Interview with Mario Woldt, Sports Director at the German Rowing Federation – by Howard Aiken

Changing a winning team 

Mario Woldt - Sportdirektor, German Rowing Federation

Mario Woldt – Sportdirektor, German Rowing Federation

Life is tough at elite level in any sport, but it is particularly tough at the top of German rowing. In May 2012 at the World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, the German Women’s Quad (Julia Richter, Carina Baer, Tina Manker and Stephanie Schiller) set a new World Best Time of 6:09.38 in their heat. At the London Olympics just a couple of months later the German Women’s Quad won silver, but Manker and Schiller had been replaced by Britta Oppelt and Annekatrin Thiele.

The idea that you shouldn’t change a winning team is not widely held at the top of German rowing and according to Mario Woldt, Sports Director at the German Rowing Federation, that isn’t going to change. “Every rower in the national squad knows he or she has to compete for their position in any boat. We won’t even begin deciding on our Olympic crews until we see the results from the Rowing World Cup in Lucerne in 2015.” The German rowing squad has traditionally relied on an established and impressively executed strategy of strength in depth. Whether at Senior, Under-23 or Junior level, the German squad has for decades had a wealth of competitive talent available to it in all the Olympic rowing events. “Obviously our chances will be higher in some events than in others, depending on how other countries perform, but like the US and GB teams we will be competing in all 14 Olympic boat classes.”

It starts with the Juniors…

Underpinning the performance of their senior squad is a fiercely competitive and ambitious cohort of junior rowers. Germany’s junior squad had some truly spectacular successes in 2014. At the World Rowing Junior Championships in Hamburg in August, Germany was the only country to have boats in all 13 finals. At that event they also won more medals than any other country including seven gold medals (in the men’s and women’s eights, men’s and women’s single sculls, men’s four, men’s quadruple sculls and men’s double sculls). A performance like this does not happen by accident, and as Mario Woldt pointed out “What we saw in Hamburg was not new.” Germany’s junior rowers had also won impressively the previous year at Trakai in Lithuania, beating Romania, Italy, Australia and the United States and winning eight medals, including four golds.

With most of their Senior rowers still in their early to mid 20s and their Juniors about 5 years younger, German selectors look likely to have plenty of talent to choose from not just in 2016 but in 2020 also. Woldt is very much aware of the benefits a strong junior squad brings to German rowing. “We have a good age mix across the squad and while our juniors are not yet physically equal to our seniors, they have great potential”.

…and their clubs

The roots of German rowing success can be traced back to their local clubs. “We have a really well-developed club system, so we have a lot of rowers to choose from,” says Woldt. With some 600 clubs and over 82,000 members, the German Rowing Federation supports Touring, Masters, Club, League and High Performance Rowing and unlike some sports, rowing is still growing in Germany. In a virtuous circle of achievement, Germany’s ongoing record of success at national level in rowing has maintained a steady flow of new recruits into the sport at club level. From that pool of talent some 250 – 300 rowers are selected for the national squad. These rowers train with their home clubs for most of the time “But we also bring rowers together at our national training camps before the big Championship events.” The German Rowing Federation also holds several training weekends during the year to evaluate their athletes with the final selection for the World Rowing Junior Championships being made at the German National Championships.

Gold for the big boats

As reigning Olympic gold medallists in the men’s eight, it is not surprising that Mario Woldt describes the German squad as ‘big boat’ specialists and is clear that they fully intend to hold on to their gold medal position in 2016. That said, at the recent World Championships in Amsterdam, the German eight was narrowly beaten by the GB boat. The winning margin was just 0.66 sec and the German boat was gaining in the final 500 metres, but it may yet prove significant that the average age of the rowers in the German boat was almost 2 years younger (24 as compared to 26 in the GB boat).

Mario Woldt can’t yet say who will be in the German Olympic eight, but whoever they are, they’ll be the best his team can produce. With Rio now less than two years away and a cadre of hungry young sweep-oar rowers competing for a place in that eight, expect short odds on another German gold medal in M8+ at Rio.

