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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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 (http://bit.ly/1nuV4k5) 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.

Safety Notes for Coxes

Every stretch of water we row on is different and every stretch of water will vary with the seasons. Some stretches can vary enormously in level and speed from day to day or even hour to hour and a competent rower, coach or cox will be able to evaluate the risks presented by a stretch of water they row on regularly without too much difficulty.  The cox is the ‘brains’ of the boat and is in charge of the boat and its crew for the duration of the outing.

The particular skills we expect of coxes start with the basic appreciation of the risks presented by water and weather conditions which would be expected of any competent rowing club member. However, the coxwain has a unique role in a crew boat and being only as competent as the rowers in the boat is really not setting the bar high enough in terms of what coaches, rowers and clubs should expect. The bottom line is that during any outing in a coxed boat, it is the cox’s boat and the cox has the final decision on where it goes and what it does.  The cox outranks both coach and crew and needs the skill and judgement to justify that authority.  It is therefore a good idea for clubs to arrange suitable training for coxes at least annually to ensure that they are equipped to take on their responsibilities.

To begin with, the cox has to be the one who avoids problems by planning ahead.  The outing begins when he or she calls ‘hands on’ before having the boat lifted from its rack and it is the cox’s responsibility to ensure that crew, boat, blades, cox-box, life-jacket and any other equipment is got safely from land to water and back again. While the rest of the crew may legitimately be pre-occupied with the technicalities of rowing and co-ordination, a good cox must always be thinking at least one step ahead.  A good cox will check there is space on the landing stage before getting the crew to lift the boat.  They will check that the boat is in working order before putting it onto the water and that the crew is ready to row before pushing off.

During the outing, the cox is responsible for the safety of the crew and the care of the boat. They have to think ahead of their current position on the water both to navigate and avoid hazards.  They must know the rules of navigation for the stretch of water they are on – and these may change with water levels, time of day or local events organised by other river users. The cox has to ensure that there is enough clear water  to overtake as required during drills or pieces on crowded stretches. Where a river or lake is shared with other users, these may present a variety of fixed and/or moving hazards which also have to be avoided. This may sound complicated, but most coxes manage to keep their crews safe on their local river or lake.  Familiar hazards are easier to deal with – although there can be a downside in that even large red ‘Danger’ signs seem to become just part of the scenery if they are always there.

The greatest challenges coxes face are away from their home stretch when competing at regattas or head races hosted by other clubs. At these events there really is no safe alternative to doing the homework. Coxes must learn the local navigation rules and read the instructions to competitors which should be supplied by the organizers.   On tidal stretches, rules can be particularly complicated with circulation patterns varying according to the time of day.  With start times  always subject to change, to navigate these stretches safely a cox will need a watch and possibly a set of notes.

Experienced coxes are a valuable resource at any rowing club.  It would surely be a good idea for more clubs to organise their coxes together to allow for the regular formal or informal transfer  of accumulated knowledge from older to younger coxes. Instead most coxes need be motivated to do their own research and learning. Google Maps is really useful for researching an unfamiliar river and in the UK the Environment Agency provides online reports on river levels here ( http://bit.ly/1fVouB9 ).  If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask the local rowing club or the event organizers for clarification of any questions regarding unfamiliar venues.