Rowing & Coxing Guide



This guide is intended to describe rowing and coxing at RowPorty. It formerly focussed on coxing, but as rowers and coxes need to understand the same things, its scope has been expanded, though some additions are probably now necessary. The guide aims to outline what is necessary for safe boat handling and management at Portobello, taking account of local factors and the specifics of our boats. It does not describe coxing to win at regattas.

Basic Principles

  • When at sea the Cox is usually in command of the skiff. However to allow others to gain experience of coxing, there may also be a designated skipper.
  • Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) must be worn at all times when at sea. At RowPorty we use lifejackts with a manually operating inflated mechanism.
  • All rowers are responsible for ensuring they are healthy and fit enough to row. If the Cox has any doubts, they should cancel the row.
  • Especially on long rows and in hot weather, rowers are advised to take drinking water to help prevent dehydration.
  • YOU WILL GET WET but dress to beat the cold – a multi-layered approach is best with the outer layer wind/showerproof. Don’t underestimate the wind chill factor – increased by the ‘rate of knots’ of the skiff itself!
  • Beware of the sun – use high factor sun block, hats, and sunglasses.


  • Ready to row‘ – rowers get ready to start rowing.
  • ‘Row‘ – start rowing
  • Oars‘- stop rowing and lift oar blades out of the water
  • Hold water‘ – put blades in the water and hold them there
  • ‘Back water’ – row backwards
  • Port side only‘ – rowers with their oars on the port side should row, but those with their oars on the starboard side should lift the blades out of the water
  • Starboard side only‘ – rowers with their oars on the starboard side should row, but those with their oars on the port side should lift the blades out of the water
  • ‘Hard on starboard (port) side’ – rowers with their oars on the starboard (port) should row hard
  • ‘Ease off on port (starboard)’ – rowers with their oars on the port (starboard) side should ease off (often used in conjunction with the ‘hard’ command above).
  • ‘All together’ – all rowers to come back in, e.g. following a command for one side only.
  • Easy on port/starboard’ – both sides keep rowing but one side eases off.
  • One up on port/starboard‘ – one side takes one stroke (used to straighten the boat up
  • Watch oars (on port/starboard)‘ – there is an obstruction coming up, be ready to lift your oars to avoid it
  • Stop’ – emergency stop. All oar blades in the water and hold them there.

As always, ‘port’ refers to the left side of the boat and ‘starboard’ to the right side of the boat, regardless of which direction the crew are facing. Portside rowers are those whose oar blades are on the port side of the boat (and similarly for starboardside).

Check Lists

Check List – In the Boatyard

  • Assess if the weather is Ok
  • Check there is a full crew and they are happy to go out
  • Remove the cover and the cover support
  • Equip the boat with 5 lifejackets, 4 cushions and, optionally, the cox’s jacket stored in the shed
  • Check safety equipment is on board and properly stowed
  • Lock the shed
  • Wheel the boat onto the Prom, watching out for other prom users and taking care with boat handling – see this useful video on boat handling.
  • Lock the gates
  • Wheel the boat to the shore-line

Check List – Before Launching

  • Reassess the weather and waves – if any crew member is doubtful, cancel the row
  • Check the bung is in
  • Assign crew positions
  • Put life jackets on
  • Position the boat so that the bow trolley is at the shore-line
  • Lift the boat and remove the bow trolley, keeping ther axles out of the water
  • Push the boat in a bit farther
  • Lift the boat and remove the stern trolley, keeping the axles out of the water
  • Leave the trolleys beside the groyne, far enough up the beach that they will remain out of the water, taking into account any incoming tide. If in doubt, leave the trolleys well up the beach.
  • Position the rudder on the gudgeons and make sure the rudder retaining steel strip (if present) will stop the rudder detaching

Check List – Launching

  • Talk through the procedure
  • Push the boat into the water
  • Place the oars across the boat
  • Instruct the bow person to get in (from the side opposite the pin) and ask them to put their oar on the pin
  • Do likewise for rowers, 2, 3 and 4, possibly pushing the boat farther into the water each time
  • When all rowers are seated, say “ready to row!”
  • The cox gets in and says “row!”
  • Row away from the beach, taking any waves bow-on
  • When an appropriate distance offshore, the cox should call “oars”. The cox should release the rudder hold-up lanyard, push the rudder blade down and tighten the hold-down lanyard securing it in the jammer. At the same time the crew can adjust cushions and footrests.
  • When a few hundred yards out and when out of the wave zone, call “oars!” and let the rowers readjust their footrests etc.

