033 | About Those Oars
Welcome to CoxPod - a podcast dedicated to coxing topics. I'm Anne. I'm Breana. We're experienced coxswains who continue to learn a great deal from the broader coxing community and from sharing with each other. Our primary goal is to promote ongoing skills development and we're happy you're joining us.
BREANA: This episode is about the visual insights that we as coxswains can glean from the oars. Our approach is going to be to focus on just this pivotal part of the equipment - the part that ultimately moves the boat. And all of that visual information coming from the oars when you sit in the coxswain seat - that might look like a completely incomprehensible jumble when you first get started. But the point that you might even be able to ultimately reach after spending a lot of time in the seat, is being able to recognize an individual rower based on their stroke alone … to the point that maybe you could identify where a particular person that (you know) is sitting in the boat that day because their stroke is so familiar to you.
ANNE: Breana, I can completely relate to both the feeling of seeing a jumble as well as being able to identify a rower by their stroke. But we thought we would first try to back up a little bit. Even before getting the oars into the boat, there are a lot of considerations that have to do with the oars. So what shall we start with here?
BREANA: As we often do, safety is a really important place for us to start. Sweep oars are 12 foot pieces of equipment that maybe feel lightweight … maybe seem more harmless than other metal parts of the boat … but honestly these can cause injury if a person is moving around quickly - not paying attention to who might be standing around them. So we do have to bring the same safety considerations we always bring to the sport just to the process of handling the oars.
ANNE: So many times, I've seen people get conked in the head and other injuries - so be very careful. Teach your rowers how to carry them appropriately and to be aware of the fact that they are that long and can pose a danger. Also have you ever, Breana, been in a situation where you might have taken the boat down and all of a sudden people have remembered, “Oh, we might have neglected to bring the oars down”?
BREANA: Yup. It's really easy for this one to slip our minds as we're laser focused in on all of the other things that are also our responsibility as coxswains. It can totally happen. Even worse is if you as a whole team arrive at a regatta and realize you forgot to bring some of your sets of oars. We have to work towards having this be just part of our routine that we ask the rowers, “Are the oars down?”. We maybe do a visual check … whatever is appropriate for the layout of our boathouse. Tt is important to not forget to get the oars there in the first place.
ANNE: And to bring them back after a row. How many times have they been left on the dock?
BREANA: Absolutely. That, too.
BREANA: When it comes to both bringing the oars down and putting them away after a practice, that might be when you have to draw upon whatever your boathouse's system is for marking those oars. They may all look very similar and often teams resort to these elaborate taping systems where you're getting told, ‘Okay. We're taking out the set that is triple blues - there's three pieces of blue tape. And this other team is taking double blues.’ Blues and reds - all of these elaborate systems. And if you've got a lot of oars hanging out at your boathouse, we imagine you can relate.
ANNE: Absolutely. Another place where I'm feeling a little bit of pain because those systems drive me crazy but there's no other way to do it, right? How many times have your teams taken the set of oars thinking that because they're adjacent to one another, that's a full set. And putting them into the oarlocks and realizing no - that's half of one set and half of another set? It happens all the time so if you are not familiar with this taping system maybe you have a different one. We'd like to hear what that is. For coxswains in smaller clubs, it might not be so much of a problem but for many of us, it's a real challenge. Another challenge that I have investigated a little because it's a topic at my club, is how to stack the oars when we are outside getting ready to get onto the dock. So we carry the oars down. We stack them against a holder and half the club says we put the handles in the dirt - half the club says, ‘No. We put the blades into the dirt section’. So I reached out to a couple of manufacturers and the fact of the matter is they had conflicting points of view. So my suggestion would be that you check with the manufacturer and find out what they prefer.
BREANA: And once we are grabbing those oars to put them in boats, that's another place where we can be helpful as coxswains and make sure things are done properly. Honestly, no matter the crew’s experience level, we have seen things like an oar being put in backwards … you know, a port oar on the starboard side … all kinds of things. Or the situation where you have a large number of boats launching at one time - the rowers grab whatever they could find and then you get into the situation, ‘They took our oars’. And you have half of a set in your boat again and it's just a level of complexity before we can even get out in the row and do any of the other things that we do as coxswains. This is another place where we have to exert a little bit of attention and just make sure that things are done properly.
