Balancing the boat

New rowers are often surprised by the instability of ‘fine’ racing boats.  These boats are designed for speed on the water and their long, narrow, semi-circular hulls have very limited stability around their long axis.  They therefore tend to roll from side to side unless the crew know how to balance the boat.  A rolling boat is difficult to row and therefore slow – so any coach will find that getting a crew to balance the boat so that all of their blades can work effectively on every stroke is a fundamental requirement.

The first point to note is that while the boat has a tendency to roll, the rolling of an unbalanced boat is caused entirely by the crew.  There is a hierarchy of crew errors which unbalance the boat and while sculling boats differ somewhat from sweep-oar boats in their roll characteristics, most of the coaching points which follow apply to both types.

Body Posture

The primary cause of instability in the boat is poor control of the upper body by the crew.  The crew weighs far more than the boat they are sitting in and every movement they make will affect the movement of the boat. Getting the crew to ‘sit tall’ (heads up, shoulders down, stomachs pulled slightly in) will, by minimising uncontrolled lateral body movement, bring a positive improvement to the stability of the boat.  This attention to body posture while rowing requires considerable concentration from each rower and this can be a challenge.  However, the reward for better posture in the boat is immediate and can be dramatic for some beginner boats, so the crew gets very good positive feedback on the effect their improved body posture has on the boat.

Stroke Shape

Almost as fundamental to boat balance as body posture is the stroke shape being executed by each individual member of the crew.  The correct stroke shape is like a bicycle chain – two horizontal lines with a semicircle at each end.  Rowers need to finish the power phase of the stroke at a consistent height which keeps their riggers at the correct distance above the water if they are going to keep the boat level.  This means that the stroke should end on the chest, before the ‘tap-down’ extracts the blade from the water.   The correct point on the chest (called the Reference Point) can be found by modelling the ideal ‘finish’ position. Sitting the rowers at backstops in a level boat, with the blades squared in the water, get them to gently pull the squared blades to their bodies, taking care to let the blade find its own depth in the water.  If the rowers pull to this point on each stroke they will help keep the boat level.  Slight adjustments of this height up and down can be used to control most normal variations in boat balance e.g. when the rudder is being used.  Rowers on the higher side of the boat can also tap down more firmly at the finish to help restore balance.  The additional downward force on the riggers will help lower them.

It should be remembered that stroke shape sets the recovery height and that this should be consistent across the boat.  Some less experienced rowers tend to ignore recovery height and  just drag the blade across the water to the catch.  This not only looks sloppy, it slows the boat down and unbalances it.  Even modern carbon-fibre blades have a significant weight and if  one blade is on the water rather than in the air during the recovery phase of the stroke then the boat is clearly going to be unbalanced.  Matching hand heights on the recovery should be as instinctive as matching the stroke rate and will pay dividends in both balance and speed.

Square Blade Extraction

If a rower is feathering the blade underwater they have to use more force to extract it from the water.  The downward force of the extraction will tend to push their rigger towards the water, causing the boat to roll down on that side. Coaching rowers to  keep their blades ‘square’ at the extraction and feather in the air can quickly correct this particular error and as with body posture the results can be seen and felt immediately.

Crew Timing

Inexperienced rowers tend to be happy if they are getting their blades into the water at the same time as stroke.  More experienced rowers take their timing not just from stroke’s blade, but also from his or her hands, head and slide.  In this way their body movements become much better synchronised with stroke’s and this contributes greatly to improved balance in the boat.  Another common cause of unbalanced boats is ‘rushing’ the recovery phase into frontstops.  This is a particular problem in sweep-oar boats as the weight of the rower will tend to be thrown to his or her side of the boat causing it to roll down on that side as the crew takes the catch.  Switching your rowers main timing cue from the blade to the hands or slide can help resolve this problem.

Foot Pressure

Many rowers are unaware that differences in the amount of pressure exerted by their feet can unbalance the boat.  One way of coaching through this is to get a crew to press down deliberately on one side or the other during the recovery phase of the stroke.  They will usually find that they can make the boat roll to the right or left quite easily.  If the boat does not respond as expected it is probably because at least one member of the crew has a ‘heavy’ right or left foot.

Pressure on the feet can, with practice, be used to help balance the boat but any coach teaching this technique should be clear that foot pressure should only be used for ‘fine-tuning’ the balance of the boat.  It is not a remedy for sloppy rowing.  It works best on smaller boats but even in an eight, if you allow for its slower response – foot pressure can be used to trim the balance of the boat. I find the best technique is to respond to the motion of the boat after the tap-down.  With a little practice, a rower can detect which side of the boat is rising and can apply a dab of pressure with the foot on that side to counter it.  Small boats respond almost immediately; eights – due to their greater inertia, take a little longer. The aim is to arrest the roll of the boat, not to reverse it.  Most rowers tend initially to over-correct the motion of the boat, which can make the situation worse, but with practice most crews can apply the technique correctly.

As a footnote it is worth pointing out that using body-lean to help balance the boat (a common error among novice rowers) is not recommended.  Rowing badly to correct an imbalance in the boat is only ever going to make things worse in the long run.