Check List – Returning to the Beach

  • Talk through the procedure
  • If there are breaking waves on the beach, consider deploying the drogue
  • Steer the boat towards the beach, keeping its stern end-on to the waves
  • Ask the crew to row strong and steady, especially if there are waves
  • Uncleat the rudder tie-down line (if it is the “old style”)
  • Keep the crew informed how far to go
  • When the boat hits the beach, ask the crew to ship oars across the boat
  • The cox might like to jump out first to keep thr boat straight
  • Ask Rower 1 to get out, on the side opposite the pin
  • Do similarly for Rowers 2, 3 and 4, possibly pushing the boat farther inshore between each
  • Remove and stow the rudder
  • Stow the oars lengthwise along the boat
  • Push the boat up the beach so the bow is put of the water
  • Position the bow-trolley under the boat, keeping its axles out of the water
  • Push the boat up the beach so the stern is put of the water
  • Position the stern-trolley under the boat, keeping its axles out of the water
  • Remove the bung to let any water drain out

Check List – Packing Up

  • Postion the trolley handles towards one side and lean the boat towards that side
  • Put the lifejackets, cushions and cox’s jacket in the shed
  • Position the cover support on the thwarts and tighten it
  • Put the cover on and tighten the straps underneath
  • Put the money in the tin
  • Lock the shed
  • Lock the gates, unless there is someone else in the yard who will know to lock them
  • If there have been any mishaps or breakages, report them e.g. on Spond

Incident Reporting

If there is any significant incident, e.g. injury, capsize, swamping or damage, this needs to be recorded and reported. The SCRA Incident Incident Report Form should be completed and forwarded to a RowPorty Committee member. PSKC should also be informed, using the online web form.



The key to appropriate clothing is layering. You want a thin, tight fitting base layer to wick moisture away from the skin, followed by one or more insulating layers such as synthetic fleece, followed by a wind block layer that should be breathable and well ventilated. This final layer can also be water repellent or shower proof. The sort of clothing used by runners and cyclists is a good place to start. Loose tops that can get caught in the oar handles, so avoid bulky jackets or sweatshirts. In general, rowers should dress as though they are going running in the elements.

Synthetic fabrics are generally best. Wool is the best natural fabric, but cotton should be avoided. Down should never be worn on the water.

It’s worth investing in a simple dry bag for storing bits of kit when rowing.

Hats, Gloves and Footwear

A lot of body heat can be lost through their head, so on cold days wear a hat.

Hands can get cold while rowing. Rowing with gloves can cause blisters if they are not well fitting – many rowers opt for cycling or sailing dinghy gloves.

Footwear of some kind must be worn. In summer, sandals, ‘crocs’ or simple trainers usually suffice. In colder weather these can be fashionably combined with waterproof socks. Neoprene boots and socks work reasonably well but can become a bit cold over the course of a winter session. Wellies aren’t recommended as they can easily fill when launching the boat and are cumbersome should you end up in the water. The use of gaffer tape is not recommended.

Socks should be synthetic or wool to help ensure that feet stay warm while wet, or alternatively waterproof.


Waterproof clothing is not essential for rowing, but a light and breathable waterproof jacket will keep the rain off.

Full wetsuits or drysuits are not suitable for rowing, but trouser only versions can be useful. “Launching trousers” with built-in neoprene socks keep the feet warm and dry and work well with crocs.

Safety Equipment

  • Life jackets for all crew
  • At least one communications device, fully charged – mobile phone (waterproof or in waterproof case), marine VHF
  • Tow line
  • Anchor and warp
  • Knife
  • Bailers
  • Torch (if there is a possibility of being out before sunrise or after sunset)
  • Drogue
  • Adequate clothing

All items should be properly stowed, in most cases tied on.