ANNE: Yep. Please pay attention because so many things can happen. An oarlock cannot be fully closed, for example, and rowers won't necessarily notice it in the chaos that happens as you've got multiple boats that are trying to launch. This is also a place and time when the oars can be scraped. They can bang into people's ankles. They can be stepped on. It's … I think that you can get the visual and probably all of you have experienced those moments that have to do with the oars. They are a real thing. It's a challenge and that's part of our responsibility - to guide people into the most efficient behavior possible while keeping the rowers and the equipment as safe as possible. Phew. I feel a little anxious because those scenes of the chaos on the dock are fresh in my mind. But let's now transition into getting on the water.
BREANA: As we opened by saying, once you have shoved off the dock, your main visual cue for gaining insight about what the rowers are doing with their bodies as they row are the oars. And what you see as you look out in front of you in a stern-loaded shell could vary a lot. Oars can vary in terms of their shape - the shape of the blade, the materials that they're made out of, colors of various parts of the oar - all kinds of things can vary according to the manufacturer. So don't be surprised as you increase the amount of coxing experiences you've had to see a whole host of possible configurations as you look out at the oars.
ANNE: It is a lot. I know it was a while ago for me, but I still clearly remember how much visual stimulation there was when I first sat in the coxswain seat. It just was a blur. It's a jumble of activity and colors and shapes. So if that happens, that's okay. It does begin to gradually come into view and you're going to learn a lot and you're going to take a lot of information away from those oars. As you do that - as you begin to parse out and sort out what's going on in front of you - there is so much information that you can glean from the oars and diagnose and correct technical issues based on that. And what I would like to start off by saying here is that what we may see at the blade end of the oar might be a dramatic movement. However, we have to remember that from the rower’s perspective, there are very small movements at the rower’s end - at the handle end that the rower is controlling - that translate into larger ones at the blade.
BREANA: This knowledge can guide us in how we communicate with rowers about technical changes. Like Anne was just saying, we may see something that looks egregious to us out at the blade end and in the rowers mind, they may feel no difference at all. They may be barely aware that they are doing something and so that should shape the way that we communicate with that rower when we're asking for any kind of technical changes recalling that the adjustment for them is going to be extremely subtle compared to the very large movement that we might be noticing from the end of the oar that we can perceive.
ANNE: That's a lesson that I need to learn again and again. It seems like a big thing to me on what I'm seeing and to them, it literally is a small movement change so I need to be sure to be patient about that.
BREANA: Another thing to think about as you start to glean the insights that are available to you when you're visually appreciating what's going on with the oars, is to make sure you have had a conversation with your coach or have been absorbing your coach's guidance throughout your time on the water or maybe even on land. Coaches all have different approaches to the rowing stroke and our goal here is not to provide you with the one best way to row. Instead, we want to say that as a coxswain, you should be talking to your coach … getting an understanding from them of what the ideal stroke should look like so that you can then tailor your corrections based on the visuals that you're seeing from the blade to approximate that ideal stroke as best you can and support your coach and their goal of helping rowers row the best that they can. Let's start by answering the very first question of how do we even start to make sense of what we're looking at? How do we actually use our visual system to look at the oars and start to perceive the information that's there to be had? We want to ask ourselves - how can we get the gestalt of what is going on … the overall picture. I like to start by looking kind of down the center of the boat and then letting my eyes unfocus a little bit as the blades are moving through a couple of strokes. That enables me to see both sides of the boat without having to direct my eyes back and forth … constantly flipping from one side to the other. And that can make me aware of some major things that could be wrong. If there appears to be an oar really out of sync (you know) - there's things like that that you can perceive from an initial grasp of the general picture of what's going on. How about for you, Anne, what are your strategies?
