The Evidence Based Solution to the Missing Coxswain

Rowing | Published: Tue 19 March 2019

The role of Physiologist will often challenge scientists to think on their feet and find creative solutions to performance barriers in the aim of helping athletes find that extra edge.


But at 6’4” and over 90 kilos, it’s probably fair to assess that WAIS Physiologist Martyn Binnie didn’t expect to be jumping in a boat as the makeshift coxswain for the Western Australian women’s eight squad as they prepare for the prestigious Queen’s Cup.


For those unfamiliar, the role of the coxswain in rowing is to steer the boat and set the power and rhythm for the crew. As they don’t actually physically help propel the boat, it is fundamental that the coxswain is as lightweight and compact as possible.


With the greatest respect to Dr Binnie, he is neither lightweight nor compact…


Which begs the question, how precisely did Martyn end up crammed into the coxswain’s seat as WA’s elite sweep rowers finalise their preparations for the Interstate Rowing Regatta at this weekend's Australian Rowing Championships?


"When I arrived, Jamie (WAIS rowing coach Jamie Hewlett) told me that he had bad news. The cox hadn’t turned up and so you’ll be doing it,” he said.


With many of the WA Queen’s Cup crew based in Penrith at the National Training Centre, there was no prospect of missing out on the all-too rare opportunity for a training session in Perth with all eight girls available on the same morning.


Hence, Binnie drew the short straw.



"It wasn’t a discussion point, it was more that this just needs to happen so let’s figure it out,” the WAIS Physiologist for National and Pathway sports explained.


The challenge was obvious in so much that a man twice the size of a conventional coxswain was all of a sudden squeezing into a seat that is typically reserved for a 40-50kg person.


"We spoke to Joe (Tamigi) who’s the head of rowing down there (WARC) and he pretty much said how much do you weigh, I said 92kgs, and he was a bit concerned that the coxswain seat couldn’t handle it, which obviously made me feel really good,” he joked.


A few crafty modifications later and the women’s eight crew, coxed by a novice, in pitch black conditions at 5am in the morning was set to go.


"Because my legs were so long I had to pull my knees up really high which meant I immediately felt like I was going to fall out of the boat.


"To make it worse, Giorgia (Patten) was in the stroke seat, when she started rowing her oar actually collected my shin the first few times, so I had to tuck that under which then led to a dead leg in the first 10 minutes. I literally didn’t have any sensation in my foot and I felt like I was going to fall out” he said.


Despite the trying circumstances behind his debut, Binnie gave himself a pass mark and hasn’t ruled out taking on the gig longer term.


"I actually did a very good job I feel. There’s lots of different things on the river at that time of day, there’s lots of pylons and there’s a tight bridge to negotiate and I had Hannah Vermeersch in the bow seat occasionally just rowing and shoving her hand out one way or the other when I wasn’t paying attention.


"Then Giorgia was laughing at me when I was clearly concerned about trying not to hit things because of the dark, but I didn’t crash.


"I probably didn’t give them much feedback but look, I don’t know, I think it was good resistance training for them, let’s put it that way.”


When asked whether Martyn Binnie has a future as a representative cox for his state, WAIS rowing coach Jamie Hewlett provided some much needed clarity.


"If he’s willing to lose 39kgs, then yes, he has a future as a cox.”


The Queen’s Cup is contested at the Interstate Regatta at the end of the Australian Rowing Championships in Penrith.


Some Other Quirky Rowing Stories:


The Missing Boy

The Dutch men's pair with their yet to vanish coxswain 

At the Paris Olympics in 1900 the Netherlands men’s pair crew of Francois Brandt and Roelof Klein lost their heat to the French duo of Louis Martinet and Rene Waleff.


They noticed that the French crew was being coxed by a young boy, considerably lighter than their coxswain Hermanus Brockman. As a result, Hermanus was flicked for the final, in favour of a young French boy they convinced to step in from the spectating crowd (which was permitted in Olympic rules at the time).


The Dutchmen went on to win the Olympic gold medal but the name and precise date of birth of the young lad who coxed them to title was never discovered, as before they could find out, he disappeared back into the masses of the crowd, never to be heard of again.


Some historians believe the French boy could potentially be the youngest Olympic champion in history!


Mind the Ducks

The legendary Australian rower Bobby Pearce. The first man to win consecutive Olympic titles in the men's single scull 

Australian single scull rower Henry Robert "Bobby” Pearce won gold at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. His victory however, was made all the more remarkable for an act of nature that curiously occurred in his quarter final.


Having built up a sizeable advantage over Frenchman Vincent Saurin, he noticed spectators motioning to him wildly on the banks of the Sloten Canal. His account is detailed below:


"I peeked over one shoulder and saw something I didn’t like, for a family of ducks in single file was swimming slowly from shore to shore. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t at the time for I had to lean on my oars and wait for a clear course.”


Saurin by contrast kept rowing and created a five boat-length lead. But such was Pearce’s superiority, he would catch him up swiftly and win the quarterfinal before taking gold in the final in an Olympic record time that would not be beaten until Munich in 1972.