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 ( 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).


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 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

All images courtesy of Carl Douglas Racing Shells.

The offline version of this article was originally published in Issue 3 of Row360 Magazine


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.

The Crab Conundrum

For many rowers in their first couple of competitive seasons, “catching a crab” is the biggest fear in the boat. After a while, as your most recent crab recedes into history and becomes a distant memory, rowers tend to stop worrying about it – until suddenly one day for no obvious reason, it strikes again.  Crabs are rare among senior rowers, but not unknown. They happen during the Oxford / Cambridge boat race, at national championships and at Henley.  So here’s the conondrum, why does this novice error occasionally strike even very experienced crews? And what should coaches do about it?

This video – big thanks to WA Rowing Club, Perth – shows an experienced crew catching a crab (crab at 1:42 NSFW – loud music):


There are actually two types of crab.  The ‘common’ crab happens during the power phase of the stroke when the rower is unable to extract the blade from the water.  The speed of the boat pushes the handle of the stuck blade into the rowers body.  If they are lucky it simply knocks them flat and passes over their heads.  If they are unlucky, the handle can lift the rower out of his or her shoes and eject them over the side of the boat.  The other type of crab (as shown in the video) happens during the recovery when the blades are, or should be, in the air. If the leading edge of a blade catches the water at the wrong angle, the blade enters the water, the suddenly increased drag stops the forward motion of the spoon and again the movement of the boat brings the handle towards the bow, striking the rower’s body with the effect described above. From the coach’s point of view it is important to know which type of crab a rower has caught as the remedies differ.

The cause of the common crab is usually that the blade is not square in the water, either because the catch was not square or because the rower was feathering the blade underwater. Both of these novice errors can be fixed quickly and simply if timely action is taken by the coach. Unfortunately, a common response from novice rowers trying to avoid catching a crab is to pull their finishes lower into their laps in the belief that this will help get their blade out of the water. What this actually does is to lower their rigger toward the water at the extraction, giving them less space to ‘tap down’ into – so the problem of getting the blade out of the water actually gets worse. Pulling the finish higher, so raising the rigger and creating more room for the tap down is actually the more effective response.

A crab on the recovery is often caused either by over-feathering or (particularly with novices) by failure to keep the knees down during the first part of the recovery.  If the knees come up early, the hands have to rise to get over them – and if the hands rise then the spoon has to drop toward the water. Again both these errors are relatively easy to fix by appropriate coaching if they are spotted in time.

Some coaches train crews to row their recoveries with blades very close to the water. Personally I’m not sure that this offers a real performance advantage, but it does increase the risk of a crab if the boat hits rough water or the wake of another boat.  I coach crews to use the same hand height  on the recovery whether they are using square or feathered blades.  This gives the boat a margin of safety should the conditions require it.

For most rowers, catching a crab is not a predictable occurrence.  It happens suddenly and unexpectedly and even the rower concerned my not be sure at which stage of the stroke the crab happened.  Without video evidence, diagnosis and specific remedial coaching can be difficult.  In these situations it is important not to exaggerate the problem in the rower’s mind.  A rower who is concentrating on not catching a crab  is probably not rowing at their best and the more the coach focuses on the crab the more pressure the rower is under. That pressure is more likely to lead to further errors and you risk creating a vicious circle. No-one catches a crab deliberately and I believe that the most common cause is a lapse of concentration – possibly elsewhere in the boat.

With senior crews I simply ignore the occasional crab.  If it isn’t due to basic errors of technique then you do more good by sticking with the training plan for the outing rather than chasing what can be a very elusive error.  Particularly in the run-up to a competition, good crew morale and the achievement of the right balance of attention and relaxation is more important.

It IS important always to check the rigging after a crab – particularly if it happened while the boat was moving fast.  A crabbed blade can bend rigging out of shape. If the crew are sharing boats it is also worth checking that someone else hasn’t changed rigger heights, spans or blade pitches – again possibly on a different seat.

Provided that the problem isn’t in the equipment or the technique you have taught, I think catching a random crab remains one of rowing’s ‘black swan events’.  Bad luck if it happens to you, good luck if it takes out the competition.  As a coach, you just have to live with it.

A favour requested

To those of you interested enough to read this blog – I have a new website for rowers and coaches under development at   I would be very grateful if you would join me in the development process by taking part in a very brief (2 minute) survey on our Facebook page at: .

Thanks and best wishes,



Are you a crew before you get out on the water?

I get to watch many squads of competitive rowers at regattas and other competitions and have concluded that you can tell a great deal about the competitive capabilities of crews long before they reach the start line.  Just watching how a crew carry their boat and put it on the water gives a good (not infallible) guide to their performance in the race.  Watching them manoeuvre their boat on the water gives more clues.  If one crew can spin their boat  while keeping it balanced and the other crew can’t spin their boat without putting at least one set of riggers underwater I know which crew I’d back to win.

Every rower should know that an outing starts when the cox calls “Hands on!” to get the crew to lift the boat off the rack or trestles. From that moment until the boat is back on the rack, they are a crew.  There are crews who will approach the apparently simple task of lifting the boat with their full attention.  They will work together, moving together, and when they lower the boat onto the water bows and stern will touch the water together.  Other crews will lift their boat as if it was luggage and are quite capable of having one end of the boat in the water while the other end is still being held at ‘waists’.  Even if such a crew begins to concentrate on working together once they are in the boat, the crew that began working together at the words ‘”Hands on!” is several minutes ahead of them in the process of establishing the level of shared concentration required to row well and win races.

