Oars – They’re not sticks, they’re springs – by Howard Aiken

Most club rowers, quite rightly, will work with whatever equipment they are given, so we sometimes miss the subtleties of design in that equipment.  Take a modern sweep-oar for example. It is actually a highly-engineered precision instrument designed maximise the efficient transfer of mechanical energy from rower to boat, so to get the best out of them it helps if you understand its characteristics.bendy

In mechanical terms, each oar or blade on a moving boat is a second class lever with the fulcrum (centre of rotation) near the tip of the spoon.  However, while it is correctly described as a lever, a blade is not rigid. It is designed with a carefully calculated degree of flexibility.

From the rower’s point of view the importance of this flexibility is its relationship to the effort (energy) the rower is applying to the blade.  At the start of a stroke (the catch) the blade is subject to a bending force as the rower pulls the handle toward the bows.  The spoon remains almost stationary in the water, moving the boat forward by means of the force which is transferred to the boat at the pin.  As the blade bends it is in effect storing energy which will be released again as the blade unbends.  So the important question is – when does the blade unbend? There are only two options:

Option 1. The blade unbends as the spoon lifts out of the water.  In this situation the rower is pulling hard on the blade as her outside hand moves downward to extract the blade.  There is still pressure on the front face of the spoon as it leaves the water.  At its worst this is referred to as “washing out”, where the spoon doesn’t actually stay in the water for the full length of the drive phase but moves up and out of the water, creating a telltale “wash” of foam as it leaves the surface, rather than the puddle we should expect. In less severe cases it still produces a splash at the extraction – a sure sign that energy is being wasted in throwing water into the air rather than moving the boat.

Option 2. The blade unbends in the water.  In this situation the rower has slightly eased off the pressure on the handle at the finish.  As the blade unbends, the energy stored within it is transferred to the boat as forward motion. There will be little or no splash at the end of the stroke as the blade is extracted from the water because there is no pressure left on the front of the spoon to throw water into the air.

In practice there is only a small fraction of a second’s difference between option 1 and option 2, but that small fraction of a second can deliver a significant improvement in efficiency. Leaving the spoon in the river for that extra moment allows the rower to convert the energy stored in the blade into additional forward motion.  Over the duration of a race, that additional motion could be the difference between winning and losing.  In my experience, once rowers learn to think of the blade as a spring rather than a stick and to look critically at their extraction technique for signs of splash or wash, they can significantly improve the efficiency of their stroke, getting a little more boat speed for a little less effort by making better use of the flexibility that the designers of modern blades have gone to so much trouble to provide.

Incidentally, all of the above also applies to sculling, although being shorter in length, most sculling blades will not bend as visibly as a sweep blade during the stroke.


Eric Sims and Kanghua Boats – by Howard Aiken

Eric Sims is a man with a long history in boat building.  He made his start some thirty years ago with a second hand mould and some encouragement from friend and international rowing coach Mike Spracklen.  Composite materials were by then being adopted by leading constructors in Formula 1, and Eric’s contacts in the motor racing industry were able to provide useful advice and guidance on their deployment in boat-building.

A few years later he was working with John Langfield at Eton College, who was about to undertake the wholesale conversion of Eton’s fleet of boats to composites.  Again Eric and his contacts in motor racing were instrumental in successfully bringing composite technology into Eton’s boat building tradition.  Eric was also an early member of the team which designed and built Eton’s Dorney Lake rowing centre and was involved with a wide range of projects from the timing systems (Eric was originally an electrical engineer) to the design of the landing stage and the anchor blocks for the buoys marking the course.

Eton Racing Boats – effectively the boatbuilding department of Eton College, ended over  a century of boat-building in the late 1990s but Eric continued to provide boat repair services and equipment via his own company, ES Rowing Services.  He also provided consultancy services to other manufacturers, among them a previously unknown company, Kanghua Boats of Hangzhou, China.

It’s about manufacturing – and quality control.

Any fan of rowing who has been paying attention to competitions during the last few seasons will have noticed the arrival of Chinese-built boats in ever larger numbers at local, national and international events.  Kanghua boats first came to our notice in Europe two years ago when the Danish national team won a bronze medal in their Kanghua quad in the 2013 Rowing World Championships. Last year, Kanghua boats bagged two gold medals at the Junior World Championships and two wins at Women’s Henley, and the US U23 women’s squad have also switched to Kanghua boats.

US Under-23 women in their Kanghua eight.

