23 Apr 2015

Fixed-Seat Rowing Technique

Los remeros (the Oarsmen) by Manuel Losada
There is a dearth of literature on the technique of fixed-seat rowing despite the fact that are many examples of fixed-seat rowing boats including Basque traineras, Welsh cogs, English skiffs, Faroese grindabatars or whale boats, Irish currachs, Australian surfboats, Quebec ice canoes and Catalan llaguts. There are other boats types with a more international scope such as the Atlantic Challenge longboats that are based on 18th century naval gigs. Most of these boats have origins linked to specific climatic, geographic and cultural elements. For example, the French-Canadian ice canoe originated from crossing the St Lawrence River during the winter, which because of the strong currents and tides rarely freezes solid. The Catalan llgaut was born of the necessity of launching fishing boats off the beaches of a coast with few natural harbours. Whale chasing in the Bay of Biscay is the basis of the Basque traineras. As with many aspects of everyday life in the past from the point of view of documenting, recording and explaining traditional rowing, little appears in contemporary literature. And it is a situation that continues today.
In contrast to fixed-seat rowing, the literature on the technique of sliding-seat rowing is extensive. Part of the reason for this disparity is probably that sliding-seat rowing is an Olympic sport. Rowing races go back to antiquity but it was not until early in the 19th century that boat racing became an organised competitive sport in British clubs and universities. It was not until the 1870s when the sliding-seat was invented, in the United States, with the intent of deploying more of the power from the leg muscles. Once the sliding-seat appeared, universities and clubs quickly made the change. From the later part of the 19th century and into the 20th sliding-seat rowing spread to most western nations and became part of the Olympic movement. But the sliding seat added a complication to the rowing stroke—how to keep the hands clear of the knees. It was a problem that was quickly and elegantly solved. To impart that solution to the wider rowing world, very soon after the introduction of sliding seats, texts on rowing technique began to be appear. Moreover, there were variations in the technique of sliding seat rowing and various authors wanted to explain their particular approaches.
With the growing importance of Olympic sports especially after the second world war there was a natural impetus to better understand the physics of how a sliding-seat boat is propelled and how to make it go faster. While sliding-seat rowing remained a truly amateur sport the interest in such research remained relatively low key. Gradually, however, through the 1960s and 1970s the amount of scientific research increased. It was given a tremendous impetus by the rise of the East German sports machine in the 1960s. That country's obsession with sporting prowess pushed scientific research into all sports, including rowing, to new levels and led investigators in other countries to emulate that research. Of course, all of these factors implied that more and more books, pamphlets and other texts on rowing technique appeared throughout the 20th century.
Meanwhile traditional rowing remained just that, traditional, with a few aficionados here and there who continued to row their particular boats outside of the limelight. There was little scientific research directed specifically at fixed-seat rowing, in fact, a situation that continues to this day. That is not to say that traditional fixed-seat rowing did not profit from the advances in sliding-seat rowing, it did. This is especially true in the matter of materials such as the use of fibre-glass, carbon fibre and other synthetic materials used in the making of boats and oars. Today there are few manufacturers of “traditional” boats and oars that continue to use wood.
Of course there is no reason why modern training methods developed for sliding-seat rowing cannot be adapted to fixed-seat rowing. Any coach training the crew of a llagut or trainera cannot help but benefit from an examination of training methods used by Olympic-style rowing crews. However, it is important to keep in mind the differences between the two types of rowing. Fixed-seat rowing is usually conducted on the open sea or large lakes and rivers where conditions are very different from what is usually the case for sliding-seat rowing which is limited to calm weather and protected waters.
