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Course a real head-turner

Yes, it's about the autumn spectacle -- thousands of amateur athletes rowing stiletto-slim boats up a beautiful river. And it's about all that tweedy conviviality and Chablis on blankets along the Cambridge shore.

Though few might admit it, judging from the thousands of spectators who will concentrate Saturday and Sunday near the two wicked 90-degree turns on the Head of the Charles course, there is also an appetite for mayhem, especially near the Eliot Bridge, known affectionately as "Dead Man's Turn."

And since the longer boats -- the fours and eights -- are steered by a coxswain, it seemed a good idea to the event's management to offer a clinic to help these small, voluble quarterbacks of the rowing teams navigate one of the most treacherous courses in the world.

Yasmin Farooq thinks so. The eight-time US Rowing Team member and two-time Olympian, Farooq has coxed Head of the Charles "more times than I can remember," she said. And last year, Farooq, who worked the 2000 Sydney Olympics as an NBC analyst, put on the first-ever cox's clinic on both days of racing, in all instructing some 220 rowers about the perils of the Charles River. She'll be repeating the clinics this year as well, tomorrow and Saturday mornings.

The Weeks Footbridge about halfway through the course and the Eliot Bridge at the Cambridge Boat Club near the finish are the two most dangerous turns, Farooq said. The majority of boats that get in trouble are from the youth and club events with inexperienced coxes, most of whom came to her clinics.

"The Eliot Bridge is tricky because if you wait too long to make your turn, you're on the wrong approach," she said. "The way to steer it is to make your turn beforehand and then come out straight. You can either nail it with a good turn or lose 3 boat lengths. My heart rate always goes up in that turn."

Farooq lived in Cambridge for several years before moving to her current home in Eugene, Ore., with her husband, Roger Waterman. In the years she lived and rowed the Charles with the Boston Rowing Center, Farooq spent hours studying the river. Even now when she coxes Head of the Charles -- she's competing again this year -- she will put in her time on the riverbank watching other boats make their way through the turns.

"Any cox who says they know this course," said Farooq, "is not wise, because anything can happen. You have to be able to react to what 20 other boats are doing, and you better know what your crew can do. As many times as I've coxed here, I would never get cocky about that race."

Fred Schoch, executive director of the event, a former coach, and one of its participants, said the Weeks Footbridge turn may be tougher than the Eliot because the boats haven't had time to string out along the course. Last year, he said, the turn presented a perfect example of cox strategy when three crews of lightweight eights tried to get under the bridge together. But rather than try bulling through the space with the other two, the Harvard team took a different route.

"Their cox could anticipate what would happen," said Schoch, "and he had his rowers apply starboard pressure and get away from the melee to the Cambridge side. They got through unscathed and avoided the shipwreck and the other two were all tangled up and yelling and screaming. They lost 30 to 45 seconds, and as the Harvard crew rowed away, the cox just waved at them and said, `See ya.' "

Farooq agrees with the tactic, and often encourages crews to back off in a crunch and stay fresh for the next attack.

"There's no real way to plan how to steer," she said, "but when everyone wants to take the inside in a turn and in a tight spot with the adrenaline going, you can just drop down the pressure, catch the corner, and then go at it later. I try to show them that it's an error to bully your way through, and the third boat will probably catch a penalty. And if someone passes on the inside, you could get T-boned."

The penalty for interfering with another boat is a minute deduction -- taking a boat out of the race. Hitting a mark is a 10-second violation, all of which is a cox's judgment when the going gets tight. But that doesn't mean Farooq advocates slowing down through the turns. Rowing in Germany a few years ago with the US team, she encountered a course with one 90-degree turn that had never been raced. So as competitors slowed for the turn, she remembered:

"During the race, we made the turn and hit that sucker going full speed. That was our goal -- full pressure through the 90-degree turn."

Last year, as her crew was back in the traffic, Farooq found herself picking her way through traffic, and at the Eliot Bridge "threading a needle through the boats" to take the race by a second.

According to Schoch, Farooq's clinic had a noticeable effect. "There was a significant reduction in penalties, especially with the less experienced. And there were far fewer appeals. The clinic was one of the bright spots of the event."

This year's clinics will feature a video of the course Farooq shot from a small camera worn on her head during last year's competition.

Coxing isn't for everyone. For starters, most women weigh in at around 100 pounds -- the lower limit for a cox. And because there are more rowers than coxes, said Farooq, even when she wants to go out rowing in a single, she is recruited by a team needing an experienced cox.

"Rowers are tall, and coxes are small," she said. "A good cox has a tiny stature and a loud voice. I love rowing, but I'm a much better cox than a rower."

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