US Under-23 women in their Kanghua eight.

Eric Sims spent two years working as a consultant to Kanghua before they launched into the European market.  They were initially seeking his particular expertise in rigging design and the use of 4k carbon fibre.  The outcome of this collaboration is the two current Kanghua ranges, known as the Spirit and Phantom, for which ES Rowing is now a distributor.  Both ranges of boats are based on the popular hull shapes widely used in top-class competition. Like many other boats worldwide, the top-of-the-range Kanghua Spirits use all-carbon laminate for light weight and increased stiffness. They are FISA minimum weight and are equipped with riggers manufactured in the UK by ES Rowing Services. The Kanghua Phantoms feature a Nomex honeycomb core with a carbon and glass fabric outer skin, while remaining lightweight and strong. Both Spirit and Phantom are available in the full range of weights and sizes.

Their design objective was not to produce some new innovation in hull design but to replicate well-proven hull shapes and produce them in high quality materials but at a substantially lower price.  The savings are significant. Kanghua boats can be up to £1000 cheaper per seat than their competition. Nevertheless, Eric highlights their 5-year warranty as a mark of confidence in their build quality.

They are also designed to be compatible with widely available ranges of rigging equipment, including rudders, seats, slides and footplates – the kind of equipment the average club boatman will have in his workshop.

Meeting rowing clubs everyday, real-world needs

Kanghua’s warranty covers buyers against manufacturing defects.  However accidents do happen when boats are in regular use.  Luckily, Eric Sims also knows a great deal about repairing boats and how their construction can make that easier or more difficult. Briefly, boats built with Kevlar or Dyneema in the outer skin, or boats which flaunt the weave of their carbon fibre through a transparent finish all make for repair shop nightmares. With this in mind he has ensured that Kanghua boats are built to be easy to repair.

These are the real-world drivers behind the Kanghua design philosophy. The vast majority of rowing clubs manage a mixed fleet of boats from different manufacturers. Their boatman keeps a selection of spares for the on-the-spot repairs routinely needed to keep boats available for use.  He wants seats, slides, footplates and rudders to be interchangeable at least between boats of the same size and if a boat gets damaged, he’d like to be able to make at least small repairs on site without spoiling the look of the boat.  Kanghua boats are designed to meet this need and to do so at a very competitive price.

Henley RC J16s winning Womens Henley

Henley RC J16s winning Womens Henley

That is not to say that they are a lowest-common-denominator among boats.  Eric was not happy with the quality of the stainless steel parts available in China so all the steel components are sourced in Europe.  Similarly, he found that he could not source the aerospace grade aluminium needed for the riggers in China, so these are also manufactured in the Europe.  The end result is very competitive mix of Chinese and European expertise designed to meet the needs of rowers from club to international level, around the world.

Results so far have been very promising, with more than 1000 racing hulls shipped in 2014, so we can expect to see more of the Kanghua name in future.


Learn more about ES Rowing services at http://www.esrowingservices.co.uk/ and more on Kanghua Boats is available at http://www.kanghuaboats.com/ .

This article originally appeared in Issue 8 of Row360 magazine.

Recruiting for the new season

As the northern hemisphere club regatta season enters its final stages, it may be a good time to think about how your club is going to handle the challenge of recruiting new talent for next season.  Clubs have to deal with the inevitable fact that rowers sometimes have to move on, either because of their job, their education or their family commitments. Without some kind of recruitment strategy, a club must rely on rowers moving into their area to replace those who leave.  This may or may not maintain their membership numbers, but it will very rarely result in like-for-like replacements. Clubs differ widely in their approach to recruitment and the mix of members they have.  In this blog I’m going to look at some of the options available to a typical club with limited resources.

Here in the UK, recent emphasis has been to build on the legacy of the 2012 Olympics.  Following the success of GB Rowing at the Olympics (and indeed since then) public interest in rowing has been high, with long waiting lists for beginner’s courses.  The Olympic legacy emphasized the widening of participation in sports and I’m sure that many UK rowing clubs have taken full advantage of the opportunity to grow their membership significantly.  However, some clubs may also want to improve their recruitment of potential elite athletes.  This is a different challenge and requires selective recruitment.

The best starting point in my view is other local sports clubs, on the basis that if you want to find young, ‘sporty’ people, that is where they are most likely to be. However, your approach to these clubs has to be carefully planned and followed through if good relationships are to be established and maintained.  Firstly, think carefully about the kind of athlete you are looking for as potential rowers.  While almost anyone can learn to row, it is undoubtedly easier for some than others.

