You have a lot of “number one priorities” on race day but the one at the top of that list is a simple one - steer straight.
If you’re diligent about practicing this during the week (in every condition, shell, and lineup you’re in) then you’ll have no problems on race day but here are two other things you can do to ensure you’re steering the straightest possible course.
I’ve always had a two-fold approach to practicing our starts. The first is obviously to get the crew familiar with the calls and taking clean, well-timed strokes at the higher rates but I also use it to practice my race steering. These first few strokes are always the hardest ones to steer through because your point can easily get thrown off by the boat going offset as a result of someone (or several people) muscling their blade through the water.
If I find myself having to steer to correct my point then I tell the crew what I had to do (“had to steer to starboard for the middle three strokes”) and what changes we need to make (“ports, on the 3⁄4 slide strokes let’s hold the blades in through to the finish, we washed out on those and that allowed the starboards to kick the bow around”). Don’t use this approach as a cover-up for you not having your point at the start though. Take your time and get set so that you’re not immediately having to make adjustments off the line.
My coaches would always run through 5-8 practice starts with us on our race walk-through days and if I wasn’t comfortable with something or felt like we could have done one better, I’d ask if we could run through it one more time. Not only did this help me get better at being an advocate for the boat and speaking up when I needed something, it also gave us one more (sometimes badly needed) chance to get it right so that on race day all we had to do was execute.
A lot of you are probably familiar with hooking your pinkies around the gunnels but I like to take it a step further and weave the steering cable through my fingers. By doing this, as well as hooking my pinkies, I’m eliminating every last bit of slack in the cables and giving myself–at most–a quarter of an inch with which to make steering adjustments. This drastically reduces the likelihood of oversteering and allows me to be more aware of the changes I am making.
The way I weave the cable through my fingers is I put my thumb over the cable, my index finger under the cable (and behind the plastic ball, if there is one), and my middle finger over the cable (and in front of the plastic ball).
“Steering straight” is about a lot more than just not touching the rudder. When you’re on the water for practice, take all of these factors into consideration so that when it comes time to race you have the necessary foundation in place to make it happen.