Apart from the Boat Race this course is usually navigated on an outgoing tide from Mortlake to Putney. Four and a quarter miles of rowing hell. But itís easier on the rower if (s)heís confident in the cox to go over the thing via the quickest route... this is not the shortest route - which is why understanding how the river works will give the cox the competitive edge.
Below is a sort of guided tour of the course and what to expect. Whilst useful, it is no good until you have actually been down the course and seen it with your own eyes - either in a rowing boat or (preferably) in a launch with an experienced guide.
These notes are by no means definitive - what I consider a good route and landmark, another cox might consider wrong and for good reason. The main thing is that once you have a route and can build up your own experience on the water you can make your own judgements as to the best way to go about things.
Anyway, here we go.
Firstly, some key landmarks :-
There are three bridges on the course. The first - Chiswick Bridge - is a very traditional white stone three-arched bridge not dissimilar to Richmond Bridge but considerably bigger. It is actually just before the timing position at the start but your crew will be up to speed as it enters this bridge.
Soon after Chiswick Bridge is Barnes Railway Bridge. This is a box girder type monstrosity and has two support piers each quite close to its bank, leaving a wide centre section.
Finally thereís Hammersmith Bridge - a fancy suspension bridge again with two support columns in the water and a wide central span. Everyone seems to stand on this one to watch the race!
(Oh yes, after the finish is Putney Bridge - another stone bridge much dirtier than Chiswick Bridge - which you are obliged to row under on pain of disqualification - so thatís four .. sorry!)
Thereís only one - Chiswick Eyot - and you can do the course without even knowing itís there. Which is a shame, because once you know where it is and what it looks like you can set your boat up beautifully for the main bend onto Hammersmith Bridge. But more of that later.
THE BLACK BUOYItís reputation is far more sinister than its physical size. The black buoy is exactly that, a large cylinder mooring buoy which marks the start of the line of boats moored at Putney along the Embankment. It also happens to be slap bang in the fast stream and enough scullers and coxless boats (and the odd coxíd one!) have had near misses with it to warrant it special mention.
SOME KITCHEN SINK PHYSICS
So how does it all work then ? (This explanation should not be subjected to scientific testing Ďcos it might not hold water (sic)).
Well, unlike a gas, water doesnít compress (much..ED). When the tide is running out - all the water runs out. It doesnít gather in ponds or squash up in places; it all has to keep going until the tide turns, then it all comes back in again.
The river bed is not flat and even, but lays at various depths across its section. Where itís shallow thereís not much water. Where itís deep thereís loads of the stuff.
So for it all to go, the deep water, where thereís loads of it, has to run out quicker than the shallow areas. Otherwise there would be water in the deep bits that never moved.
Take a look at a decent stretch of river when the water is running fast and you will see (generally) that itís moving faster in the middle (usually the deepest part) than at the sides.
SO WHERE DO YOU PUT YOUR BOAT?
So it makes sense that if you put your boat on the deepest water youíll have an advantage over a boat on shallow water. And you do. Whether the explanation above is sound or not, thatís what tends to happen - deep water equals faster current.
Also, there are places where the deepest water can be quite wide - so you can have a distance advantage too, by taking the inside of the line of deepest water, rather than the outside. Which brings us neatly onto the start of the race.
AT THE START
By the time your boat is heading down towards Chiswick Bridge youíll have had an interesting experience with boat marshals, badly drawn marshalling plans, maroons you never hear and all sorts of things seemingly designed to put you off coxíing for life. But, hey, theyíve got to get a few hundred boats off before the tide turns, so you just have to put up with it.
The only advice worth giving is that you make sure you know exactly what your boat should be doing and where it should be doing it. Donít rely on your fellow competitors to know because very few of the other coxes will have any better idea than you. And certainly donít rely on your crew unless theyíve done it a few times because every year itís different .