Even after the switch to sliding-seats many British rowing clubs that focused exclusively on racing continued to teach the basics of rowing in fixed-seat boats. Some coaches were of the opinion that learning to row properly in fixed seat boats could be helpful for novices before advancing to sliding seat boats. British rowing clubs in the late 19th century would have several fixed-seat “tubs” for teaching the fundamentals. Such boats disappeared from English rowing clubs by the time of the First World War and were never much used in other countries. This interest in fixed-seat rowing as a step to perfecting sliding-seat rowing is obvious in R.C. Lehmann's classic book Rowing first published in 1898. While the book is mainly concerned with the technique of sliding-seat rowing Lehmann has some interesting comments on the art of fixed-seat rowing that are worth reading. Keeping in mind this lack of literature on fixed-seat rowing it might be useful to offer a few comments on the technique of fixed-seat rowing.
An image from the book Rowing by R.C. Lehmann (1898)
For convenience of discussion the rowing stroke is usually divided into the drive and the recovery phases which are demarcated by the catches and finishes. Of course, each stroke is part of a continuous, seamless cycle that has no start or finish. It is during the drive phase, with the oar blade immersed in the water and the rower applying force to the oar handle, that the boat is propelled forward. During the recovery, with the oars out of the water, the rowers can relax somewhat as they prepare for the next drive phase. It seems a fairly simple sequence of actions. In fact, looked at closely, propelling a boat by the use of oars is a complex exercise. The rower must perform a number of specific actions at the appropriate moments while blending them into a continuous sequence that must be maintained as one stroke flows into the next. And, each oarsman must be in perfect synchronisation with the rest of the crew, while his body is under a high level of physiological stress.
If the boat, the crew and the oars are considered to be a single system requiring an intricate set of actions undertaken at precise moments in order move the whole, one then realizes how complex moving a boat through the water is. Because of this complexity it is essential that the crew members work in synchronization because any small deviation by anyone will check the boat's run through the water. While it is especially important that the catches and finishes be in perfect time, it is also important that the bodies of the crew swing backwards and forwards in unison. Of course it is not that simple. A boat out on the open sea suffering the vagaries of wind and waves will be impeded in its forward motion and tossed about. Under such conditions there will be missed strokes, wash outs and crabs but a good crew with experience can deal with such conditions by quickly adapting or compensating. This ability to adapt comes only from constantly training together as a crew.
An ice canoe on the St Lawrence River.
The Fixed-Seat Rowing Stroke
Before examining the stroke a few points should be kept in mind. The rower should be seated comfortably on the aft edge of the bench, or seat, with the feet shoulder-width apart and the balls of the feet resting on the foot stretcher. The feet should be lower than the seat—with the top of the toes no higher than the lowest point of the seat. The rower should push off with the balls of the feet in the same way that a cyclist pushes a pedal, using only the forward part of the foot. If the rower pushes off with the arch of the foot, in addition to being uncomfortable and ineffective, the toes may interfere with the oar handle especially in rough water conditions. Power should is applied equally through both feet. The position of the bench and foot-stretcher should be adjusted so that the knees are slightly bent at the catch position—as the rowers lays back during the drive the knees will straighten. The position of bench and foot-stretcher relative to the thole pin should be adjusted so that the rowers knees are in line with the thole pin. This is an adjustment that requires the eye of the coach and should be done with the whole crew in consideration.
The oar handle is held with the fingers not the palms of the hands. The fingers placed loosely on the top of the handle while the thumbs are on the underside. The hands are one to two hand-widths apart. The little finger of the hand at the end of the handle should coincide with the end of the handle or else leverage will be lost. If the hands are too far apart the centre of effort will move away from the end of the handle with a resultant loss of leverage. During the drive the wrists are flat—the forearm and the back of the hand forming a straight line. This is very important because if the wrists are bent the tendency is to grip the oar too tightly, possibly causing the forearms to seize up. The hands, or more accurately the fingers, act to transmit the power generated by the back, shoulders and upper arms to the oar and bending the wrists means that the forearms will be tremendously stressed.
