Well this post has been sitting as a draft since the end of last summer. I started classes again, so now seems like a good time go over notes from last time!
On learning a new skill
It’s almost commonplace in Seattle, for people to have read or remembered the story of The Boys in the Boat. The book tells the history of the University of Washington rowing team that competed in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. It captures the feel of the sport through the teamwork, bonds, and drive of those on the UW crew, but also recounts what life what like in Seattle years ago.
Living in Seattle, after reading “The Boys in the Boat” and realizing I drove by the old UW boathouse nearly every day, I decided I wanted to learn how to row. With a rich history of competition and lineage of people continuing to develop the sport in the area, I knew Seattle was the place to try it out.
While many only row in high school or college, it is a lifetime sport much like golf, tennis, or swimming which you can start at any point in your life and still compete at a high level (or just go for fun). There is always room to improve and something to work on for rowers of any skill level. It is a constant balance of coordination, power, and grace with immediate feedback to understand what to tweak for the next stroke.
Rowing is a low impact, full body workout that people of all ages can do.
My course was four weeks long with three classes a week. Part of the ethos of the sport is early morning practice. My course started at 7am, but it is not uncommon for crews to begin practicing at 5:30 or earlier. In talking with people who were on a rowing team in college or high school, they’ve told me stories of how they would wake up at 4am and drive to a lake for practice. Discipline and resolve are built into the sport before anyone ever touches an oar.
At the end of each class, I recorded a brain dump of everything I learned. There was a lot to remember and the instructors mentioned they would try to give us a lot of feedback to ensure as much as possible resonated. This came with the understanding that we would not remember everything, so some pointers may be left out. In any case, here’s what I focused on and how I progressed over the four weeks of classes:
Notes from learning to row
The first class started with the basics and history lesson. Jeff Pocock, son of George Pocock, started the club, and boats are still made by the company in their namesake. Sculling (like with swimming with two hands) is two oars per person with one on either side of the boat. Sweep (like with a broom) is one oar per person in a boat with 2, 4, or 8 people with oars alternating port and starboard from the stern. On land, one can practice on an erg machine, which is the fancy name for the rowing machines at the gym.
Stroke mechanics are crucial. Easy to learn what you need to do, but difficult to master. To get started, sit up straight, not hunched over. The movement rotation goes legs, back, arms, arms, legs, back. Like this, not like this. Keep hands on the on the same plane throughout the stroke. Fingers not wrists bring the oar “on the water, in the water”. Rotating the oar will clear the oar out of the water. There is no exaggerated upward or downward oar movement required (for the most part, a slight downward movement at the finish can help quickly clear the oar).
On the water and in the boat, everything is reversed because you sit looking at the back of the boat. The bow is to your back, the stern in front, starboard to your left, and port to your right. This makes turning confusing, but on day one, simply staying balanced was a higher priority.
In that regard, a Wherry is a massive canoe-like boat used to learn balance and form. When getting in to any boat, be sure not to step through the hull, stand on cross planks (unless signage on the boat tells you otherwise). Stand one leg seat side and the other on dock when adjusting oar locks (the clamps that hold the oars in place and attached to the boat).
When you finally get in the boat, you can actually start rowing! As opposed to a rowing machine where your hands are next to each other, with oars, your left hand leads slightly over right. This feels a lot different than the erg machine at first, but become more natural. Focus on back and arms with legs outstretched. Keep hands centered and level. Remember the oar paddle direction is backwards of boat motion. Bring water side oar across boat to help anchor boat to dock when getting out
Day 2: Details
More details on the different types of boats and crews.
1,2,3,4- (sculling without coxswain)
4,6,8-/+ (sweep with/without coxswain)
Back on the water, leave the dock by pushing off with dock side hand then pushing with water side oar to make enough room between dock to place dockside oar. Then begin rowing with both oars. You can also “walk” the boat straight off the end of the dock if there’s room.
To build coordination, practice “river turns”. Oars stay together as if rowing normally, but left side pushes while right side pulls for clockwise (or vice versa for counter clockwise). It’s an exercise in coordination! Eventually movements become second nature and you can focus on power.
Day 3: Open water
We stayed pretty close to the dock for the first two days, but now it’s time for open water! Stay parallel to shore and move with boat traffic. Stay in your lane. ”Tabletop rowing” means moving your hands as if on a flat table top. Any up/downward movement will change oar depth and affect power and control.