ANNE: I think it's similar. I would describe it this way: I look forward … up towards the bow of the boat along their bodies … and then I just use my peripheral vision to see starboards and ports … trying to get the widest sense of what's going on on both sides. It is the gestalt, as we said, of the oar movement. And then when I do that, I generally try to pick up whether or not there is a pattern at all or a break in the pattern at all. But I do want to comment that when I use peripheral vision, I'm often not able to visualize what's going on with the stern pair’s oars. They kind of get left out of this somewhat, so when I need to really attend to them as well, I have to make a conscious choice to include them so I then might narrow my focus a bit. And after I get the gestalt of what's going on - and I do that intermittently whenever I'm in the boat - I will then take a tack of looking at all of one side. That's one of my systematic ways of looking at what's going on. So I look at one side, then the other. Then there were times when I will narrow my focus enough to just focus on one or two blades at a time and what are they doing and how are they moving through the entire cycle of the stroke.
BREANA: I completely agree with that approach of looking at the whole picture first with the great caveat that you added about giving special notes to stern pair if you want to perceive their finishes in particular. And then I take a similar approach of going from that whole picture to maybe focusing on just one side where there seems to be an anomaly to then focusing perhaps on just one blade. Part of what I then do is - as my eyes are looking at that one particular blade - I might be comparing it to the performance of the overall boat using other skills. Maybe it's bow seat and I'm wondering are they in time and I'm using the information that the sounds of the stroke provide … the information that boat feel provides in your body. Of course, you can't look at bow seat and stroke seat’s oars going in at the same time so you can complement what you're seeing visually with those other cues of boat rhythm to get a sense of - in this case, we're talking about timing, for example.
ANNE: Right. I like the way you describe that, Breana. Thank you. Now I suggest that we take a systematic, methodical way of looking at each oar itself and I'm going to suggest that we go from the outside in towards the rower. This is a system that we're going to propose especially newer coxswains take so that they can develop a systematic way of assessing and understanding what's going on with the oars individually and as a group. Let's start at the blade end. This is the part where your team's design is located. Sometimes you don't have a design. Sometimes it'll be a solid color - a white, for instance … however it comes from the manufacturer … but that's the end we're talking about. And of course, the ultimate goal is to have all the blades enter and exit at the same time. So as this is the largest part of the oar, it is the best way of perceiving their movement - but not the only. We'll get to that in just a moment. So let's talk about that blade entry.
BREANA: As we were already describing a moment ago, timing is something that we can perceive at the moment of the blade entering the water. So you can use this visual information to get a sense of simply: is every blade going into the water at the same time? You may notice that a rower is early or late. They might be hesitating - so you might see their blade get to the catch position but not yet enter the water. You can also appreciate from the face of the blade how quickly the blade enters the water … how long does it take for the bottom edge of the blade all the way up to the top edge to be covered with the water? How quickly is that blade going into the water? Those are a couple of timing related aspects that we can perceive at the moment of the blade entering the water.
ANNE: And as we're talking about the blade entering the water, sometimes we'll notice - and that's the best place to see this - that they're missing water. And the evidence of this is that the blade is moving towards us as coxswains before they're fully in the water. So to Breana's point about the coverage of the water in there, you'll see that the face of the blade is coming towards you and it's still going into the water - they'd be missing water. So what do we do with this information that we're starting to gather from the outside of the oar which is the blade? Well, Breana and I talked and we realized that if we started to go through all of the different options and corrections and suggestions that we might have about what's causing that this, would be way too long. So we're just going to toss out for some of these situations some suggestions about corrections or things that could be changed that would enable the blades to go in together and effectively.
BREANA: For example, for the phenomenon of missing water that we were just describing – again, evidenced by the blade still out of or partially out of the water and already starting to move towards you - so if at the catch, the blade is as far away from you in the stern as it's going to be in the stroke cycle … if it starts to move towards you before it's fully in the water or before it's in the water at all in extreme cases, that rower is missing water. A couple of options for things I like to say to guide rowers to remedy this include things like, “Make sure that you get the blade in the water before you start to push the legs down” or guiding them to think about a different part of their body. “So make sure that on the recovery … as you're approaching the catch … you're raising the handle. Your arms are lifting up into the catch.” That is another possible technical correction I might try to remedy that issue of missing water.
