Usually sitting in the stern of the crew team’s racing shell, the coxswain (“cox”) is the person in the boat who makes calls into a microphone to her rowers. “Make it worth it!” or “Do it for your team!” resounds throughout the boat on speakers. As a commander of the boat, she makes tactical decisions during practices and races and is responsible for a Cox-Box, which holds a waterproof microphone and displays the team’s stroke rating.
On the Mills College crew team, there are three coxswains, including sophomore Desirae Tongco.
“I probably didn’t have the idea to join the team until my swim coach said, ‘You should join because you are loud and they need a coxswain,'” said Tongco, who gets up early in the morning for the 5:30 a.m. drive to Orinda’s Briones Reservoir.
“A lot of the times when I wake up, I start singing, and my neighbors are like, ‘Shut up,'” Tongco said.
She dresses in usual coxswain attire – a raincoat and rain boots to keep warm and dry. Mornings on the lake are extremely cold, and because they don’t engage in physical exertion like rowers, they don’t warm up.
When the vans arrive at the reservoir, the rowers participate in a warm-up run for ten minutes while the coxswain stays in the van to mentally prepare for the day’s practice.
“A coxswain steers the boat to make technical calls so the boat stays set and they motivate the rowers,” she said. “I have heard many a rower tell me a 2K or 5K really hurts. So, I try to motivate them the best I can.”
Once rowers finish the warm-up, they convene for a short pep talk before lifting the boat off the boathouse rack under the coxswain’s call and walking it down to the dock. the team undergoes a rigorous practice until 7:45 a.m. in the eight and fours.
The coxswain directs the team with repetitive rowing and steering directions. For example, “way enough” means “stop the boat” in rowing language. Given the trust between the coxswain and her rowers, they are obedient in listening to her calls; not doing so could put the entire boat at risk.
“Rule one: the coxswain is always right. Rule number two: when the coxswain is wrong, refer to rule number one,” first-year rower Amanda Clark said. “It is what novices have drilled into their brains.”
As a coxswain, Tongco enjoys helping the team achieve their goals and win the race.
“It’s amazing to see the rowers’ discipline. With the minute you do the call, they just do it right away,” she said. “I see the discipline when everything is synchronized and smooth.”
Being a coxswain does have its own frustrations, especially when it comes to directing the group.
“My least favorite part is probably getting tongue-tied a lot,” Tongco explained, although she has her own motivating phrase when making a mistake. “If I do get tongue-tied, I usually say ‘tomorrow’s another day.'”
Overall, the team’s coach sees a lot of potential in Tongco as a coxswain and crew member.
“She is a huge asset to our team. The majority of our team are rowers and the crew team cannot row without a coxswain. She is a natural leader and a very confident individual, which are important characteristics for a coxswain,” Head Coach Carrie Davis said.
After the practice, most of the team members, including Tongco, head to Founders for breakfast.
“Hot chocolate is very essential to a crew member’s diet in the morning,” she said. Her teammates agreed that the warm cocoa is soothing after a cold morning spent outside.
When she has a full day of classes, she usually spends the free time in between to take a short nap and do her homework.
“I keep organized with two calendars, colorful markers and planning ahead every two weeks,” she said as she ended her day with a 10:30 p.m. bed time.
Waking up in the morning is not a problem for Tongco, who reminds herself of the coxswain mantra, “If the coxswain does not show up, the boat does not go out.”