Lifejackets must be worn at all times on the water. We use manual lifejackets inflated by pulling the toggle or, if this fails (unlikely), by blowing into the inflation tube inside the jacket. The jackets should be adjusted so as to be reasonably snug but not tight. Inside the jacket, accessed by undoing the velcro, are a manual inflation tube (a backup to the toggle and a means of topping up the jacket) and a whistle. Care should be taken not to pull the toggle accidentally, as this will necessitate the gas cylinder being replaced.

The lifejackets are kept in the rowing shed. They should be kept dry if possible and not put on the bottom of the boat, hung on the pins or placed in bow of boat.

Associated with the lifejackets is the yellow coxes jacket. This used to have an internal lifejacket, but this has been disarmed and so a normal lifejacket should be worn on top.

The jackets are looked after by the Lifejackets group (see Contacts) and are serviced professionally on a regular basis. (Anyone wishing to join the team should let them know.)

Weather Conditions

If in Doubt, Don’t Go Out

If there is any dount that the weather is not suitable for rowing, taking into account the capabilities of the crew, then the row should not take place. Wind and waves are the main factors to be considered, but other factors such as visibility may need to be considered.

As well as the current weather, one should also be aware of the forecast.

Breaking Waves

At Portobello, waves are the main concern. Breaking waves pose the hazard of broaching, where if the boat is allowed to go beamside-on to the waves it can capsize. Although the sea a little way out may be flat, if there are large breaking waves on the beach, the row should not take place. The worst wave condtions occur if the wind is (or has been) from the NE, i.e. onshore. Even if the wind has died down, NE winds can leave a big swell that makes rowing unsafe.

Off-shore Winds

Wind is also a hazard, especially off-shore. It require much more strength and stamina to row into a strong wind and the hazard is the boat may not be able to get back. Off-shore winds are an especial hazard, since the farther out one goes the stronger the wind becomes. In fresh off-shore winds the skiff should therefore be kept close to shoe. Remember that if it is difficult to row back to the launching point, it may be much easier to row to another point on the shore, so that one isn’t rowing directly into the wind.


Sunset time also needs to be considered. Rowing a short time after sunset is not prohibited, but a torch must be carried for use if there is any risk of collision. Also more caution must be applied regarding weather conditions.

Steering – Broaching

The skiffs are very stable, but the risk of broaching needs to be understood. The dictionary definition of broach in the nautical context is “to veer or yaw dangerously so as to lie broadside to the waves”. If out at sea and there’s a risk of broaching, you’re already in trouble because you shouldn’t be out in those sorts of conditions. Broaching when returning to the beach through the surf is a more likely occurrence and this risk is greater at Portobello than at most other Scottish coastal rowing locations . You should be in fairly shallow water but the risk of swamping or capsize is high so it’s best avoided.

If returning to the beach in a breaking following sea there are different approaches, but the most important thing to remember is that the boat must be kept perpendicular to the waves. There are different techniques, but rowing hard and deploying a drogue is recommended (see below). A drogue acts like a parachute in the water behind the boat, slowing the boat down and keeping its stern pointed into the waves approaching from behind. Waves tend to pass under rather than carry the boat along. With overtaking waves, the tiller will be very ineffective so you may need to rely on the oars to steer, but the boat will be more stable. There are other techniques, but unless well practised beforehand by the crew, they may not end well.

The big problem with broaching is that it’s so sudden; past a certain point there’s nothing you can do to stop it. An experienced crew will help, able to anticipate what’s required and adjust their rowing instinctively so as to keep the boat driving ahead and the stern pointed directly into the icoming waves, but the risk is still there. If a broach occurs, everyone will get very wet. A capsize may quickly follow, in which case injuries may result.

See also Beach Landings in Surf and the Risk of Broaching published by the SCRA.

Drogue Usage

RowPorty skiffs carry drogues, parachute-like devices attached to the stern that are used to slow the boat down in a storm and to keep the hull perpendicular to the waves. Alex Martin gave a demonstration of how to deploy them.

Regarding packing the drogue in the storage bag, at the time we made the video we were more concerned about wet and salt than we now are. The drogue and drogue line should simply be washed in fresh water when the boat is cleaned (first Tuesday of the month).