Sports which emphasise upper body strength (rugby for example) may not be the best place to start. In my experience as a coach, rugby players often find it difficult to deliver leg strength during a rowing stroke and tend to make too much use of their backs and arms. Sports which build cardiovascular performance (cycling, running, swimming) may be a better match.  Sports which focus on balance and posture (gymnastics, dance and riding) are also a good match.  Netball and basketball players have the height which translates into long levers for rowing. Members of sailing clubs, windsurfing clubs and scuba-diving clubs bring boatmanship and water sense. That’s not to say that there isn’t a young bowls player somewhere with the makings of an elite rower, but the odds are probably against it.

Building informal links with local sports clubs is a good thing to do anyway. You may find that some of your rowers are also members of these other clubs and can make introductions.  An invitation to a “Rowing Club Open Day” will probably work better than “we want to poach your best athletes for our club” but feel free to think ‘outside the box’.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Build a list of whatever you think are the appropriate sports clubs in your area.
  2. Visit them, see what they do, invite them to visit you.
  3. Be friendly and welcoming to members of other clubs when you meet them. No-one is going to want to join a club full of people who treat them with indifference.
  4. Play to your strengths. If your clubhouse is your best feature, show it off.  If your people are the best thing about your club, make them your ambassadors.
  5. Make it easy for potential recruits to join. Don’t demand hundreds of pounds for a full year’s membership.  Offer them a low-cost / short-term introductory membership while they learn to row.
  6. Treat newly recruited beginners with respect – ideally as a squad with their own coach(es) cox(es) and a predictable schedule of outings.
  7. Make sure the new recruits learn to row as quickly as possible – if they aren’t taught to row, they will probably leave.
  8. Once they can row as competent novices, encourage them to move up to higher squads as soon as they can keep up with the intensity of training in that squad.
  9. Make sure that the higher squads provide an inclusive, supportive environment for aspiring rowers.

If your local university has a rowing club, graduates who stay local may be looking for somewhere to row.  Advertise your club to them.  If your local university doesn’t have a rowing club, think about offering a student discount.

Once you start thinking about it, opportunities for recruitment are not hard to find.  Remember though that recruitment is a process, not an event.  Success isn’t just about getting new athletes signed up, it’s about nurturing and growing their potential – probably over several seasons, so that you as a club and they as individuals can row to success.

Can your rowing club plan its way to success? By Howard Aiken

T2M4In a recent article on the German national rowing squad I reviewed the formidable level of planning which they bring to the consistent development and deployment in international competition of cohorts of elite rowers.  In this article I want to address the question of whether planning for success is a realistic ambition at club level.  In other words, can an “ordinary” rowing club set out a strategic goal such as “One of our crews will compete as finalists in The Remenham Challenge Cup within 5 years” and put in place the activity and resources required to achieve it?

Most clubs it needs hardly be said, do not work this way.  Most clubs manage their performance year to year accepting that some years will be good and some will be bad because “that’s just the way things are”.  But is it really just the way things are, or is it just what happens if you fail to plan ahead?

The components of success.

The German model highlights three key requirements for consistently producing internationally competitive rowers: 1. Nation-wide recruitment 2. Cultivation of young athletes and 3. Rigorous selection over several years. From the point of view of the typical club there are five fundamental and interconnected resources which underpin success:

a) Equipment – Good equipment (mainly boats and blades) is a requirement as much for the motivation of athletes as for any objective performance improvements which the equipment brings. Equipment is actually one of the easier aspects of planning for success. Equipment may be more or less expensive but in the end it is “just” about raising and spending money.

b) Athletes – the club must recruit and retain a squad of athletes collectively capable and motivated enough to achieve the strategic goal. It is worth noting that within the strategic 5-year timeframe, the athletes who will achieve the goal may not be members of the club at the time the goal is set. Most clubs have an effective ‘catchment area’ from which they recruit their members so their opportunities for recruitment are local rather than national. However, an inclusive recruitment policy which seeks to create a regular intake of talent at junior level is a good start. Once each new cohort of juniors is “on board”, training, selection and competition becomes the natural routine of club life. It is a hard fact however, that juniors tend to go away to university at almost exactly the point at which you want to get them into the senior squads, and they don’t always come back, so recruitment has to be at all levels.