Adaptive / Para – rowing

Para-rowing (what used to be called Adaptive rowing) is another growth area for the German rowing squad. The 2016 Paralympics will certainly be the biggest yet, 12% bigger in terms of the number of medal events than London 2012, but there will only be four rowing disciplines: Men’s single sculls AS (Arms and Shoulders), Women’s Single Sculls AS (Arms and Shoulders), Mixed Double Sculls TA (Trunk and Arms) and Mixed Coxed Four LTA (Legs, Trunk and Arms).  Given the complexities of athlete classification in Para-rowing (the FISA Para-rowing classification application form is a ten-page document on its own) selection is a complex and highly individualised process.

Building para-rowing as a sport is the priority for the German Rowing Federation at present. “We want to promote para-rowing and recruit more para-rowers to the squad which is currently quite small. The rules on who can compete in which boats and with which disabilities are complex but we are actively recruiting more adaptive rowers into the sport and look forward to fielding a very competitive squad”.

Is this a Golden Age for German Rowing?

With its current roster of athletes, German rowing is undoubtedly in as good a shape as ever for the next few years. Looking beyond 2020 however the picture is less certain. While club rowing is still growing in Germany, high performance rowing is expensive and clubs are beginning to find this a problem. At present there is no obvious solution to this cash shortage but unless one is found, the high performance ‘elevator’ which takes promising club rowers up into the national squad will get significantly smaller. In addition, secondary level education reforms in in Germany have resulted in changes to the traditional German school timetable. While the school day used to end in the early afternoon (and so left plenty of time for sports), it is being replaced by a more conventional working day (which does not). Other countries have of course learned to live with this tension between the demands of young people’s sport and schoolwork, but it is a new and unpredictable factor in the future of German sport.

It is possible therefore, that today we are looking at a Golden Age in German high performance rowing, a uniquely favourable alignment of funding, participation, expertise and success. Germany will remain hard to beat in 2016 and 2020, but their established formula for success may prove difficult to sustain into an increasingly competitive future.

This article was first pub lished in the November / December 2014 issue of Row360 Magazine (http://www.row-360.com)

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Carl Douglas Racing Shells – not traditional boat-building, by Howard Aiken

The modern sport of rowing is blessed with some fine boat builders aroundcdrs the world. They are devoted to the sport and work hard to bring their customers the best equipment they can make. And yet – I have sat in boats with sharp slides which cut the skin on my calves, I have coxed eights with rudders the size of a credit card which simply don’t work and I have seen a blow from the tip of a passing blade open a long scar on a boat’s skin, deep enough to keep it off the water for weeks. All of these things I have accepted as normal, because “that’s just the way things are”. Well, let me introduce you to a boat builder who doesn’t believe “that’s just the way things are” and has built the boats to prove it. Carl Douglas (http://www.carldouglasrowing.com/) brings to his work an insistent focus on “fitness for purpose” and he won’t allow a product out of his workshops if it fails that test.

Carl Douglas Rowing Shells (CDRS) builds high performance singles, doubles and pairs. His high-tech moulded wood composite shells typically have a glossy wood-grain finish but it would be wrong to call them wooden boats. They are as stiff and as weatherproof as 100% composite boats, and they are built to win races – which they do, regularly. Unlike 100% composite boats, a Carl Douglas shell won’t damage easily and as a result has a longer useful life.

Wood + Kevlar® = Strength (and beauty)
CDRS composite construction technology uses wood, laminated with Kevlar® and epoxy resin under heat and pressure. Carl argues that wood has evolved over 400 million years to withstand stress, fatigue and shock and is strong, durable, stiff, light and mouldable. While he can produce a standard white (or black) finish for clients who wouldn’t be seen dead in anything which looked like a wooden boat, he clearly enjoys crafting the outer skin of his shells to highlight the natural beauty of wood. While the glowing quality of the finish he and his team achieve has an undeniably old-fashioned look the technology he uses would have been unavailable fifty years ago and his team is one of the very few who can combine the hand-crafted sculpting of real wood veneers with the computer-controlled precision of 21st century hull design. Clients can choose from a wide range of customised woods, including Rosewood, Maple, Walnut and Mahogany and they can even get personalised designs inlaid in contrasting colours. Carl Douglas Racing currently has the capacity to build about fifty boats a year and each boat takes approximately three weeks from start to finish.