Anyway, eventually you will be given the instruction to turn. Do so as quickly as possible and donít faff around trying to get on the tail of the boat in front, or conversely trying to put in a huge gap. Youíll just upset some jobsworth marshal and may incur a time penalty. Youíll certainly only be adding to your own aggravation of which thereís already plenty. And the worst thing is to be ordered to stop rowing just when you want to get your foot down!
So you just do what your told until itís time to get the work on - which should be just before your boatís nose goes under Chiswick Bridge. Thereís no point trying to get a line under this bridge because they often set you off on different stations alternately as part of their marshalling programme. Just donít hit the bridge !
As you go under the bridge call your crew up to whatever rate/work your coach has asked for. Once out the other side thereís about two lengths and a boat moored on the Surrey station (your right) is where the start timers sit.
Youíll here Number NNN .. GO!. That might be useful if youíre trying to take your own unofficial race time - otherwise itís no big deal because you are already well under way.
FROM MORTLAKE TO BARNES BRIDGE
Youíll notice the river swings in a bend to the left and this is a good place to take advantage of the wide fast line.
Taking care not to interfere with crews marshalling on your left, move to a reasonable inside line round this bend. If you were to divide the river width into equal thirds youíd be on the join between the left and middle thirds.
As you continue round the bend Barnes Railway Bridge will start to appear. The race rules oblige you to go through (or shoot) the centre (widest) span. The leftmost bridge support will appear further out to the middle than you would want, so you have to ease your boat out into the centre.
Thatís actually not a problem because if you look at the plan, the line of deepest water does exactly that. So you do not shoot the bridge at right angles to its span, but with your boat still moving out off the bend.
BARNES TO CHISWICK EYOT
You can easily get "lost" here. Youíll see the river continue left then kick back to start a big right-hander. You need to clip the end of the left bend and move across to clip the start of the right bend.
Clipping in this case is about 1/3 of the width off the bank. The second clipping point is also the crossing for boats coming back up. And so there will be a marshalís launch somewhere around there. Thatís about as good a landmark as you are going to get so itís a bit hit and miss.
Your line from off Barnes Bridge to the second clipping point is a very lazy S - almost straight. Certainly not as pronounced as the river bank itself.
Once you come off the second clipping point the head of Chiswick Eyot is right in front of you on the Middlesex (left hand) station. Aim for it !
Youíll be going against all your instincts here because you are crossing the river quite markedly and it will seem that the stream could not possibly be doing the same thing. But it is.
You need to go along Chiswick Eyot no more than a one and a half boat widths away from it. Stay on your line as the eyotís tail moves away from you.
I happen to think the plan as drawn is wrong and the stream stays closer to the island and doesnít have that "kink" in it as shown. I could be wrong.
CHISWICK EYOT TO HAMMERSMITH BRIDGE
The river is still turning to the right and you need to be in the left part of the centre third of the riverís width.
There is a good case for clipping the apex of this bend but certainly not taking all of it on the inside line. You also have to be very careful of boats returning on your right hand side if you do draw yourself inside here. If you elect to clip it, expect a few shouts from the safety marshals !
Eventually Hammersmith Bridge will appear and not before time, because it has a very specific point under which you shoot to get the right line and the sooner you can prepare for it the better your line will be.
The bridge has two piers and you are required to pass between them. On the bridge are lamp-posts - great big Victorian Ball-like things. Find the one which is second from the right hand bridge support and aim to go under it. Donít worry if you are slightly out - often you can be caught out by the lights on the other side of the bridge and may count wrong but youíll be pretty close and the error will be the better side to err on. You certainly donít want to be anywhere near the centre or left side of the bridge because that will give you grief in the next part.
HARRODS DEPOSITORY AND FULHAM FLATS
If all went well, you should have popped out in the right third of the width of the river and thatís a good place to be. You now want to stay in that part all the way down to the black buoy.
First youíve got Harrodís Depository (if itís still there) - a big old red-brick brown horrible thing on the right and a good place to be near (watch out for stray boats coming up who have crossed too soon).