c) Coaching – as with the athletes, the club must recruit and retain coaches capable of achieving the strategic goal. Again, the coach or coaches who achieve the goal may not be part of the club on the date the goal is set. It can be hard to admit, but if years of trying have so far been unrewarded by success at national or international levels, then at the very least your coaching skills probably need revision and updating. High performance coaching is a specialist and multifaceted skill, combining knowledge of a range of disciplines encompassing physiology, psychology, sports science and project management.

d) Facilities –The basic facilities, i.e. the clubhouse, the quality of the available river or lake for training on – are the most important. But there are also training facilities, transport facilities, coaching facilities (e.g. training camps) all of which can add to the ability of the club to attract and retain talent.

e) Funding– last on the list, but a required enabler for at least three of the other four components.

The Action Plan

First, you have to know your strategic goal in detail.  If your club sets its sights on winning a particular national or international event, you need to know that event, the course, the times of the last few winning crews, who was in those crews and what their performances were.  If attaining your strategic goal is going to require that you have a boat full of Olympic rowers, then you either have to step up to the training, selection and funding implications of that or (perhaps more prudently) pick a more attainable goal.

Secondly, when you’ve decided on your goal as a club, you have to go public with it.  Every member of the club needs to know what their club is planning to do, even if they aren’t going to be directly involved. It is said that when he was in charge of the Apollo moon landing programme, Werner von Braun gave every single member of his team a picture of the moon to keep on their desks.  Likewise, every member of your club needs to know what the club is planning to do because that goal is going to be the priority informing every major decision the club makes for the next few years.

Thirdly, know your Critical Success Factors – the essential skills and assets you absolutely cannot do without if you are going to get to your strategic goal.  A new boat is probably not at the top of this list but if it is going to be a requirement in a couple of years time you may need a funding plan to meet that cost.  More likely in the short term you are going to need to improve your coaching staff through training or recruitment and to improve your recruitment of potential athletes.  A typical rower’s career at the intensive level of training required at senior level may span less than five years so you may need to think about how best to recruit and retain promising 20 – 22 year olds. The full list of Critical Success Factors will be different for every club and should be worked out and agreed by those responsible for the strategic direction of the club.  It will probably be no more than five or six items long – more than that and you have probably failed to get to the root causes of some of the issues standing between the club and its goal.

Fourthly, agree and document a project plan for the club which will secure your Critical Success Factors within a realistic timeframe and ensure that the required skills, people and resources are in place to give you your best chance of achieving your goal.  Again the shorter and more concise this project plan is the more likely it is to work.  The plan must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-limited) and it must be a working document reviewed and updated regularly by the club committee or appropriate sub-committee.  Always be aware that a plan which doesn’t actually require that anything changes from the way things are done today is a plan which will continue to deliver today’s results.

That said, never lose sight of the fact that a rowing club is different things to different people.  A strategic plan to win silverware at whatever event you are targeting has the potential to create tensions and disagreements between the rowers and coaches who are directly involved in the pursuit of the strategic goal and the rest of the club membership who are supporting the effort through their subscriptions, fund-raising and recruitment work.  No club can afford to neglect or otherwise alienate the bulk of their membership.  The search for success is going to be challenging, but the clubs who take on and succeed in that search are the clubs with their names on the silverware.

200 years of Bumps Racing, by Howard Aiken

The beginnings.2291291091_c9bf8b877c_o

On a bend in the River Thames in what is now Berkshire stands the old Eton College boathouse. This is not the original boathouse and the building of locks and weirs has radically changed this part of the Thames in the last 200 years, but it was on this stretch of the river at some point around the turn of the 19th century that the young men of Eton College decided to use their (hired) boats to chase each other in single file with the aim of catching and bumping the boat ahead. These races were not sanctioned by the College authorities, who appeared to regard rowers in much the same way that ‘joyriders’ are regarded today and punished them if they were caught. According to the Eton Rowing Book “It must be remembered that until 1840 boys were not officially allowed on the river, and on several occasions those caught there were flogged”.

The processional race format may have been an evolution of the 18th century tradition of the “Procession of Boats”, originally arranged by Eton boys – again not Eton College – every 4th June (King George III’s birthday) and still held today – although not always on that exact date.