Re-engineering, from stem to stern
His racing shells are however, only part of the story. Carl is a Chartered Engineer and brings an engineer’s analytical approach to all aspects of boat design. This has led him to redesign many ‘standard’ boat parts to the point where everything from the bow-balls to the riggers, fins and rudders on his boats are now his own designs, and if you are willing to listen he can explain in layman’s terms exactly why each of the innovations he has made improves the competitive performance of the boat.

One example I found particularly illuminating was his AeRowFin© fin/rudder system (Figure 1). His innovation was startlingly simple. Whereas most boat makers are happy to fit fins and rudders cut from a flat sheet of metal, Carl’s design has an aerofoil profile (teardrop-shaped like the cross-section of an aeroplane’s wing).

aerowfin

Fig.1 AeRowFin© fin/rudder system vs. conventional fin/rudder system

As a result, it creates less turbulence when the rudder is used resulting in more responsive steering, lower drag and greater boat speed. It is such an obvious improvement to the basic design that I was left wondering how on earth other manufacturers have got away with selling such comparatively ineffective and inefficient fin/rudder assemblies for so long. See http://www.carldouglasrowing.com/sitedata/files/AeRowFin_tech_doc_3.pdf for more details.

He was similarly dissatisfied with the riggers other suppliers were offering for his hulls, so he designed his own. Carl Douglas riggers are, he claims, a better combination of lightness, stiffness and strength than his original suppliers could offer and moreover, they deliver these characteristics with a design offering lower resistance to both wind and water. He now supplies riggers and rudders for all types of sculling and sweep-oar boats. Both products were used on the GB men’s eight which won Gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
More innovation (do you notice a pattern here?) can be found at the end of the riggers. While many coaches still adjust swivel pins with (carefully applied) brute force, CDRS has developed a precision non-slip mechanism for the independent adjustment of lateral and fore/aft pitches. I particularly appreciated the thought that went into the CDRS replacement for swivel height adjusting washers. They are bright red, so you can see one if you drop it on grass or on a landing stage, and they float, so you stand a chance of retrieving them if you drop one while on the water.
Seats and slides get the same treatment – properly thought-through designs so that the slides don’t cut your legs and the seats are still comfortable at the end of an outing.

So – do you own a CDRS boat?
The hard fact is that my club doesn’t own any CDRS boats (although some individual scullers do) and I have to ask myself – why? CDRS boats are certainly premium products and they don’t currently build fours or eights, but they are priced below their equivalents from the ‘big name’ manufacturers, and my club does buy their boats. In my discussion with Carl he reminded me of a saying I remembered from my previous career in Information Technology. It was “no-one ever got fired for buying IBM”, and I think that is the key to why CDRS build 50 boats every year rather than 500. Coaches and captains put their reputations on the line every time they buy a new boat. If they go with a big name and their squad still loses, no-one is going to blame the boat. If they buy a less well-known name (and bear in mind that most rowers don’t have a wide knowledge or understanding of boats and boat-building) then they risk being blamed for their choice when their squad loses. So they’ll pay more for the big name, because even if the rigging or rudder is not quite the best and it’s so fragile that it can be expensively punctured while being lifted onto a rack, most rowers won’t mind, because they’re sitting in a boat with a famous brand name. In the meantime, it’s the scullers and small-boat specialists who really know about hulls and rigging who buy Carl Douglas Racing boats. And ill-informed commentators and spectators will continue to be surprised to see these ‘wooden’ boats winning at regattas and head races around the world.