In normal circumstances a definite no-go area is anywhere on the left which is Fulham Flats. The water is extremely shallow when compared with the rest of the river and dead as far as stream is concerned.
So you need to keep to the right third of the river all the way round the lazy left hand bend and you will fetch up pretty well in line with the Black Buoy.
THE BLACK BUOY AND HOME
Adjust your line very slightly so that you come along to the black buoy with it about one boat width to your right. There will (should) be a safety marshal stationed in a launch just before it and he can often have drifted to be exactly where you want to be. But donít give him a hard time because he really is only concerned for your safety and his insurance premium next year - just go round him!
You are now on the final run in with boats moored all along on your right. Keep these about a boat width (maybe slightly more) over to your right and take your crew home.
Youíll see a large barge moored over on the Middlesex (left hand) station and this is where the Finish timers are sitting. Make sure you go well past it before the wind down and make sure your crew keep rowing until you are safely through Putney Bridge
And thatís it.
What this brief summary doesnít give you is any sense of how long between each landmark. For instance, from the start to Barnes is very quick, and then it can seem an age before Chiswick Eyot appears and similarly it seems ages from Harrods to the Black Buoy.
If the whole thing takes 20 minutes you can divide that as 4 minutes from the start to Barnes, 8 minutes to Hammersmith and another 8 minutes to the finish.
You just have to be very patient and concentrate on the other aspects of the job - working the crew.
Ideally youíll be doing a lot of this and no-one will overtake you.
Like most things in rowing the best approach to overtaking is very subjective and it depends on your confidence in yourself and the other cox.
This assumes you have a sufficiently fast boat to do the job efficiently; that you are able enough to hold your line against the worst efforts of the other cox; that the other cox appreciates you have the much faster crew and makes only token effort to impede your passage; and most importantly that both boats are sitting on the best part of the stream
You want to try and have the target crew on your right anywhere from the start to Hammersmith Bridge. After that you want to try and have it on your left. Itís not always that easy and itís better to go wrong-side than to hit someone.
This method means you will hold the better line and persuade the other crew to move off the fast water. Unfortunately, the other crew will have the advantage of being able to try and push you out since they have the inside line (other than the first bend where you will have the advantage of both the fast line and the inside).
This is to always take the inside line of either the bend you are on or the bend you are approaching.
This passing move will give you the advantage of the inside line and the opportunity to push the other crew out. The problem is that if they donít move you could well be off the fast water and take forever to get past them.
When being overtaken always apply the second method - putting the faster crew on your outside so that you can push out.
You also need good communication from your stroke because the sooner you are aware of a faster crew behind the sooner you can prepare to deal with it. With practice you will find you can get the other boat to commit to your outside and be pushing out just as they start to overlap - this makes it much harder for the other cox to force you off the line.
These simple lines should help you keep the best of the stream which in some places is only slightly wider than your boat.
SERIOUSLY ROUGH WATER
I once had the pleasure of coxíing the Eights Head when 25 crews sank. Of these, 18 were foreign crews coxíd by either foreign or inexperienced coxes. So knowing where to be when it gets rough can be as equally useful as knowing where the stream is.
Every set of rough conditions will be slightly different and you cannot draw up hard and fast rules for coping with them. However, it is safe to say that when it gets really rough it will be because the stream and prevailing wind are opposing each other.
In this situation you can forget about any advantage the stream may offer and should seek sheltered water. This will tend to be on the inside of the bends or (perish the thought) over on the flats (watch your hull). Just use your eyes and see where the water is best.
Enjoy it. The Tideway course is in the same league as Henley as far as world fame goes (sadly more thanks to the Boat Race than anything we might be involved in) and to have steered a successful course over it is a good reason to be pleased with yourself.
And unlike Henley it is a course where you as cox can make a substantial difference with your steering. I reckon two matched crews going over at the same time with one always on the line and one taking the worst possible line would be about three minutes apart at the end ! Time enough to boil an egg!