When they began, bumps at Eton were not so much an event as a season. Racing would continue over several weeks until no more bumps were achieved at which point the competing crews were considered to be ranked in order of their performance, which was after all the original point of the races. So although ‘bumps races’ are today associated primarily with Oxford and Cambridge universities, the tradition seems to have begun at Eton and to have been taken up to these universities by Etonian undergraduates. We know that bumps races were established at Oxford by 1815 and at Cambridge by 1827. It is therefore at least 200 years since this form of racing began. And Eton still holds bumping races – now approved by the college authorities – over four evenings in early May every year using coxed fours.

The Sport

As is typical of old British sports, bumps racing takes a simple idea, embellishes it with complicated and apparently arbitrary rules and then limits participation to a group of more or less exclusive clubs. Today at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities there are two bumps events every year, one in winter and one in early summer. In Cambridge they are called ‘Lent Bumps’ and ‘May Bumps’ and in Oxford they are known as ‘Torpids’ and ‘Summer Eights’. In both Oxford and Cambridge, there are also separate Town Bumps races in which local clubs compete. Cambridge’s races are run by the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association (CRA) and are run exclusively in eights and take place over 4 consecutive days in July. Oxford’s City Bumps races, run by the City of Oxford Rowing Club (CORC), are open to all comers and are raced in coxed fours, all races taking place on the same day, usually a Saturday in April. Outside Oxford and Cambridge, bumps races are held at Shrewsbury school (Shrewsbury’s first bumps are thought to have been raced in 1839 – perhaps brought to the school by Oxbridge graduates?) and the United Hospitals Boat Club in London (since 1954).

If you have never seen a bumps race, while rules vary (and this article is not going to document the labyrinthine complexities of the various different sets of rules) the essentials of the format are as follows:

Duration. Bumps racing events vary from one day to four days in duration and in the past took even longer. Depending on the number of entrants, boats will be organised into several ‘Divisions’ for men or women, each of approximately a dozen boats, with boats ranked in descending order of their expected performance – which is usually based on their performance the previous year. Boats in the top divisions will generally be crewed by experienced or even elite rowers. Boats in the lower divisions are rather less experienced and often much less competent. Usually each division will race on each day of the event and and generally the divisions will race in ascending order – so the faster crews will tend to be rowing later in the day. This also allows the boat at the top of each lower division to race as the bottom boat in the division above.

Distance. The course is usually shorter than would be the case for a Head Race – about 1.8km in Oxford and 2.2km in Cambridge for example.

The boats used are usually eights, although in the past boats with anywhere between 2 and 10 blades were used. At Eton, Shrewbury and at City Bumps in Oxford they are now coxed fours. Boats are not modified in any way.

The start involves marshalling the division’s boats in line astern ranked in descending order with the fastest boat at the front and about one and a half boat lengths of clear water between boats. Start positions are marked by a ‘bungline’, a length of rope or chain attached to the bank, the free end of which is handed to the boat’s cox – who must hold onto it until the race starts. Just before the start of the race, the boats are pushed away from the bank by ‘polemen’ so that they are in clear water away from the bank, when the starting gun is fired. All the boats of a division start simultaneously.

The race. Each boat sets off from a standing start in pursuit of the boat in front, with the boat at the head of the division aiming to row the complete length of the course without being bumped. On the towpath alongside each boat an umpire and a bankrider keep pace on bicycles. The umpire’s job is to adjudicate impartially on the bump if or when it happens. The bankrider is a member of the same college or club as the crew he is following and is there to observe fair play in the race and to shout encouragement and tactical information to the crew.

Tactics play a greater role in bumps racing than they would in a head race or a side-by-side race. If the boat ahead can be bumped quickly, the successful pursuers can retire from the race immediately and cannot then be bumped by the boat behind. On the other hand, if a crew burns out after the starting sprint but fails to get the bump, they risk being bumped by the following boat. Crews gaining a bump will start higher in the rankings for the next race, taking the position of the boat they have bumped.

Results are counted not in race times but in bumps and one of the key advantages of the bumps race format is that boats in every division and of widely different abilities will gain bumps. Crews who manage to bump every time they race are traditionally awarded ‘Blades’, decorated with their names and a list of the boats bumped on each day. The boat which ends the competition at the top of the First Division earns the title of “Head of the River”.

Bumps racing puts a premium on a reliable, fast start and the ability to maintain good rowing technique under the stress of a rapidly changing tactical situation. Bumps racing also makes extraordinary demands on the coxwain, who must be simultaneously aware of the situation ahead of and behind his or her boat while steering the best racing line and securing a bump as soon as possible.

