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.

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First time in a boat – Coaching a first sculling session

My first water session for scullers tends to be very different from the first water session for rowers. Whereas the rower will have spent some time on the rowing machine and in a rowing tank to get used to the basic stroke sequence and body posture of rowing, the first – time sculler gets none of this preparation.  The reason for this is that in a single scull, learning to balance the boat (i.e. learning how to avoid capsizing) is such an overwhelming priority that everything else has to wait until this basic skill has been addressed.

The key message in the first and subsequent sculling sessions is: ‘keep your hands at the same height’.

In sequence, the techniques I coach are:

  1. Getting into the scull
  2. Sitting the scull level
  3. Body posture and core stability
  4. Slowly raising and lowering each hand to see the scull’s response
  5. Confidence-building exercises based on (3)
  6. Arms-only strokes (very light pressure)
  7. Spinning the scull (backing down / pulling on, first on one side then alternately).

This is usually quite enough for a first session of 60 – 90 minutes – possibly shorter for juniors.  The level of concentration required to stay upright in a single scull is a surprise to many new scullers and can be quite tiring. The good news is that confidence rises quickly as the sculler gets used to the feel of the boat and learns appropriate responses to it’s movements.

One of the most important lessons is to move SLOWLY, especially when the unexpected happens.  Rapid instinctive responses which are entirely appropriate on dry land are usually the quickest route to a capsize on the water.  In my view, a good coach will focus on building ‘attentive confidence’ first and range of movement second.

Boat Types – The Single Scull

I can’t imagine a rowing club without single sculls. If you join a rowing club as a junior (under 18) you will be using these boats almost immediately and generally speaking the most confident single scullers learned as juniors.

singlescullr

As an athlete, the single sculler lives in a slightly different world from the crew rower. Whether in training or competition, they work alone, entirely dependent on their own resources and motivation. Single sculling has a lot in common with solo track events like running and cycling. Of course, most single scullers also happily scull or row in crew boats, but anyone who has sculled in a single knows that it offers a new dimension to the sport.

There are two slightly different styles of sculling, which if you look closely you’ll probably see examples of on a river or lake near you. Scullers who have learned as juniors often worry a lot less about the amount of roll (rotation around the long axis of the boat) they create. They simply absorb the rolling movement with their lower body while their upper body remains stable and gets on with the bladework. They look as as if they have a very sophisticated and responsive suspension system built into their hips – as in fact they do – which absorbs the rolling motion and isolates it from their upper bodies. People who have learned as adults tend to be stiffer and less relaxed about rolling. They use their core muscles to sit the boat level which produces a more elegant stroke – although they rarely look as carefree as the early learners.

As a coach, I personally think that the pursuit of elegance, while a good guide in 99% of rowing and sculling technique, has to take second place to the carefree, instinctive movement of a happy, relaxed single sculler. The amount of energy lost in the slightly untidy rolling motion they produce is tiny and there is a risk that coaching their flexibility out of them could do more harm than good. This can create issues however when a flexible single sculler sits in a double with a more conventional sculler who may not be happy with the same level of instability.

Adaptable as singe scullers often are, matching the sculler to the boat is important and it is a good idea to match the weight classification and rigging setup of the boat to suit the individual sculler as far as one can, even with club boats used by many different scullers.

Boat Types – The Double Scull

The double scull (or just ‘double’) is the most popular crew boat at most rowing clubs. While it offers an easily accessible and reasonably forgiving platform for novice scullers, it is also a class of boat represented in competitions at every level from local regattas and ‘small boats’ head races to elite FISA and Olympic competitions.

double

The double is an ideal platform for one-on-one coaching, with the coach steering in the bow seat and the novice rower in the stroke seat. All club scullers from novice juniors to recreational members can make good use of doubles.

Technically the double is uncomplicated, responding predictably to the actions of the crew whether good or bad. It is slower off the catch than the quad and easy to steer with rudder or blades.

Coxed doubles are still made, but usually as ‘touring’ boats – broad beamed, stable, rowing boats rather than as racing shells or ‘fine’ boats. They are finding a new role in adaptive rowing, allowing disabled athletes to enjoy sculling a double under the guidance of a cox.

Boat Types – The Quad

The Quad is a sculling boat for four scullers with eight blades. For reasons of economy, most clubs will actually use a coxless four with sculling riggers rather than the lighter, purpose-built quad, as they then effectively get two boats for the price of one. Purpose built quads are less sturdy than fours as they are not subject to the asymmetric loads of sweep-oar rowing – so they can’t be rigged as fours.

quad01

A sculler actually has more spoon area in the water during the stroke than a rower with a sweep oar. As a result, quads have a more rapid acceleration off the catch than other boats – even when using the heavier coxless four shell. For the crew, this can present some challenges, as the rapid acceleration of the boat after the catch can result in a loss of pressure toward the finish if the crews hands don’t maintain the acceleration from the leg drive. From the coach’s point of view a quad crew are effectively rowing a two-part ‘legs-hands’ stroke – both of which need to be powerful but need to connect smoothly together. People who have learned to row before they learn to scull will probably feel slightly rushed during the power phase of the stroke as the hands and arms have to accelerate into the finish in a way that is unlike sweep oar technique. Feathering is different too, with both wrists dropping sharply as the blades leave the water at the finish, with the handles held lightly in the crooked fingers well above the palm.

