Useful info for coxes and steerers

If you are steering or coxing you need to follow the Tideway rules. The PLA documentation is quite lengthy, please take the time to read the following information:


You must keep a good look-out AT ALL TIMES, especially dead ahead where it is most difficult for rowing boats. Most accidents and near misses are avoidable if only the crews had seen the danger in time. In over 80% of head on collisions NEITHER boat saw the other in time.

Coxless boats should look forwards at least about every 5-10 strokes, more often when things are tight. Don’t forget to check over both shoulders. When rowing in shallows it is tempting just to watch the shore, but the biggest risk of head on collision is from the other direction.
If a risky situation is developing do not assume that the other boat has seen it, call out in good time. If they do not seem to look round, turn up the volume until they do. The conventional calls are:

“Take a look (eight)” – A situation is developing and I am not sure that you have seen it.
“Head (four)” – I think you should be doing something by now. Things are getting a bit tight.
“Hold it up (sculler)” – Collision imminent unless you stop.

If you are in, for example, a quad, don’t assume that a call to a “four” cannot possibly be about you!

On the Tideway rowing boats should stick to the traffic pattern detailed below and shown in the attached diagram. This pattern separates the flows of boats going upstream and downstream, except when the stream changes direction, see below. Should a risk of collision arise then the steering rules in a later section should be used to avoid the immediate danger.

  1. When proceeding with the stream, keep to the starboard side of the fairway (i.e. keep to the right of the middle of the river).
  2. When proceeding against the stream, navigate as follows
  3. Between Syon crossing and Chiswick Bridge crossing (opposite the Ship public house), keep to the Surrey shore.
  4. Between Chiswick Bridge Crossing and Chiswick Steps Crossing (upriver of Chiswick Pier near Chiswick Steps), keep to the Middlesex shore.
  5. Between Chiswick Steps Crossing and Putney pier , keep to the Surrey shore.


  1. Keep a good look-out at all times ESPECIALLY AROUND THE TURN OF THE STREAM. At the turn the traffic streams get mixed up and until they settle down again in the opposite pattern the risk of head-on collision is very high. See below about stream direction.
  2. When crossing the river boats must give way to any vessel proceeding along the fairway.
  3. Where practical do not stop close to bridges or obstacles, especially upstream of them. Try and pick a place to stop that will not get in the way of other boats. If you are a group of stopped boats try and arrange to leave a viable path for other boats, do not force them to steer out wide into danger.
  4. When steering in the shallows allow adequate clearance from the shore to avoid grounding. Be aware of specific hazards, especially at very low water (see below).
  5. When steering in the shallows, go through the side arches of all bridges provided that there is enough water (2-5m clear either side of your blades usually does OK). If there is not enough water, creep around the pier of the central arch after taking a very careful look for boats coming downstream.
  6. When steering in the fairway, keep to the right of centre and go through the central arch of all bridges. Steer wide around all bends, especially when there may be boats on the inside shallows.
  7. At Putney boats going against the stream should steer between the buoys and the hard. Boats going with the stream should keep outside the buoys. Do not cut between the buoys. Do not paddle at high pressures inside the buoys. Watch out for boats cutting through the buoys, you may only spot them very late.
  8. 8. Below Putney pier and above Syon crossing the normal ‘right hand’ rule applies and rowing boats should normally use the starboard side of the fairway both with and against the stream. Change position if necessary safely clear of Putney pier and remember that boats crossing the river give way.
  9. 9. For full details see the PLA Notice To Mariners ‘RULES FOR NAVIGATION OF VESSELS UNDER OARS ON THE TIDAL THAMES FROM 1 MAY 2002’.

When an immediate risk of collision with another boat arises, follow the rules below. These are a summary of the “Rules of the Road” as modified by the PLA by-laws.
Make any corrections boldly and in good time so that the other boat can clearly see what you intend to do. Remember that rowing boats can stop very easily. Generally when things get very close it is best to stop rather than try and steer your way out, especially if it is not clear what the other boat is doing.
Remember that nothing in the Rules entitles you to run down another boat. Even if they have messed it up big time it is still your duty to avoid collision by all possible means “in extremis”. The Rules are about avoiding collisions, not allocating blame. It is almost impossible for two moving rowing boats to be in collision without both boats being at fault, hence the “abide your own damages” convention among rowers.

The overtaking boat keeps clear at all times (for races see below).
Generally in the shallows the overtaking boat must steer out towards the middle of the river to go round the slower boat. The overtaking boat must allow the overtaken boat sufficient room to steer normally around any shallows or obstructions ahead. Do not barge up the inside unless the boat in front has clearly decided to leave you room to do so.
There is no particular side to overtake on when you are on the fairway, pick the side that seems best.