Oxford Bumps

The Thames at Oxford follows a meandering course and is constricted by a narrow bend downstream of the city centre called The Gut. While two boats can pass in The Gut if they both stick to their own side of the river, collisions there remain a hazard to the present day. The first recorded bumps race in Oxford was in 1815, when Brasenose beat Jesus and so became the first college to be Head of the River. The event now known as Summer Eights had become an annual contest at Oxford by 1826, with four colleges participating and an agreed set of rules. Each crew started alongside a post in the bank (with an umpire to check that each boat was in place), and a pistol shot signalled the commencement of racing. This event was intended for ‘first’ boats, so ‘second’ boats were given their own event, “Torpids”, in 1838. Initially this was run during Trinity (summer) term alongside Eights. Bunglines and the ‘three gun’ system (guns fired at 5 minutes before the start, 1 minute before the start, and at the start) both still in use today, were introduced in 1840. Outrigged boats came into general use in Oxford in 1845. Until this time the boats used were usually ‘whalers’ somewhat similar to the boats still used in coastal rowing. Torpids was moved to Hilary (spring) term in 1852.

Cambridge Bumps

If the Thames at Oxford was less than ideal for rowing, the Cam at Cambridge was worse. In the 18th century it was little more than a stream, choked with vegetation and sometimes dry in summer. It was only made navigable in about 1800 when it was dredged, widened and furnished with locks to allow coal barges to reach the backs of the colleges (coal-yards in those days rather than the well-kept lawns we see now). As elsewhere, rowing at Cambridge evolved from the hiring and racing of boats of various configurations from local boat-yards. Bumping races have been held on the River Cam since 1827 following the formation of Cambridge University Boat Club during the 1826/27 academic year. The first official races were held on February 26th 1827 and thereafter “for three days every week through Lent term and throughout the Easter term of that academic year”. The rowers were not college crews but informal groups of friends, usually named after their boat, and boats were crewed by between six and ten rowers. By 1834 there were 19 boats taking part in two divisions. Later that year the first of several changes to the hydrography of the river Cam was made with two locks being removed and a new one installed at Jesus Green. This required that the course of the race be modified and in order to formalise agreement on the new course a set of rules for Bumps was agreed in 1835. In 1846 another change was forced by the building of a railway bridge across the Cam, the piers of which were too close together to allow boats to be rowed through.

The University Boat Race started in 1829 and as this grew in importance the better Cambridge oarsmen were withdrawn from Lent Bumps. As a result, Lent and May bumps, while originally a continuous series of races, became in effect two separate events, a fact formalised by the complete separation of Lents and Mays in 1887.

Shrewbury Bumps

The first clear record of bumps racing at Shrewbury School dates from 1854, although as at Eton, boys had been rowing boats hired (against the wishes of the school authorities) from local boatmen for at least a couple of decades previously. The clear similarities between bumps racing at Shrewsbury and Oxbridge are probably not a coincidence, but as to who or what the link was, we can only speculate. The first School Regatta possibly took place in 1839 when an eight crewed by a mixture of pupils and rowers from the town club was bumped by a four crewed by two pupils and two old boys from the school. Bumping races (or “Bumpers” as they are known at Shrewsbury) were first held as an official school event in 1867 and they are still an intramural 4-day event at the school, generally taking place during the last week of the summer term. The boats used are coxed fours and there are three divisions. Each house has a crew for each division, so there are up to 13 crews/boats racing in each division. Since 2009, girls have competed and are currently working their way up the divisions.

Bizarre footnote or eccentric export?

In the early 1800s when bumps racing began, the boats were sturdy, clinker-built wooden vessels, well able to withstand impact with another boat or the bank. Bumps racing today using thousands of pounds worth of precision-moulded and very fragile composite shells can be an eye-wateringly expensive spectacle. For this reason, bumps racing in its original form seems destined to remain a bizarre footnote in the wider story of world rowing, but it’s slightly tamer version, ‘non–contact’ bumps (as at Shrewbury School’s “Bumpers” or Oxford City Bumps for example), has perhaps a wider appeal and could yet make an exciting addition to the rowing calendar in more clubs, particularly those obliged to row on narrow rivers or canals. The format has been adopted for example for “Orca Bumping”, an annual rowing race over 3km on the Merwede Canal in Utrecht in the Netherlands. So you never know, after 200 years, bumps racing could still, eventually, go global.