What does matter is that the bag is packed so that the drogue comes out first and the line follows. This means the line/rope must be fed into the bag boat-end (as distinct from drogue-end) first, and the drogue needs to be folded and stored so that it can be taken out of the bag and opened up before the line (which is only paid out gradually when the drogue is in the water, in effect pulling the line out of the bag).

Please ensure that the drogue is not tucked behind and under the seat slats. It is important that the rope goes straight out ie over the top of the seat even when the drogue is on the shelf.

NB Keep hands etc clear of the drogue line! A knife is attached to the storage bag – just in case!


The Coastguard (Aberdeen Coastgaurd in our case) is the first point of contact for marine safety and other matters. They can be contacted by phone (01224 592 334), but in an emergency it’s best to call 999 and ask for “coastguard”.

They keep a listening watch on VHF Channel 16. Strictly speaking one must be licenced or under the supervision of a licenced operator to use Channel 16 and most other VHF channels, but in an emergency it is entirely acceptable for non-licenced operators to call the Coastguard on Channel 16 (see below).


Coxes should ensure they have at least one means of communication for use in emergencies. This could be a mobile phone (either a waterproof one or a phone in a waterproof case). If using a phone in an emergency situation one should dial 999 and ask for the coastguard. However a mobile marine VHF is preferable especially on longer trips.

Except in emergencies, those using a marine VHF must be qualified and so routine use is not described here since the user will have been trained. In an emergency anyone is allowed to use the VHF and procedures are described briefly below. It can be difficult to decide if it really is an emergency, but the Coastguard always prefer a sitaution to turn out not to be an emergency than to be called out too late.

  1. Coxes should ensure that any VHF they carry is fully charged.
  2. For emergency use, Channel 16 should always be used at High power.
  3. To transmit, the PTT (Press To Transmit) button on the side must be depressed. To hear the other side, it must be released. It is very easy when distracted to get this wrong, so you must remember to press PTT to talk and to release it to listen.
  4. Maydays are used when there is imminent danger to vessel or person. Pan Pans are used in less severe emergency situations. Whether you call a Mayday or a Pan Pan is not important.
  5. It is important to state:
    • what your vessel is called e.g. “Jenny Skylark”
    • what sort of vessel it is e.g. “rowing skiff”
    • where you are located e.g. “half a mile off Portobello Beach near Edinburgh”
    • how many peope are on board e.g. “five persons on board”
    • the nature of the emergency e.g. “man overboard”
    • always finish your transmission with the word OVER.
  6. The Coastguard will never criticise incorrect procedure in an emergency situation (they are always friendly and try to keep you calm), but it is worth trying to remember the correct protocol.

For example:

  • Depress the PTT button !!
  • Mayday Mayday Mayday
  • This is rowing skiff Jenny Skylark, Jenny Skylark, Jenny Skylark
  • We are located half a mile off Portobello beach, near Edinburgh
  • We have five people on board
  • A person has fallen overboard and we are unable to get them back on board.
  • Over
  • Release the PTT button !!

The Coastguard will likely engage in a dialogue and you should answer their questions, all the time remembering to operate the PTT button.

Collision Avoidance

Rowing off Portobello Beach there are relatively few fixed hazards apart from the groynes, the remains of two groynes near the Swimming Pool, and rocks past Joppa and Seafield. However at times there can be a wide variety of other water users; swimmers, kayakers, sail boats, jet-skis, other skiffs etc. It is important to be aware of your neighbours at all times and be considerate to them.

Also keep in mind the Navigation Rules, e.g.:

  • Small manoeuvrable boats give way to large vessels that have difficulty manoeuvring
  • Motor gives way to muscle gives way to wind.
  • Keep right (starboard), particularly when entering/exiting harbours. (This means that boats approaching each other should pass port to port.)
  • Overtaking vessels must keep clear

But apply common sense to all situations and don’t rely on other water users knowing what they should be doing. You may be correct that you have the right of way, but that’s little comfort if the boat ends up sunk.

Additional Information

Additional information is available in the following documents, although these are now rather out of date and some information contained in them has been superseded.

Last updated 23 March 2020
Any comments to Malcolm Stewart