need to be seen. Always scan large, or simply turn around, especially if you hear any potential traffic.

I am comfortable going out in a quad using the mirror all the time, and I often spook my teammates because I can steer within 3 feet of a piling at the end of our oars with no contact. I am quite confident, but they weren’t aware of my margin of clearance.

Years ago I was in a single in the Head of the Charles, and the day before, like everyone, I rowed the course at medium pressure. There was another sculler who stayed in front of me the whole time. I made sure that I was practicing the best course and, not surprisingly, he was too.

After the turnaround at the end he waited just to talk to me and compliment me on my course. I wasn’t following him as much as I was guiding myself through my mirror. He introduced himself as (the late) Stuyvesant Pell, a multi-time standout in his age categories at the Head of the Charles and other regattas. He, too, utilized a mirror. I felt very good about my skills. Using a mirror may not only help you row safely, but give you a course advantage over your former self!

I wish you many safe and enjoyable outings, and look forward to hearing about your successes!

Coach Jim Cooper
Norwalk River Rowing

Written by Jim Cooper | May 02, 2016
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