Sincere thanks are due to Anu Dhudia for his “History of Oxford Rowing”, to George Gilbert for “The Bumps” and the school archivists at both Eton College (Miss Eleanor Cracknell) and Shrewsbury School (Dr R Brooke-Smith) for their invaluable help with this article, which was originally published in Issue 4 of Row360 Magazine.

The Coach as Engineer

An analogy I sometimes use with my crews is that training them is like building an engine.  I usually mention this when crew members are getting their priorities wrong and attempting to apply power before they have the precision and balance required to handle it.  The engine analogy brings with it useful concepts such as efficiency and smoothness. Like most analogies it shouldn’t be pushed beyond its limits, but within those limits it can be useful.

An engineer building an engine knows that power is last thing to apply to his construction. First the moving parts have to be assembled so that they all move within finely controlled tolerances and exactly in time with each other. Only then is it able to withstand the strain of having power applied to it. Similarly, rowers, or rather their boats, have a heirarchy of needs.  First is timing, then balance and lastly, power. Getting these out of order is only ever going to be destructive – fortunately not as spectacularly destructive as it can be with a real engine but I’m sure many coaches have seen crews (particularly novice crews) ‘come apart’ as they attempt to apply more power than they can actually handle.

In an engine, force has to be carefully controlled in both its magnitude and direction, and forces acting in the wrong direction are very bad news and must be eliminated.  Similarly with rowing, the very worst fault a boat can suffer from is excessive force acting in the wrong direction.  Rowers who pull hard into their laps or who throw their body weight sideways during the stroke are exerting forces which absolutely must be corrected before there is any chance of creating an efficient engine.  An inefficient crew, however hard they work, never achieve the boat speed their efforts should produce because too much of their energy goes into producing a rolling, splashy, jerky movement of the boat.  Many novice rowers completely fail to understand the importance of their body weight and how it moves.   The engine analogy can be helpful in explaining to them that they need to be aware of the precision required in all of their movements if they are going to be part of an efficient crew.

As a coach riding the towpath I spend most of my time watching and listening to these rowing ‘engines’.  I run them first of all at low revs, maybe on just two or four of their eight cylinders, checking for instability and noise. When the engine seems to be running smoothly, I run them at gradually higher revs and higher power.

The engine analogy is of course incomplete in that a crew is much more than an engine.  They are also the ‘suspension’ of the boat, keeping it level, and the gearbox of the boat with a set of ‘gears’ ranging from full slide to hands-only. To all of these abilities they also bring (if you are lucky) intelligence and an ability to learn, so that they get better and better at fulfilling all of these roles as they gain more experience.

It is an immensely rewarding experience to see a crew gradually come together as a single working unit like a good engine, responsive and powerful yet also smooth and quiet.  To be part of such a crew is to experience rowing at its very best and a feeling of shared achievement which few other sports can offer.

‘All Eight’ Rowing – throwing away the training wheels.

A question for any coaches reading this.  Do your crews spend most of their time during8550138898_fe77423817_b outings rowing with all blades or do they spend much of every outing with at least two blades balancing the boat?  Particularly for those of us who spend most of our time training eights, is going ‘all eight’ something you do most of the time or is it the exception rather than the rule?

In my experience, the answer to this question reflects a tension in coaching between perfecting the technique of individual crew members and getting the crew rowing together as a competitive boat.  Beginners of course will spend most of their time with the boat being balanced by two or more of the crew.  However, in some cases (college rowing for example) where you have to fast-track your beginners into competition, even crews with very limited experience have to address the challenge of rowing ‘all eight’.

When coaching crew members as individuals, you need a controlled environment where they can concentrate on the basics.  A rowing tank is ideal for some of this work, but a rowing tank is only an imperfect simulation of a real boat. On the water, you’ll usually want to control the boat by having some of the rowers acting as ‘stabilizers’.  But how long should you leave these stabilizers on?  To put it another way, how soon is too soon to move to working “all eight” for the majority of the training and consigning the stabilizers to a few minutes of the warm-up?

In this post I’m arguing that adopting “all eight” as the standard for outings sooner rather than later is a better approach in training than keeping the crew working in fours or sixes while you iron out individual issues of technique.  There are two fundamental reason for this:

1) Many problems with technique only show up when working in an unstabilized boat

2) Much of any rower’s learning has less to do with listening to the coach and more to do with building unconscious reflex responses to the boat

Let me say again, just for clarity, that I am not disputing the importance of using a stabilized boat for basic training. What I’m arguing is that coaches should get their crew to tackle the challenge of rowing without stabilizers as early as possible and thereafter use the stabilized boat as the exception rather than the rule for training outings.

