Joanne Harris |

How to foot steer

Foot steering is a useful skill for any rower to have, but many are intimidated by the prospect of adding extra responsibility in a training or race situation. Joanne Harris talks to some experienced steers for the best tips and tricks to get it right.

Learning to foot steer can make you an asset to your squad and open up new pathways for your rowing career.

“I would strongly recommend it because it just adds another skill that you can bring to any crew. Being able to steer should open opportunities for you,” says Upper Thames RC’s Naomi Ashcroft.

Getting started in steering

Ashcroft says she picked up steering as she had previously sculled a lot and as a lightweight she often ended up in the bow seat. At City of Sheffield RC, Janet Vickers says she fell into steering as nobody else in her coxless four seemed to want to take on the responsibility.

The first task for any steers, before boating, should be to make sure the foot is set up properly, ensuring the rudder is straight and the rudder wires are the right tension and not frayed.

Normally only a small amount of rudder is necessary

Ashcroft recommends aligning the steering shoe with your natural neutral foot position, so when the rudder is straight you are pressing off at the correct angle. There should be equal movement to left and right – you need to point your toe in the direction you want to go. Unless steering round a large bend, normally only a small amount of rudder is necessary and ideally only when the blades are in the water, to minimise the rudder’s effect on balance and the fact it acts as a brake.

As well as checking the boat over, a steers should ensure they know the navigation rules of the waterway they are on.

“Good advice is never assume you’re going to have a clear passage. When you’re a steersperson you’re taking responsibility for the safety of your crew and therefore you have a responsibility to understand and know what the rules of the river are, or the racing rules for that particular day, and if you’ve got any questions ask them before you go afloat,” Ashcroft says.

Practical tips on the water

Look around every five strokes to check your course and for obstacles.

“I try and think of it like when you look round, you’re not looking at anything in particular, you’re scanning. You’re taking in as much information as you can,” Thames RC captain Huw Jones says. “Sometimes that means that the rowing is affected; you can’t be putting 400 watts on the pin while you’re turning around and looking and sometimes you have to accept that.”

“I always think if my stern is pointing to the bank then my bow is pointing towards the middle of the river. It’s being able to steer based on the direction in which your stern is pointing as opposed to the bow,” adds Ashcroft. This does require you to know the shape of the bank, of course.

Fixing steering problems

Vickers suggests talking to your coach and crew about why a boat might not be running straight.

“It’s not just one person’s responsibility, it’s everyone’s,” she notes. Catch speed, finish pressure and general timing can all affect steering – especially in a four – and if the steers sits at bow they can influence the course by pressure alone.

“There were times this year where I thought ‘it’s time to move away from the booms’, but I don’t really want to use the foot so I’m just going to hit the front end for two strokes,” says Jones, who steered the winning Wyfold Challenge Cup boat for Thames at Henley Royal Regatta 2022.

If the rest of the crew isn’t used to being in a coxless boat, it’s worth the steers establishing with them before the outing that they shouldn’t try to steer with pressures themselves unless the steers asks them to. This applies particularly to quads, where the other scullers think they’re trying to be helpful, but by altering pressure, they throw out the steers’ calculations and the boat finishes up veering.

Mistakes will happen; the key is to be cautious so that a mistake is a minor problem which can be fixed rather than a serious issue which will result in a crash.

Foot steering in races

Steering a race adds extra pressure, especially navigating the Henley booms in the summer. Ashcroft says that being aware of the strength of the stream and the impact of the wind coming off the island on to the booms is key.

“To me it’s much easier racing alongside booms than racing on a buoyed course, because you have a massive gap between the buoys. The booms make it easier to steer a straight line,” she reflects.

Jones’ crew hit the booms in their first race at Henley last year, but calm heads saved the day. Both he and stroke James Stevenson stopped rowing; middle pair, in a bowside ‘bucket’, pushed off the booms, and they got straight back to the same rhythm.

“Almost the worst thing you can do is crash and panic and then work so hard to make up your mistake that you make another error,” he adds. “The biggest piece of advice I’d give to anyone steering at Henley is to train on the course at any time you can – on both stations.”

Steering at Henley
Huw Jones foot steering in a race at Henley Royal Regatta

Head racing is another area where a good line is key.

Every rower should have a go at steering

“For head races in particular, to maximise your success, not only is it the amount of effort and the power that’s going down, but you want all that effort to be going in the right direction. I’d rather do 5k than 5.2k if it’s a 5k race,” Ashcroft adds.

Benefits of being able to steer

Every rower should have a go at steering, says Vickers.

“It’s a great skill to learn, it’ll make you a better sculler or rower if you know how to steer, and it’ll make you a much more useful person,” she explains.

Jones adds, “It is a skill, it can be learned but sometimes it’s just something that people are really good at. You can’t be that person that’s panicking or really passionate, you have to be that cool level-headed person with the foot.”

Ashcroft says the more you practise, the better you will get, and steering brings an unlikely bonus too. “I always enjoy steering because it means I can enjoy the scenery and look out of the boat,” she concludes.