While the sculler at bow is in charge of steering and usually has a foot-operated rudder control, he or she will usually recruit the rest of the crew to help with steering. A boat as fast as a quad often needs more steering than can be managed via the rudder alone and a little more right or left hand pressure from the whole crew is the safest way to navigate a busy or bendy river.

Coxed quads are used for junior (11 – 18) scullers at most clubs and offer an excellent training environment for coxes who aspire to bigger, senior boats. While not as lively as the coxless quad, the coxed quad is also an excellent coaching environment for junior scullers, able to accommodate mixed ability crews quite safely.

Coxing

My son coxed his first boat at the age of 11 and made quite a good job of it. He was in the junior squad at the club and was learning to scull so he had a working knowledge of the rules of the river and had been coached on the basics of coxing.

I mention this because coxing can be a useful role for junior rowers in terms of their understanding of rowing, their usefulness to their club and their development as responsible people.  That said, coxing is not for everyone and I have known adult rowers who (even if they were the right size) I would not want coxing my boat.

The bottom line is that the cox is a very important person in any boat. Technically the cox ‘owns’ the boat, outranking even the coach.  The cox is ultimately responsible for the safety of the crew and other river users and can overrule any other instruction in safeguarding his or her crew.  The cox’s responsibility for the boat and its occupants begins when he or she calls ‘Hands on!’ to get the boat from its rack and doesn’t end until the boat is safely on its rack again at the end of the outing.

A good cox can raise a crew’s performance to levels they would not otherwise achieve and a poor cox can make a competent crew look incompetent.  Ideally a cox will have learned to row or scull and will know enough key coaching points to help the crew sort out any issues caused by poor rowing technique during the outing.  They will act as the coach’s partner in the boat and a key communicator between the crew and coach.

Needless to say, a good crew will treasure their cox, thank them at the end of every outing and keep in mind that without them, the outing might not happen at all.

Race preparation – the importance of marginal gains

Not all rowers train to race, but if they do, it is any coach’s duty to see that they maximise their chances of winning.  My personal view is that most of a crew’s important races will be won or lost by inches, hence the importance of marginal gains.  The exploitation of marginal gains has been executed very effectively by the GB Cycling team (Video here: http://bit.ly/19hk1pG) .  While club rowers may not be aiming at Olympic levels of performance, the marginal gains available to them are still significant.  I’ll give just three examples:

  1. Hygiene.  This sounds very basic and indeed it is, but regattas are often effectively a weekend’s camping interspersed with some rowing.  These conditions can cause stomach upsets, and stomach upsets will affect performance.  One of the simplest measures a team can take is to have strict hygiene rules.  Teach crews how to wash their hands effectively (not as simple as you might think.  Video here: http://bit.ly/16j8I1C ), and to take care what they eat and drink.  Unrefrigerated food brought from home should only be treated as safe for 24 hours.  Discourage crews from sharing drinking bottles.
  2. Alcohol and diet.  Most club rowers see eating and drinking as an integral part of regatta competition. They differ mainly in what and when they eat and drink.  To be fair, most rowers avoid alcohol before rowing, but rowing with a hangover on the second day of a weekend regatta is still an accepted hazard in many clubs.  Suffice it to say that a crew starting with a hangover is at a disadvantage to one which is not.  As for food, the benefits of a careful training diet can be ruined by an unlucky choice of takeaway meal.  If your aim is to win then take care what you eat.
  3. Boat weight.  By all means train with extra weight in the boat.  Keep as much drinking water and clothing in the boat as you need.  In competition, however, the reverse applies.  If every rower in an eight boats with a 500ml bottle of water, they have added 4kg to the weight of their boat.  Add eight pairs of shoes and eight items of extra kit and you could easily double that to 8kg.  I doubt that any crew wanting to win a race would volunteer to carry an extra 8kg weight if you offered it to them. So leave shoes and extra kit behind when you get into the boat to race.  Take only as much drinking water with you as you need in the conditions and empty the bottle over the side before you get to the start (please don’t throw plastic bottles overboard).
  4. Aligning on the start.  Getting a boat properly aligned before a race is important to getting a good start.  The cox or steersperson needs to work quickly to achieve and maintain the correct alignment – possibly in windy or rough conditions.  The official or umpire starting the race has a schedule to keep to and may not have to time or inclination to wait until everyone on the start line is happy.  Practise aligning your boat quickly (using bow and two in sweep-oar boats) – as you would practise any other part of the race, with particular emphasis on being ready for the start whenever the ‘GO!’ is given.

None of these will offer more than a marginal gain in performance, but if your boat can exploit as many as possible of the marginal gains available to you, they may just make the difference between winning and losing a close race.