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6 thoughts on “Balancing the boat

  1. I was concerned about the implication that the rower exerts positive foot pressure on the foot stretcher on the recovery. Certainly, uneven foot pressure on the drive portion of the stroke will have an unbalancing effect on the boat and this need to be corrected. However, on the recovery, there should never be positive foot pressure on the foot stretcher – this just slows the boat. Coming out of the layback position at the start of the recovery requires negative pressure on the foot stretcher so that the body rotates forward before starting slide movement. But it is important to stay “light on your feet” (pulling the boat under your body) during the entire recovery all the way into the catch position and placing the blade. Only then can the rower apply positive pressure to the foot stretcher. Otherwise, they “check” the boat.

    I have coxed an eight where the crew was heavy into the catch, and my head snapped back and forth due to the negative, then positive “g” forces. At other times, the crew has been lighter on their feet into the catch, and the boat is a lot smoother. There are published velocity and acceleration curves showing the difference.

    • Use of foot pressure is only a ‘fine tuning’ technique, but it does work and the best response I can give is ‘try it’! Seriously. Ask an ‘intermediate’ crew (i.e. a crew who have been rowing for a year or two and so are reasonably competent) to run a repeating six-stroke sequence in which they exert downward pressure on the footplate during the recovery in the sequence Left, Left, Right, Right, None, None. In most cases you will find that with a little practice, the crew is able to change the balance of the boat – often quite dramatically, to the left twice, to the right twice and then balanced, using this technique. I plan to post a video of this at a later date. The check on the boat speed that you mention is produced by the impact of the crew’s combined body weight as they hit front-stops (moving against the boat’s direction of travel). This involves far more energy than can be exerted by a dab of positive foot pressure.

      • I appreciate your use of foot pressure on the recovery to balance the boat.

        Let us look at some physics.

        Come to half slide, square and bury the blade. Push on the foot stretcher. The boat moves to the bow. Pull on the foot stretcher. The boat moves to the stern. Come to half slide, and feather the oar. Push on the foot stretcher. The boat moves to the stern. Pull on the foot stretcher. The boat moves to the bow.

        This is extremely simplified, and is more complicated in a moving boat. However, the general principle is: Apply foot pressure to the foot stretcher when the oar is in the water. Remove foot pressure from the foot stretcher when the blade is out of the water. Otherwise, the boat slows down or checks.

        If the boat is unbalanced on the recovery, the damage has been done on the stroke. It takes energy to upset the boat, so the boat is slower than it should be. Attempting to correct the imbalance uses more energy, slowing the boat even more. My coach says to do the recovery as well as possible, and make the next stroke perfect. Do not attempt to compensate for another rower; it just makes the situation worse. Let the offending rower figure it out, or the cox or coach see what is going wrong and correct it. If the rower is moving around on the recovery and causing the upset, they need to work on straight forward and back body movement.

        When I cox, I can often see body movement or blade work that is not correct and call for corrections, stopping the boat if they cannot correct it on the fly.

        In bow seat (or two seat), it is my responsibility to finish the stroke so that the boat is level so that the recovery is smooth.

        If a boat is having difficulty, take each rower and put them on the Rowperfect erg. Have them row one-legged. The force profile should be similar left to right, and the split time should be close. Otherwise, there is a strength imbalance, which requires remedial exercises to correct.

        Take a couple of Smart Oars and go from pair to pair of rowers, overlaying the force curves of each pair. Look for obviously mismatched force curves, and move rowers around to get reasonably compatible pairs. I row bow in the pair, and with my stroke pair partner, we row straight, smoothly, and fast. If I switch to stroke, the boat is squirrelly, wiggles, and is slow. Therefore, in a race, I should be in the bow position of a seat pair, whether port or starboard. In practice, it does not matter so much.

        If the boat checks because the rowers crash the front stops at the catch, have them concentrate on keeping foot pressure off the foot stretcher until they have buried their blade.

        In conclusion, if the recovery is bad, fix what caused the problem, do not attempt to compensate for the problem. The rowing will become more technically correct, the boat will be faster, and rowers will not get incorrect technique ingrained in their muscle memory.

    • Just a brief observation – albeit more than 12mths late! – regarding the comment about causing the boat to slow by pressing on the foot stretcher on the recovery. If you push on the stretcher during the recovery, you will stop the seat!! The only way you can use pressure on one foot rather than the other is by pulling with the other – an effect which will have a zero impact on the run of the boat.
      This contribution in no way reflects my total support for the original premise about using foot pressure to balance the boat. This is something which can be relevant to tuning an already stable boat but is virtually ineffective in correcting poor balance.

  2. Hmmm. I suspect we are not going to agree. I see a world of difference between “a dab of pressure” and the physics in your example which involves accelerating the rower’s body weight against the much smaller weight of the boat. It is the difference between ‘a touch’ and ‘a shove’.

    Fine boats are unstable around their long axis precisely because they require very little force to create that roll. Luckily they likewise require very little force to correct the roll.

    I agree with you that a good crew will constantly be working to balance the boat through correct timing, correct movement and the correct application of force to the blade. I did actually write in the post that “any coach teaching this technique should be clear that foot pressure should only be used for ‘fine-tuning’ the balance of the boat. It is not a remedy for sloppy rowing.” I also wrote that “Rowing badly to correct an imbalance in the boat is only ever going to make things worse in the long run.”

    That said, if you feel that the use of a tiny amount of foot pressure is rowing badly, then by all means exclude it from your coaching repertoire.

  3. If in reaching to the catch, the rower’s body weight shifts from one buttock to the other, the leg on the weighted side will shorten producing uneven weight on the foot stretcher at the start of the drive phase. Correct this by giving attention to sitting tall with even weight through the buttock bones. Improved flexibility at the waist, upper chest and shoulders should help too.

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