During my interview with Anne Dujmovic of CNET in Portland last week, she asked me one of the best questions I’ve ever heard. Referring to a story in my book about my selection to the stroke seat of the Oxford Lightweights crew, she asked if I feel like I am now in the stroke seat of my life.

Yes, I do – and the more I thought about her question, the more I loved the metaphor.

Me in the stroke seat of the Oxford Lightweights, 1989
Me in the stroke seat of the Oxford Lightweights, 1989

In a racing crew, the job of the rower in the stroke seat is to set the rhythm for the rest of the crew. The ideal stroke sets a steady, powerful rhythm, that enables the rest of the crew to perform at their best.

When you watch the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race, the face you see most is that of the stroke. You catch glimpses of the Number 7, but most of the rest of the crew is hidden behind this stern pair. But they all have their jobs to do, and are all necessary parts of the crew. Seats 5 and 6 are often referred to as the power house seats – these are where the biggest, strongest rowers usually sit. Seats 3 and 4 are also power seats, although usually slightly smaller and possibly less experienced than 5 and 6. Bow and 2 are the technical seats – put a rough rower in either of these seats and they will knock the boat off-balance and make life uncomfortable for everybody, so these rowers have to be neat and precise.

Even though the stroke might be the most visible face, they can’t do what they do without the complete support of the rest of the crew. A good stroke can’t make a bad crew good, although a bad stroke can turn a good crew bad.

And the coxswain? The little guy who sits in the stern of the boat, who keeps the boat on course and exhorts the crew to do their best. The cox is the strategist, the “brains” of the boat, who knows just when to call for a push for ten, and when to ease back. A good cox knows how to motivate the crew, just what to say and when, to get the maximum performance out of them. And he will take advice from the stroke, who provides feedback on how the crew is feeling.

So in our community here on this blog, I suppose I am in the stroke seat. I set the pace, and the other members of the community (you!) back me up. I couldn’t do what I do without you being there, pulling for me. Occasionally somebody catches a crab (rowing terminology for when a rower catches their oar in the water and the handle whips round, knocking them flat, or even sending them flying clean out of the boat). Even the stroke can catch a crab. It can happen to anybody, and brings the boat to a messy halt. But then we get our oars sorted out, get the ejected rower back on board, and get the boat moving again.

We are at our most effective when we are all pulling in the same direction, our movements synchronised, and the boat lifts and flies across the water. Everybody moving in unison. We are poetry in motion.

And the coxswain? The voice that provides us with motivation, and keeps us on course, and urges us to be the best that we can be?

Well, I leave it up to you to decide how to apply that part of the metaphor. Interpret according to your own inclinations.

And of course, this is just in the context of this community. You are also in the stroke seat in your own community, your office, your family, your organisation. It’s all about teamwork, and each of us doing what we can to rally and focus action towards progress.

If we all pull together, we CAN save the world!


  • I like the scenario of Roz being in the stroke seat! When I read John Kay’s comment, I thought at first that he was being rude about the blog, then realised that he is talking about shipping nuts to Tarawa – presumably for Roz to eat whilst in the rowing seat. Rita.

  • @John Kay, from what I gathered reading “Sex Lives of Cannibals,” shipping something to Tarawa is entirely do-able, but having something actually arrive in Tarawa that same year is a much more difficult achievement.

    Roz, I think you’ve got to apply some sort of Douglas Adams-style space/time juggling and be both stroke and cox in your metaphor.

  • Well put, Joan, about the shipping to Tarawa! Am increasingly resigned to necessity of having to carry it there in checked luggage, and just hope that I can get it though customs in Fiji. And that I can manage to carry a 60lb suitcase of nuts, as well as all my rawfood crackers and assorted pieces of kit for my boat….

    I’d rather think of the cox as being something like “life purpose” or “intuition” rather than just me.

  • Well, OK, but the USPS website *says* 6-10 days. Has anyone got actual experience?

    And Roz – ask about customs clearance now. You may be able to get a pass if the nuts are sequestered until your departure and handed to you at that point, but you’d need to arrange in advance for it to happen when you arrive laden.

  • Love the picture Roz. In rowing, the brains of the boat is the coxswain, in sailing the tactician has that duty of strategic calls,sounds like what we need here is a snacktician! Get those nuts on board! Lots of joy to you today. Amyinaustin

  • While I believe Roz and her followers do their part to protect the delicate oceans on this big blue ball sometimes nature takes control and messes things up.
    Have you read about the Antarctic ice berg that has split in half and the havoc it may wreak on the oceans? It doesn’t sound good. You can read about it here, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35600197/ns/us_news-environment/ . I wonder if it will have any effect on the currents that you’ll be dealing with on the next leg of your row.

  • Roz,

    As a former stroke, I enjoyed reading your post. When you are out on the ocean, you are in the stroke seat rowing hard, but you are also the coxswain. Your “voice” is overheard by all of us from that far from off place. You are the voice that provides us with motivation, and in your special way, your words (and your book!) are inspirational as you urge us to be the best that we can be. Good luck cox, take care of that person in your stroke seat. Best wishes.

  • Great metaphor Roz, I’m sure I’m going to borrow it in the future so I’ve made a mental note to acknowlegde both you and Anne D!

    It’s all about the timing. Fingers crossed for a nutty solution.

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