Sitting Out, Setting Up, Shifting In

At some point in every sweep rower’s life s/he will be in a boat that’s running through drills to work on bladework and rowing technique.  Often, the coaches work on technique as part of a regular warmup routine at the beginning of each practice session.  The idea is to remind oars[wo]men of the small things that make a big difference in efficiently moving the boat, and to reinforce good rowing habits that may have eroded a bit since the last practice.

Usually, working on technique starts out with rowing by fours or pairs (depending on whether an 8+ or 4+ is involved).  This means that –at first, anyway– half the crew is doing something other than rowing.  What they should be doing is setting the boat:  making sure that their teammates are working from a stable, level platform so that they can concentrate on the rowing stroke without being distracted by a lurching, listing, rocking vessel.

They should also be intently watching the people who are rowing, and actively listening to the coach’s comments or corrections.  That way, when it’s their turn to row, they’ll know what mistakes to avoid making and which aspects of the stroke to make sure they get right: the ones the coach is emphasizing.

When setting the boat, the idea is to keep the flat of the oar blade firmly pressed against the surface of the water, providing “outrigger” resistance to tipping on both sides of the boat.  Using the oar as a lever against the fulcrum of the oarlock, relatively little pressure at the outside end of the oar handle will translate into proportionately greater pressure at the blade end. When ports and starboards are applying equal downward pressure on their blades, the boat will stay (nearly, mostly) level.

Every coach is (slightly) different, so just as different coaches take different approaches to teaching the rowing stroke, so too there are different ways of teaching the proper way for rowers to set the boat while their pair or four is sitting out.  As a rower who has suffered through some appallingly inadequate sets over the years while working on drills, I’m here to tell you that the only right way to set the boat is my way:  it invariably works, and some of the other techniques do not.  First, a description of one commonly-taught method for setting the boat that is often ineffective (and the reason why).

  •  The rower comes to half slide with the torso leaning forward, but without the arms fully extended.  The oar handle remains between the rower’s torso and raised knees.
  • The inside hand comes off the oar handle and s/he reaches forward to grasp the rigger strut, with the upper arm above the oar handle.
  • Using the outside hand to position the oar handle, s/he braces the oar handle and loom against the top of the thigh beneath the inside arm.  The inside arm prevents the oar handle from rising and helps brace the handle against the thigh.
  • In this position, the outside hand can increase (push up) or decrease (push down) the pressure on the oar handle in order to adjust the pressure the oar blade exerts on the water’s surface.  In theory, the boat will now be set up and will remain that way.

Why and how does this method fail?  I’ll tell you: the grab-the-rigger approach doesn’t always work as intended because it relies on constant application of muscular force by the outside hand and arm to maintain upward pressure on the handle/downward pressure on the blade at the water’s surface.  This will work when your rowers are strong, physically fit collegiate rowers in their late teens and early 20’s who warm up with a few dozen pushups every practice before they even set foot in a boat —the crew has the arm and shoulder muscles to effectively use this method for setting the boat.  Their outside arms and shoulders aren’t going to get tired pushing up against the resistance of the water if  the boat tips to one side or the other when the rowers aren’t completely in sync.

But if your crew is one of novice juniors or slacker masters rowers, it’s a completely different story.  All each rower has to support their side of the boat is one scrawny, puny bicep and forearm:  it’s usually not enough to hold the boat level or push it back up once the gunwale has lurched down to their side.  Even worse, reaching forward to grab the rigger strut leaves the rower’s body “closed-off” in a relatively weak position; leaning far forward, stretching out the lower back, hunched up with few options for movement.  Add four drilling rowers whose technique and teamwork isn’t (yet) all that polished, and you have a rolling, crashing recipe for near-certain frustration.  Even if their teammates can set the boat for a while, eventually they’ll tire and boat stability will start to suffer.  But it doesn’t have to be that way …

X marks the spot

There is a better approach.  This method uses the inside arm and thigh as paired components of a bracing system that provides firm, passive support for the oar handle, and uses the stronger muscles of the leg to adjust pressure on the oar.  Much easier, maybe even much simpler.