- Use spacers to adjust oar lock height
- Clear entire stroke on finish
- Stay parallel to boat wake, or power through if small ripple
- River turns both clockwise and counter
Day 4: Stay balanced
- Keep to the right, avoid drifting into the middle of the water
- To turn around, cross when clear at a 90 degree angle going straight across then turning back with traffic
- Legs back arms
- Power with legs and continue until straight out
- Keep arms straight and taught, allowing full tension in back and shoulders
- If arms are bent, power is lost though elbows
- Once legs fully extended, torque with back and finally pull with arms
- Clear oars on finish just before hitting ribs
- Row, 2,3,4, row. Timing is another complication for another day
- Be mindful of pulling too much with the left arm
- Focus on driving with legs and letting arms maintain tension
- 1/2 oar depth exercise
- Slow down and maintain form/technique
- Fit more into 2 hour sessions
Day 5: Stick to basics
- “Suspend the body” I still don’t get this, but I interpret it as pulling with taught arms, letting your elbows go slack lowers the power you can generate as you drive back with your legs
- It’s ok to keep working on things
- Goal is to pull with even force through legs, back, arms, and oars
- More force on left or right leg can adjust boat direction, but also get you off course
- Stay balanced
- Stroke, 2, 3, 4
- Don’t rush back to the catch, you can keep more momentum by easing the slide back to the start
- Hands at even level translates to oars at same stroke depth
- Clear hands/oars just before reaching chest
- Focus on one good stroke after the next
- Rowing is the repeated pursuit of the perfect stroke
- Let the boat be the teacher
- You get immediate response from good and bad strokes. Recover and recognize what needs adjusting for the next one
- At the dock, small back and forth oar movement will bring you in closer
- Think, but don’t over think. Focus, but don’t get frustrated. Let you mistakes guide your improvements
Day 6: Hatchet oars & doubles sculling
- Moving up from tulip/spoon/macon oars
- Hatchet oars slice into the water better and provide additional surface area for greater force in the water
- They feel comfortable in a tighter stroke pattern so they force you to be consistent. As a result mistakes are more costly to recover from
- Oars of any shape have different inboard and outboard lengths for various degrees of leverage
- Doubles sculling
- Start in tandem with 3/4 stroke, then two quick half strokes for momentum, then 3/4 and full
- Catch drills: strong entry into water explosive with legs while keeping arms straight and tension through shoulders (half strokes, no back, starting from the catch)
- On recovery, return slowly up the slide. Watch the pace of the water. Let the boat glide and avoid jerking boat backwards
- At the release, push arms away quickly to limit oars dragging in the water
- Don’t keep back too straight, curl forward some to better prepare for recovery (go back just until abs are engaged)
- Ratio is important. This is the rhythm of your stroke. Generally aim for powerful and quick catch with graceful and relaxed recovery. Want to exert maximum force, then maintain momentum. Let it ride
Day 7,8,9: Seattle smoke
- Off the water so we did indoor erg workouts
- U1 and U2 plus TR1 and TR2
- Check the drag factor of the machine. Set from 100-110
- Stroke rate vs split time
- Lower stroke rate can still use strong strokes to bring down split time
- Combinations vary depending on workout
- Low rate (16-18) for warmup and aerobic training
- Increase rate to move gradually from aerobic to anaerobic.
- Low-mid (19-22) is good for long (10K+ meter) “pieces”
- Racing start
- 10-20-30s? 30 seconds rest, 20 seconds to build (to full exertion at second 19), 10 seconds all out. Repeat
- Keep good form. Strong does not mean poor form. Proper form will drive down split times
- Keep only a few ounces of body weight on the slide to maintain contact while “suspending the body”
- It’s hard to balance slower stroke rate with low split times. Stay relaxed on the return.
- Work hard to keep the same rhythm, stroke rate, and split time. “It’s a constant struggle”
- Pull too hard and and stroke rate increases, but relaxed return can lead to relaxed drive (and longer split time)
- Keep good form. Focus on legs then torque back (keeping shoulders in front of knees for first part of drive) then arms and reverse on the return.
Day 10: Quad sculling
- Stroke seat
- For first time quad boat, aim to keep stroke rate at easy 18-20 spm
- Power 10 to get the boat really moving
Day 11: Six sweep
- Just a reminder port is on your right (left-side if considering the direction of the boat in the water), starboard is left (right with direction in water)
- And bow is the front, stern is the back (but you look at the back, so the bow is behind you)
- Stern pair sets the stroke for the rest of the boat
- Bow pair steers the boat to keep point
Day 12: Last day
- Doubles sculling in the bow seat
- Stroke seat sets the pace but bow must communicate to stay in sync
- Watch for direction and keep point
- Stay aware of other boats and slow when coming to an intersection to avoid t-boning other boats
- Trust is crucial with doubles as any adjustment one makes must be balanced by the other
- Remember to sit up straight and power through your legs keeping arms outstretched and tension through your back. Once legs straighten out, torque back from 75 to 105 and finish with arms for one last bit of power
- Last class may be done, but we’re off to a good start
Take 2, day 1: Back at it
- Put the oars in the right way 🙃
- Our locks facing back of boat
- Legs flat and straight at recovery
- Keep knees close together
- Sit up straight, chest up and out, at catch
- “Let it ride” focus on rhythm and ease back to catch on recovery