  1. Do not row two or more abreast for any length of time when overtaking.
  2. Different overtaking conventions may apply between racing crews during Tideway head races. See the race rules for specific events. Generally slower racing boats are asked to move over to allow faster boats to stay on the stream. Note that you must follow the normal right of way rules with all non-racing vessels (e.g. if the river is not closed).
  3. Never assume that a boat coming up behind you has seen you, especially in the shallows. Call “head eight” or similar if they get too close for comfort.
  4. Rights of way when overtaking is currently one of the least understood areas of Tideway steering. Expect funny ideas from other coxes.
    These may include:
    • Course boat has right of way (i.e. when it is doing a piece)
    • Overtaken boat must move over
    • Always overtake on the right (or left…)
    • My boat is bigger than yours

If the other boat is stationary, you must steer round it!! The stationary boat should remain still until the “overtaking” boat is clear. Remember that a stationary boat may have a problem that you are unaware of and may not be capable of moving even if it wanted to (beginner scullers are a case in point).

Where two boats are meeting each other head on both boats must steer to their right. This is the “right hand rule” and is general river usage. Normally when on the fairways boats should keep to the right at all times so that steering corrections are not usually required.


  1. Shout and slow down or stop if things are too close to easily steer away in good time.
  2. If the collision risk arises because one or both rowing boats have strayed out of their water in the normal rowing traffic pattern, you can expect many coxes to steer back towards their water, which is usually to their LEFT on an ebbing stream on most of the Tideway. Watch out and improvise as necessary. Best not to get out of position in the first place.
  3. If you meet a passenger cruiser or other commercial vessel in the fairway it will usually sound one short blast on its whistle to indicate that it is steering or keeping right. Very rarely it may sound two short blasts indicating that it is steering or keeping left in which case co-operate as required. There are other sound signals, if you hear them take a good look and keep out of the way.
  4. Five or more short blasts indicates doubt in the mind of the other boat as to what is going on.
  5. Note that due to the nature of the river you can be on a head-on collision course with a boat that is around a bend and not yet directly in front of you.
  6. Head on collisions are very dangerous. Never take chances.


On the Tideway all boats crossing the river or spinning (i.e. doing anything other than proceeding along it) must keep out of the way of and give way to all other vessels. See diagram below.

  1. When crossing at the crossing points or Fulham Rail Bridge, always check carefully that there is room to cross safely. For coxless boats it is safest to easy and take a good long look round. A glance is not enough, it’s too easy to miss something.
  2. Do not spin or cross close to blind bends or bridges. Make sure you have an adequate view to judge whether you have enough time and space to complete the manoeuvre.
  3. Coaches sometimes ask for silly things, take your time and do it right.
  4. Never steer across the bows of another boat. Think of another plan.

If there is a fleet of dinghies racing on the river, slow down and/or stop until you see a gap. Proceed slowly, steering to keep away from any race marker buoys. Once you decide to go, keep it straight and steady and let them steer around you.

Be aware that they are often restricted in their steering by lack of water depth at low water, so keep out of their way. Generally you only meet them in the fairway where the right hand rule applies. If you have the space, gently ease off the fairway in good time to give them plenty of room.
Listen for and act on any sound signals commercial vessels give, see section 4.2 above.

Coaching launches follow the same traffic pattern and observe the same steering rules as rowing boats. Launches may only go over the 8 knot power boat speed limit when accompanying rowing boats.
Launches should cut their wash as required to avoid endangering rowing boats, especially pairs and single scullers. Alternatively steer over to the other side of the river if there is no immediate need to be close by.

Between sunset and sunrise all rowing boats must carry two white lights, one pointing forwards, one backwards. Lights should be mounted in front of bow and behind the cox to avoid obstruction from any angle. Rigger mounting is not acceptable. Red lights must not be used in place of white lights.

  • White clothing on bow and cox makes a big difference during twilight.
  • Launches ideally should carry proper navigation lights, but white lights as for rowing boats is currently acceptable.
  • Check your local club rules for restrictions on night outings (level of experience required, launches, solo or not etc. ) Wherever possible outings after dark should be accompanied by a launch. Solo night outings should only be undertaken by experienced Tideway steerers, especially at low water.

Never row over or close to anything swimming in the water under any circumstances. Oar blades can easily stun or kill. Either go round, stop and wait or easy and glide through with the crew watching their blades.


The Tideway is a tricky beast with more than a few traps in it. Learn to recognise all the main hazards listed below and keep an eye out for new ones and any others that may give you trouble.

