by Howard Aiken
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.