The company
Carl Douglas Racing Shells was founded in 1973 and is now the longest – established British boat builder. Over the past forty years, Carl and his team, based at the Harris Boatyard in Chertsey UK, have built an enviable reputation for the quality of their products and their service to customers. Their engineering-led practice has pioneered innovation in all aspects of boat-building from design to manufacturing and equipment. This and their expertise in computer-controlled machining has established them as a supplier of precision components to many of the ‘big name’ manufacturers. They build a range of high performance singles, doubles and pairs to their own designs in wood/Kevlar® composites, resulting in boats of outstanding ‘fitness for purpose’ – robust, reliable and beautiful to look at.

Some facts:
1. Each single takes between 120 and 150 man hours to build, depending on client specification
2. Pairs and doubles take about 50% more hours
3. The wood used is harvested only at the tree’s maturity and can be anything from 25 to 500 years old, depending on species
4. Building in wood means the boats are ecologically sound:
a) harvested at maturity, the wood used is efficiently converted into veneers
b) the exceptional durability of Carl Douglas boats gives them an exceptionally long working life
c) at end of life they are easily re-cycled into energy and safely re-usable by-products
5. A Carl Douglas single (including riggers) weighs 14kgs, a double weighs 25kg
6. Their wood is seasoned for 2 to 20 years before use
7. CDRS only use wood bearing FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification
8. While about 75% of a Carl Douglas shell is wood, they also use man-made materials including Kevlar®, carbon, glass fibre, resins, ultra-tough man-made finishes and metals – but always with the objective of maximising performance and endurance

For more information, visit www.carldouglasrowing.com

All images courtesy of Carl Douglas Racing Shells.

The offline version of this article was originally published in Issue 3 of Row360 Magazine row-360.com

Rowing – the way it was

I’ve been researching the history of bumps racing for an upcoming article and discovered some unexpected attitudes towards the rowers who first brought the sport into schools and universities here in the UK.

When we imagine the early days of public school* and university rowing around 1800, it is all too easy to take today’s opinions and project them on the past, but I discovered that the differences between then and now were far more profound than I imagined. Rowing was a means of transport and also a hard living for working-class boatmen. Students who were interested in rowing did not have their own boats and boathouses in those days. Boats had to be hired from boatyards (which were not usually in the best parts of town) and in addition, the danger of drowning was thought to be so great that rowing as a sport was generally banned by school authorities and the punishment for school students who were seen on the river was often a flogging.

Rowing as sport was seen as a disreputable and dangerous pastime and rowers seem to have been regarded in much the same way as today’s ‘joyriders’ who put the lives of innocent bystanders at risk by abusing the rules of the public highway. In those days rivers were indeed public highways, busy with traffic from dawn ’til dusk, and racing hired boats up and down crowded rivers was simple hooliganism as far as many reasonable people were concerned. If you imagine members of the school (or university) car club racing rented cars up and down local streets you get a sense of how rowers were seen. The fact that rowers tended to enjoy a few drinks before, during and after their outings probably did little to improve their image.

Money and economics being what they are, it is certainly the case that some of the wealthier school and university rowers traded up from renting to owning their boats and paying boatmen to keep and maintain them. For much of the first part of the 19th century, ‘college’ rowing at Oxford and Cambridge was as much between named boats as between colleges. Boats differed widely, seating anywhere between two and ten rowers and it was not considered remarkable that different types of boats would compete against each other in the same race.

The slowly increasing popularity of rowing at a few schools and universities from about 1815 onward saw an equally slow crystallization of formal, written rules and regulations as groups of friends formed clubs, clubs gradually gained recognition from schools and colleges and sporting competitions (on which significant sums of money could be won or lost) became regular events.

The first university Boat Race took place in 1829 and once established as an annual fixture, it undoubtedly helped to change attitudes across the country. Bumps racing, on the other hand, once established at Oxford and Cambridge universities, seems to have retained the somewhat reckless spirit of the early ‘sporting’ rowers. Perhaps for that reason it has remained a slightly bizarre footnote in the wider rowing world.

Look out for the article in Issue 4 of Row360 magazine.

*Public school is used here in the British sense – which refers to schools such as Eton and Westminster. In the US these would be described as private schools.