Always be aware of the direction of the stream/tide/water flow, especially when the tide is due to turn during your outing (check the tide tables). When the stream changes the traffic pattern reverses and until it settles down (10-20 mins) there is a period of severe danger. Check the stream direction by observing buoys, bridge piers, debris in the river, etc. If necessary stop and square blades to see how you drift.
Be aware that:

  • The stream changes progressively up the river. It is possible for a boat to move faster than the low water change, i.e. it can have changed where you are but still be going the old way at the next bridge you reach.
  • The stream changes at the edges before it does in the middle.
  • At slow or slack water the wind can blow moored boats the “wrong” way.
  • The apparent direction of movement of waves on the surface can be deceptive. The best indicator is the movement of floating debris.

Tricky shallows at low water occur at the following places working up to Kew:

  • Below Putney Bridge on Surrey.
  • On Surrey upriver of the Putney buoys up to about the mile post.
  • On Middlesex all the way up Crabtree Reach.
  • Surrey side arch of Hammersmith Bridge dries out on most low tides.
  • Under Hammersmith Bridge from the Middlesex shore to mid river.
  • Above St Paul’s slipway (worst when the bottom of the concrete ramp is exposed).
  • The outfall opposite the top of Chiswick Eyot (The “Island”) and up to the bend.
  • At spring low tides on Surrey just above the Chiswick Steps crossing point.
  • Middlesex shore either side of Barnes Bridge and below Chiswick Bridge.
  • Under and above the Surrey side arch of Kew Railway Bridge.

Make sure that you give extra room to the shore when steering in the shallows in these places and look out for headlands, islands and debris out in the river. When going with the stream expect boats to be further out from the bank than normal at these places.

The following obstacles in the river are particularly dangerous for scullers and coxless boats. Be aware that mobile obstacles such as anchored barges or boats moored to bridges can occur anywhere at any time. Memory helps, but it is no substitute for a proper look-out.

  • All bridges (!)
  • All sorts of stuff on both banks below Fulham Rail Bridge
  • Putney pier and the line of buoys
  • Hammersmith Pier
  • Chiswick Steps line of buoys and Chiswick Pier below the crossing point
  • Driftwood barge by Mortlake Brewery
  • Mortlake boat race marker post on Middlesex just below Chiswick Bridge at high water
  • Pilings and petrol pier below Kew Railway Bridge
  • Kew Pier
  • Moored houseboats above Kew Bridge
  • Driftwood barges and buoys above Brentford Marina

Bridges on the Tideway have one or more of the following markers:

  • Two amber lights mark the arch(es) over the fairway.
  • Three red discs, red balls or red lights mark a closed arch, usually due to bridge works.
  • A hanging straw bale marks an open arch with reduced head room, not usually a problem to rowers.

ROWING CUSTOM AND PRACTICE – or “common deviations from the above at the time of writing”.
Coxes are too often chosen for their size and availability rather than their navigational ability or knowledge of the steering rules. Generally the coxes you meet on the river can be taken to know about keeping to the shallows and to have some local knowledge. Few will have read or even know of the existence of the PLA byelaws and the Rules of the Road. The standard of look-out is far too often poor or non-existent.

Note that the 1994 “Navigation on the Tideway” sheet published by the TRC is a good summary of the shallows steering traffic pattern but it is misleading on steering as it contradicts the Rules of the Road and PLA by-laws or is ambiguous in some key areas. It is still in common use and is the only document many coxes have read. It should be replaced by the PLA poster “Code Of Conduct, Rowing Boats And Their Escorts” (1997).

There are too many coaches and coxes out there who seemingly cannot tell the difference between reckless and incompetent steering during training and “aggressiveness” during racing. Some of them appear to think that they are racing at all times. If you can spot such an attitude problem in advance just avoid them if you can.

Likewise there are crews who blunder around having arguments with other boats every ten minutes. It is an observable fact that the crew shouting is usually the one that messed it up and they are unaware of it. Empty vessels really do make the most noise. There is usually no point trying to reason with them as their whole position is based on ignorance, just avoid the accident, ignore them and enjoy the rest of your outing. The level of verbal abuse audible on the river is the most common complaint about rowers from the public and other river users. It does our sport no good at all and is usually completely unnecessary.

If you do end up crossed up by another boat and sitting there looking at them, there is no point being offensive. One sensible approach is simply to say what you think happened and how it should have been avoided, bleak smile, shrug of shoulders and paddle off. You never know, everyone might learn something. If you were wrong, apologise, it does not hurt.