In addition to its technical aspects rowing is a sport of endurance and strength. Not all crews are out to race, many simply row for the pleasure of being out on the water. But having a basic level of fitness including endurance and strength will add to the enjoyment of the sport. Simply going out and rowing will increase fitness levels but if a crew is serious about racing it may be necessary to undergo additional training such as running, weight lifting, ergo-meter training, etc. A crew with the help of its coach must assess its goals, and answer the basic question: what are its objectives? If it is to simply row for pleasure two or three times week it is not likely that additional training is necessary or even desirable. However, if a crew has the goal of competing and winning specific races then a rigorous training program may be necessary. In any case, whatever a crew's objectives or fitness level they should strive to develop and maintain good technique.
A Catalan llagut racing on the Orio River in the Basque country.
The Catch
A decisive and quick entry, or catch, is one of the most important elements of rowing technique but mastering it is the most technically difficult aspect of the stroke. That is due to the rower's relatively unstable position at the catch position—bent forward from the waist with arms outstretched. It is much easier to achieve a quick catch rowing at half-stroke where the body is more upright. During the recovery as the rower's body swings forward from the hips the hands reach the ankles—any further simply results in over reaching and needlessly stresses the lower back—the blade enters the water quickly and cleanly. This is done by simply raising the arms and hands, with the arms pivoting up from the shoulders.
The catch is critically important as it is the transition between the recovery and the drive phases—when the bodies of the crew change direction from astern to bow. That change in direction must coincide with the catch or else the boat's run will be checked. With a quick catch the blades will enter the water cleanly, with no back splash and no unnecessary checking of the boat. The quick catch is followed a gradual acceleration of the oar throughout the drive to the finish. Only the blade of the oar needs to be immersed during the drive. Going too deep with the blade is ineffective as it can cause the oar to crab at the finish and it will slow the boat. On the other hand if only part of the blade is immersed the oar will tend to wash out making for a weak and ineffective drive.
A Basque trainera from an old postcard.
The Drive
Once the blade is immersed the muscles of lower back contract providing most of the power for the drive but especially until the body swings back to the vertical position. This implies the need for strong back and abdominal muscles—the stronger the better. The body swings through an arc from the lean forward, to the vertical position and finishing with the lay-back. In fixed-seat rowing the lay-back is much more pronounced than in sliding-seat technique. The arms remain straight until the body has reached the vertical position. It is only then that the arms really come into play and contribute to powering the stroke. The arms and back should finish at the same time. As the arms bend the elbows should stay close to the body, and not splayed outwards. The hands come right in to the abdominals with firm contact. Bending the arms at the catch or before the body reaches the vertical position will result in a weak and ineffective drive. Even with fixed-seat rowing the legs do contribute some power to the stroke. At the moment of the catch the knees are slightly bent but will straighten toward the finish making a not insignificant contribution to the drive.
How the generated force is applied during the drive can vary from crew to crew. It is possible to employ a hard catch, or exert more power in the middle part of the drive or to emphasise a strong finish. This is a matter of variations in technique. I would however, discount using a technique that emphasises a hard catch mostly because of the stress this puts on the rower's lower back, especially considering how heavy most fixed-seat boats are—some llaguts weight as much as 300 kg. A hard catch also adds a vertical component that is detrimental to moving the boat forward. It is more effective to gradually accelerate the oar through the water emphasising either the middle or finish of the stroke. Whatever technique is chosen the blade must—this is very important—continue to accelerate in the water right to the moment that the blade is extracted.
The Finish
The acceleration at the finish is accomplished by using the arms to quickly pull the handle into the abdominals. Acceleration of the blade at the finish greatly facilitates its extraction from the water. It is the secret to a clean finish. As long as the blade accelerates there will be mass of turbulent water behind the blade which will allow the blade to cleanly slip out. Once the blade leaves the water, by quickly dropping the hands into the lap, the hands are pushed away quickly from the body.