  • As before,  the rower comes to half slide with the torso leaning forward, without the arms fully extended.  The oar handle remains between the rower’s torso and raised knees.
  • The rower’s inside hand comes off the oar handle and s/he reaches forward under the oar to grasp the boat’s gunwale alongside the ankle of the inside leg.  The upper arm (bicep) extends under the oar handle:  viewed from the side (the coach’s perspective), the arm forms an “X” against the angled thigh at half slide.
  • The rower’s outside hand is only used to position the oar handle fore-and-aft, rather than up-and-down.  Upward pressure on the oar handle is provided by moving slightly up the slide, changing the angle of the thigh as the inside arm maintains support from below.  The crossing point of the “X” (the crux) shifts up or down as the thigh angle changes.

Now, when the boat begins to roll to one side, the oar handle increases pressure downward against the crux of the arm/thigh “X” … but can’t actually move.  The boat remains stable, and rowers don’t curse.

Shifting In

Using the “X” method, setting the boat is the easy part of rowing drills.  Eventually, pairs and fours will switch, and it will be the setters’ turn to row.  Ideally, everyone involved will make the transition a smooth one, so that the momentum and equilibrium of the boat are disturbed as little as possible.  Here’s how to make that happen, starting with the pair of rowers that is shifting in to join the drill.  Even when drilling by fours in an eight, coaches usually only switch in/out one pair of rowers at a time (to minimize the potential for disruption).  The coach will designate which pairs to switch, and it’s the cox’n’s job to make it happen in a coordinated manner.

  • The cox’n will/should provide advance notice of the switch, using call “In two [strokes]: five and six out, three and four in. One! … Two!”  The two strokes are counted off at the catch, at the beginning of each stroke.
  • As the active rowers approach the catch for the second stroke, the incoming pair should prepare to release the inside hand’s grip on the gunwale and be ready to place both hands on the oar handle.  But don’t let go just yet!
  • Once the active rowers are approximately halfway through the leg drive (as the boat is stabilized and supported by their oars pressing through the water), the incoming pair can release the grip on the gunwale and place both hands on the oar.  Simultaneously, they should straighten their legs and move back on the slide toward bow while keeping the oar blade flat on the water, following through with the motion of the stroke (shoulders swinging to bow, hands in toward the torso) so that they arrive at the release position with the other rowers at the conclusion of the second stroke.  Because the flat of the blade is still on the water as they slide toward bow, their oars are still providing some lateral stability and support.
  • The incoming pair’s hands are already close to their bodies at the release, so they’re in perfect position to swing arms away, bodies over, and come smoothly up the slide toward stern to take the next stroke in time with the other rowers.  A seamless, smooth transition is a beautiful thing.

However, a smooth transition isn’t solely the responsibility of the incoming pair:  the pair that’s about to sit out also have an important role.  At the conclusion of the second stroke, they’re the ones who have to provide the boat’s outrigger training wheels.  Once again, the regular sequential progression of the rowing stroke can assist the transition. Here’s how:

  • As their blades release from the water at the conclusion of the second stroke, the outgoing pair have their hands close to their torsos and are pressing down slightly on their oar handles to clear the blades from the water.  
  • If the drill includes rowing with the feather, their blades are almost immediately parallel to the water once the stroke has been completed.  This is especially convenient, but if the drill has involved rowing with square blades, they should now feather.  In either case, they should let their hands rise slightly so that the blades drop down to the surface of the water, stabilizing the boat.
  • Then, following the body motion of the active rowers, the pair now sitting out should swing their torsos toward stern into the bodies-over position (but without extending the hands away).  They are now able to move up to half slide, reach down with the inside hand to grab the gunwale, and create the “X” brace with thigh and bicep under the oar handle.  The outside hand keeps their oar blades in contact with the water throughout the transition, so the boat remains firmly set and rowing practice continues without a hitch.

It’s useful to remember that the coach isn’t just watching the pairs that are rowing through the drills: s/he’s also watching the pairs that are sitting out, the way they set the boat, and the way they make the transitions to and from the drilling sequence.  It’s an indication of how much the rowers are paying attention to every aspect of the boat’s performance.  From a coach’s perspective, evaluating a rower’s skill set doesn’t begin and end with the size of the crater s/he puts in the water on each stroke –crew is a team sport, so it also matters how well the individual rower is able to contribute the little things (like setting the boat) that can make a big difference.

On your mark, get set, row!

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