ANNE: And another common turn of phrase can be thinking of the catch as the last part of the recovery so that you're differentiating it from the drive. Those words also can be helpful to rowers as they're trying to make that adjustment to get the blade in before they drive their legs down.
BREANA: Another thing we can perceive at that moment of entering the water is whether the blade is entering at an angle. So instead of being fully perpendicular, it might be slashing into the water at an angle that can ultimately lead to crabs. So I will sometimes take notice of this and then if a rower does crab, I can let them know that was what I was observing right before this happened. “If you keep your grip on the oar looser” … various other technical corrections you might provide them that can help them avoid that scary moment of the blade going in at an angle, getting sucked under with the run of the boat and then we have a crab situation.
ANNE: Exactly. I found the entering the water in an angle situation to be most common with newer rowers and that's where you can instruct them to try to feel the click of the flat end of the side of the sleeve. That could be another suggestion to them if they are doing that. One of the things that you will notice right off the bat in terms of the blade is situations where it's skying. This is where the rower’s handle is pressing down. The other end - that blade - is skying … making it even more difficult to get a nice connection at the catch when the blade enters the water. How do we visually see that that's happening? Well you can gauge the distance from the bottom of the blade - as it's squared up - from the water. Breana, do you have any other methods?
BREANA: I also might use the whole picture of that side of the boat to get a sense, too. If it's one person, you might notice that there's three oars that are all together in the same plane and then one or sticking out higher than the rest. That is the rower who is skying.
ANNE: When I do see skying, many times that is a result of people trying to get that little extra reach … an extra stretch … and they are sort of sinking down and consequently their hands are dropping just a little bit - which again, doesn't have to be a lot to result in a visually significant shift in the blade that's in the air. So what I would do is just maybe suggest to them that they be sure to (again) lift the handle gently as they're getting ready to get the blade in and not to try to overreach. That's a common situation.
BREANA: Another thing we can perceive as the blade is entering the water is: are the rowers generating the phenomenon of backsplash if that's something that your coach is coaching for? That is the moment when you would be able to see that as the blade goes in, water will splash back from the blade away from you as the coxswain.
ANNE: Or in the case of being in a bow loader, you'll know when that's happening because you are getting more wet than you might otherwise.
BREANA: Yep - we don't even need our eyes for that one.
ANNE: So one of the questions that comes up with coxswains sometimes - I know it came up for me - is what depth does your coach want that blade to be as it's entering the water? How deep do they want that to go? There are crews that fully engage the blade. There are others where it is at its natural resting position when it's just floating … when the boat is still. Your coach may have you do a drill where you they say, “Take your hands off of the oar handle” and they just float. Some coaches want the blade to be at that height in the water. So find out from your coach what their preference is and then you can cox to that.
BREANA: And once that blade is in the water and starting to move through the rowing stroke, depth continues to be a useful cue for us to get information about how the rower is manipulating the oar and what their body is doing. What we ultimately want to start looking for is whether the oar is at the same depth throughout the drive. We don't want those oars bouncing up and down. You can also zoom out again to the picture of the whole boat and try to equalize the sides. So if you are struggling with set, for example, take a look at the depth of those blades on either side and try to equalize that. That is another thing that we can start to look at as that blade is actually moving through the drive phase of the stroke.
ANNE: I find a lot of value in doing that - watching the blades in the water. Particularly, I'll see the blades going down deeper usually during the first part of the drive and that is sometimes caused by rowers lifting their shoulders and taking a stroke with their shoulders less than their legs. So there are other calls that you can make you know, “Just drive straight back”.
BREANA: I've heard one like, “Let your catch height equal your finish height” to encourage rowers to pull evenly through. Or coaches might say, “Imagine that you are drawing the oar handle across the surface of a table. It should be flat. It should be staying the same horizontal plane and then arriving at your chest for the end of the stroke and the tap out.”