One aspect of the stroke that varies between the various types of fixed-seat boats is the feathering of the oars. In some boats the oars are not feathered while in others they are. Usually feathering is determined by the method used to secure the oar to the side of the boat. There is no doubt that feathering is advantageous not only when rowing into a headwind but also when rowing in turbulent conditions. Most fixed-seat boats do not have oar-locks like those found on sliding-seat racing shells which precisely control the angle that the blades enter the water. There may be a single tholl pin to which the oar is fastened to it by a grommet, or there may be a simple notch in the gunnel. There is a complication when squaring the blade when a tholl pin is in use. The oar and tholl pin combination means that the oar shaft does not have a flat which allows it to seat itself to the proper angle when the blade is square. That means that the correct angle of the blade as it moves through the water must be controlled by the rower, so that it neither digs or washes out. If the blade is not feathered, it is a simple matter to hold the oar handle so that the blade enters the water at the at the correct angle with each stroke. In any case, the feathering action coincides with the drop of the hands as the blade is extracted, and is accomplished by turning the wrist closest to the tholl pin. To square the blade the wrist is turned during the recovery but making sure that the correct angle is set before the blade enters the water.
The Recovery
Once the blade is clear of the water, the hands quickly move away from the rower's body. As the arms straighten and the hands move out over the knees, the body then swings forward from the hips. When the hands move quickly away from the body it facilitates the body's swing toward the stern. However, this swing has to be controlled, the rowers should not throw themselves to the stern, rather they pivot from the hips in a deliberate and controlled movement, even when rowing at a high rate. The rower should have the sensation of swinging forward and back both during the recovery and the drive respectively, while keeping the hands moving at all times.
Recovery implies that the rower can rest somewhat and gather strength for the next effort. Muscles should be relaxed, the grip on the handle firm but not tense, and the head held up without tension in the neck muscles. The recovery is also the part of the stroke that will set the stroke rate. The speed of the swing forward determines the stroke rate. Whatever the stroke rate, the hands should always come away from the body as quickly as possible. By letting the boat run of its own inertia, especially if there is a following wind, the recovery can be lengthened (i.e. the stroke rate lowered).
It may be redundant to say that the timing, or synchronisation, of the crew is of critical importance. The crew must make each and every movement together: the catches together, the finishes together, the swing in unison, the power application in the water must match. It is of course essential in side-by-side boats like llaguts, traineras and whale boats that the two rowers in the stroke positions be in time. Whether the boat is in-line or side-by-side the rate is set by the strokes and the rest of the crew should follow them and no one else.
It does no harm to emphasise again that good catches and finishes are critically important. This aspect of technique is sometimes called bladework. For some coaches of sliding-seat rowing it is their primary focus when dealing with technique. They reason that if the bladework is good the rest will fall into place: i.e. the rower's body movements will adapt themselves to good bladework. While such an approach does make some sense, good technique is more likely, in my opinion, to be achieved sooner, and with less trouble, if the coach works on both the bodies and the bladework simultaneously. When assessing a crew's technique the catches are usually the element that first catches the knowledgeable observer's attention, especially when a boat is viewed from a distance. The instant a technically proficient crew reaches the catch position, the blades will disappear in a flash. A crew that has mastered quick catches and clean finishes will likely have a high level of overall technical ability whatever their level of fitness. A crew that has slow catches where the blades pause in mid-air before entering the water is checking the run of the boat, and will therefore be slower for its effort. A crew that has a high level of technique can train and race harder because good technique facilitates power application. Rowing in a boat where the technical ability is high is a pleasure. Rowing with a crew with poor technique can be tiresome and demotivating for everyone involved.
The Fog Horn, by Winslow Homer,
Rowing, Lehmann R.C., originally published in 1898. See especially pages 14 to 37 for the author's comments on fixed-seat rowing. Even though the book may today be considered somewhat long winded, and typical of the era, for those with an interest on the history of rowing it is worthwhile perusing. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34950/34950-h/34950-h.htm

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