Thinking back to my own time as a novice rower, I can remember quite clearly the anxiety I felt when any crew I was in was asked to make the switch from rowing in sixes to rowing all eight.  The sudden lurch as the stabilizing blades were lifted off the water to join in the rowing was in all senses a ‘big thing’ and because it kept happening in outing after outing as our coach kept switching back and forth between rowing in eights, sixes and fours it remained a ‘big thing’ for longer than I think was necessary.  If our coach(es) had made us stick with the unstabilized boat once we had started rowing all eight we would (I think) have progressed faster.  Part of the problem was probably lack of a reliable and easily understood coaching technique for balancing the boat, which in those days was taught as a matter of hand and blade co-ordination rather than primarily to do with stabilised and controlled movement of body weight.  The wider appreciation of ‘core stability’ as an essential part of rowing training in recent years has clarified the nature of the challenge a crew faces in balancing a boat and (where it is used) has greatly shortened the time taken to achieve this.  For those who are interested there is a blog post devoted to this topic here: (https://therowingclub.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/balancing-the-boat).

Once coach and crew have a good grasp of what must be done to balance the boat, the crew need to make the technique an unconscious reflex rather than a deliberate action, because only as an unconscious reflex is it available as a platform for the rest of their rowing technique.  Like everyone else, rowers can only focus on a limited number of tasks at one time and if they have to focus on balancing the boat, then less of their attention is available to devote to other aspects of their rowing such as speed and power. In my view the best way to turn balance from deliberate technique to automatic reflex is relentless repetition – which is why I would argue that working all eight should be the rule for the vast majority of a crew’s time on the water.  The simple fact is that in competition they will have to row all eight so they need to build that basic competency as fast as possible. However elegantly they can execute drills and exercises while the boat is being balanced for them, that isn’t what is going to be asked of them in competition.

So what problems should a coach expect to face in moving up to an unstabilized boat sooner rather than later?  I divide these into three groups:

1) Defensive rowing.  I’ve mentioned unconscious reflexes as part of the learning process rowers go through.  Unfortunately, some rowers have unconscious reflexes which are very unhelpful.  They give rise to what I call ‘defensive rowing’, an unconscious response to rowing in an unstable boat.  Typically rowers suffering from this problem may be able to row with perfectly acceptable technique while the boat is being held stable by other crew members. However, when the stabilizers are removed they typically shorten their stroke, lean away from their rigger and pull each stroke down into their laps.  This of course increases the instability of the boat and (particularly in novice boats) can set up a vicious circle in which the boat quicky becomes  too unstable for most of the crew to row effectively.  Because the defensive rower may be unaware of what they are doing differently in the unstable boat, this can be hard error to fix.  First you have to improve the stability of the boat without going back to rowing in sixes.  I do this by getting the crew to focus on keeping their upper bodies completely still after they leave backstops and resisting the temptation to reach for extra length at frontstops.  Secondly you have to get the defensive rower(s) to ‘trust the boat’ – to visualise the stable boat in their imaginations and to believe it will remain stable if they continue to row correctly.  That way we set up a virtuous circle in which correct technique is rewarded with an increasingly stable boat.  Easier said than done, but it certainly can be done.

2) Inaccurate rowing.  One of the greatest challenges for the novice rower is to be both relaxed and accurate in their rowing. In particular, we really do need accuracy in the height at which each rower finishes their stroke ( the Reference Point) regardless of how lightly or firmly the crew is rowing. This is very easy to miss while rowing in a stabilized boat and rowers are often caught by surprise by the importance of accuracy when rowing all eight.  Again the blog referred to earlier (https://therowingclub.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/balancing-the-boat) gives more detail.

3) Mistimed rowing.  Most rowers appreciate the importance of catching with stroke. Sadly, many miss the importance of staying with stroke through the rest of the drive, the finish and the recovery.  Good timing requires that each rower’s head and hands move in time with stroke’s head and hands.  Again this is easy to miss in a stabilized boat and crews who don’t realise its importance tend to struggle with stability.

Clearly, coaches have some challenges to face in getting crews to row confidently and consistently with all blades, but in my view it is where the real training starts. Working in fours and sixes is the rowing equivalent of cycling with training wheels – which is not something you will see competent cyclists doing very often.