From the coaching point of view, the challenge is to get your rowers to treat every part of the outing as part of their rowing, deserving the same concentration and attention to detail as a racing start or a balance drill.  This can be a hard message to get across, particularly if the crew has got into bad habits, so to be honest, I simply tell crews that this is how I want it done and I put them right if they do otherwise.  The cox has a key role in helping the crew raise this aspect of their game.  He or she is an important ally in creating and reinforcing awareness that there is a ‘right way’ to lift a boat, to put a boat on the water, to spin a boat at the end of a reach etc.  Good boat handling is more than just getting the boat to the water without breaking it or injuring bystanders (which I think everyone would agree is ‘bad’).

We know good performance when we see it.  It is the crew who lift and move their boat with a minimum of fuss or comment and keep it level through ‘Waists’, ‘Shoulders’ and ‘Heads’. They put it on the water in controlled way, keeping it level because they are moving together.  They will impress the competition (if the competition is watching) before they take a stroke.  They will be ‘in the zone’ and thinking about the race while their less well-drilled opponents are shouting advice to each other and waving to their girlfriends/boyfriends on their way to the water’s edge. Coaching to impress is not the objective – after all, if your competitors know what they are doing, their concentration is in their own boat and they aren’t watching you. The objective – as always – is to row well and win races, and good crew skills in the boathouse and on the landing stage are part of that training.

Some hints and tips:

  • Lifting a boat from rack or trestles:  at ‘hands on’, get the crew to turn their heads to look along the boat rather than across it.
  • Putting a boat on the water:  Get bow and stroke to watch the OTHER end of the boat and lower their end at the same time.
  • Spinning an eight or four: Get the crew to visualise a rail down the centre of the boat at the same hand height at which the boat is balanced and level.  Start from backstops or frontstops as appropriate and have both sides of the boat moving together throughout.  Move the hands backwards and forwards along the imaginary ‘rail’ with NO up and down movement.

Trusting the boat

I was struck recently by the difference stability makes to even some ‘intermediate’ rowers.  I was coaching an eight and had been trying to correct some points of technique with one particular rower.  I wasn’t making much progress until we rowed in sixes (ie with a pair of rowers keeping the boat level) when “miraculously”, the problem went away.  When we went back to rowing “all eight”, the problem came back.

Problems like this clearly stem not from ignorance of correct technique, but from an inability to apply correct technique under the ‘stress’ of an unstable boat.

Some rowers, quite unconciously, adopt what I can only describe as a ‘defensive’ rowing style when confronted with an unstable boat.  They will differ in detail, but this commonly involves leaning away from the water and shortening their stroke – which of course increases the instability of the boat.  The rower and indeed the entire crew, is then caught in a vicious circle in which this unconcious response feeds on itself and makes the boat more and more unstable. The defensive rower is of course unaware that he or she is actually causing the problem they are responding to.  The usually ‘feel’ that they are rowing exactly the same way whether all-eight or in sixes because their change in style is entirely unconcious, and this can make correcting the problem quite challenging.

The solution involves breaking the vicious circle in two places. Firstly, you have to improve the stability of the boat without using two rowers to stabilize it.  Then you have to stop the defensive response to instability.  Both of these changes can be difficult.

Improving the stability of the boat begins with improving the stability of the rowers themselves.  I have written previously about the importance of stillness in rowing ( and stillness is key to this approach.  I get the rowers to focus on keeping their upper bodies perfectly still once they have reached the ‘lean forward’ position on the recovery.  Their progress toward frontstops from then on is just about pulling their feet gently toward their bodies while their arms follow the arc of the blade away.  I place special emphasis on not reaching forward for an extra inch or two of length at frontstops.

The ‘stillness’ of the crew as they move into frontstops helps to stabilize the boat, but that in itself is not enough.  We then have to prevent the defensive response from taking over when the boat does wobble (and I think I can guarantee that it will wobble at some point).  This is where ‘trusting the boat’ is important.  You have to convince the crew that if they trust the boat to remain balanced and row accordingly, then it will remain balanced.  And while it remains balanced, they in turn find it easier to remain ‘still’ on the recovery.  This virtuous circle is the most effective antidote to the vicious circle referred to earlier.

How do you get nervous rowers to ‘trust the boat’? They have to use their imaginations.  They have to remember how stable the boat felt while they were rowing in sixes and imagine that stability will still be there when they row ‘all eight’.  Their internal visualization of a stable boat helps to maintain their correct technique throughout the stroke – and their maintenance of correct technique turns the boat’s imagined stability into reality.

It is one of the most rewarding parts of the coaching experience to see a rower (and a boat) previously struggling with instability, make the transition to stability and to see the increase in confidence which comes with that transition.  It is never of course a 100% and one-time-only transition, but once a crew have grasped the importance of ‘trusting the boat’ they can avoid sliding back into the unhappy situation of forever fighting for control of a boat which seems to fight back.

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.