Jennie Kunes calls out instructions to her “eights” as they set their boat in the water. “One rower putting in more effort doesn’t make a measureable difference unless the entire crew does it with them, and the coxswain has to be attuned to the crew’s mentality and technique to keep everyone together.”

Photos by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

The weight of the ‘eights’ on her shoulders

Coxswain Jennie Kunes steers Harvard’s varsity rowers

3 min read

“Hands on! Shoulders! Ready! Up!”

Jennie Kunes shouts commands as her teammates hoist a boat off the racks of the Newell Boathouse.

“Walk it out! Going downstream!”

Kunes, a junior, says that back in high school her friends suggested she join rowing as a coxswain because she is “small and loud.”

Now the 4-foot-11, 105-pound Kunes plays a role akin to a quarterback for Harvard’s heavyweight varsity rowers.

Coxswains call out instruction while sitting opposite rowers, the only crew member facing the direction the boat is moving. Charged with keeping the crew and equipment safe, they make all of the decisions on the water.

Kunes was a sprinter, a long-jumper for track and field, and a gymnast before deciding to cox.

“We steer the boats,” Kunes said, “executing everything from the turns in the Head of the Charles course to keeping the boat straight during a 200-meter race on a buoyed course.”

While many of her fellow engineering concentrators tend to stay up late, Kunes says she heads to bed by 11 p.m. and rises at 6:15 a.m., arriving at the boathouse by 7.

Kunes also joined the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club this year and describes her assistant stage manager role as “like being a coxswain, but on land.”

Kunes looks for breakfast goodies in the boathouse shop before hitting the water. She always coxes in stocking feet.

Many of Kunes’ fellow rowers stand over 6 feet tall. Kunes is dwarfed at a team meeting.

The female coxswains changed in an electrical closet until they lobbied the coaches for a larger space with lockers and a bathroom. The “cox-box,” a microphone and speaker, blips the strokes per minute and projects Kunes’ voice to rowers.

“We give them motivational, informational, technique-related, and instructional calls. Overall, we coordinate the eight or four rowers in the boat in a way that keeps everyone safe and gets the boat going as fast as possible.”

Kunes, a Pforzheimer resident, concentrates in biomedical engineering with a minor in English. She hopes to head to medical school after graduation.