ANNE: And places where I often see it now getting shallow is when people are coming toward the finish. They start to drop their hands which consequently starts to lift the blade out. And sometimes that's a result of them having some feathering challenges … starting the feather before the blade is released entirely. So don't forget to look at the finish - how deep is that blade? Is it maintaining it all the way through until they release the stroke? And that means there's a puddle. The puddles - aren't they beautiful?
BREANA: Mmm. The puddles can function as a proxy for how much power the rower was applying during the stroke - a larger puddle being suggestive of greater power output from that rower or greater translation of their power into the movement of the oar. So that is something that you can look at. We can also take a look at the frothiness of those puddles. So if the blade has come out cleanly at the finish and has ideally come out on the square - still perpendicular to the water - that will leave us with more of a dark puddle. But if the rower instead does something like we were already getting at with feathering out of the water perhaps … the blade is already at that angle as it emerges from the water … then we can get a very frothy, bubbly, splashy sort of puddle. And we might even see water getting flicked up by the bottom edge of the blade. So there are lots of insights to be gleaned from the puddles that emerge from that moment of the finish and can tell us about what the rower was doing. One final thing that you could be looking for at the release depending on what kind of stroke your coach is coaching for is the phenomenon of a micro pause - holding the blade out of the water for one brief moment at the finish - everybody gathers. That's another term people might use - the gather. Everyone is holding there for just a brief, brief second. It's not a drill. It's not something where you call the rowers to move but they might be holding there and then they should be moving with stroke seat on their way back up to the catch … starting that recovery together. So if that is part of what your coach is asking the rowers to do, you can look and see - is everyone pausing together or is one or more of these blades starting to move before the others? That's a good lead-in into generally what we can start perceiving on the recovery which is the speed of each part of the recovery. So right as the blade comes out of the water, rowers are starting to move the hands away or maybe the hands and body together depending on what your coach instructs you to do. That's a time where you can start to see - are the painted parts of these blades all moving away from me at the same speed? If one moves more quickly than the others and gets to a sharper angle than the others or moves more slowly, etc., that's something that you can start to perceive and coach the rowers on.
ANNE: Yes. So much happens during that recovery phase. They are releasing, then they're feathering, and then they are moving forward on their slides … hopefully as a group. But you can tell that based on - as Breana has said - the blade movement. And then we got to talk about the speed of the roll up. The timing of the roll up. The squaring of the blades prior to the catch - that's what I mean when I say roll up. That is something that your coach will need to provide some guidance on and our role is to try to get all eight of those blades in sync with one another based on the guidance from the coach. And so you'll spend a lot of time - I suspect - as a coxswain - as I do - supporting that and providing guidance and correction to the rowers about matching up. Even with crews that I've been with for a long period of time, there's still a lot of conversation that goes on about that. I don't know about you, Breana, but that is something that is a perennial challenge. And I would like to add that one of the things that people have found helpful is when I say, “Be proactive. Anticipate the roll. Don't wait for the person in front of you to start rolling up. You have a sense when that's going to be, so execute on that as a proactive approach.” Well we've surely talked about the blades a lot and now I'd like to just move inward towards the handle. And the next part of the oar is the shaft - the part that goes from the end of the blade up to the handle. And typically it's black in color but Breana, didn't you say you saw at least one crew that had white shafts?
BREANA: Yes. I have seen some oars where that main part is white instead of black - it's a different look. It is not something I was used to seeing so it all goes to say you truly never know what you might be looking at when you get out there and sit in the coxswain seat. Anything's possible.
ANNE: Those white oars, Breana, that is something that I wish I had seen and maybe I will in the future. I'll keep my eyes open for them. Why don't we explore what information the shafts can tell us? Some coxswains are not used to thinking about the shafts as informative. I find them incredibly informative and one way I find them informative is that - the blades where there's a lot of motion (you know) and if people are feathering at different times and so forth, the shafts don't have that kind of motion. Yes they rotate but it's not something that visually is distracting to me. So when there is a lot of variance with the feathering and squaring action, I absolutely use the shafts to let me know whether or not the height of the oar is similar.
BREANA: I love that as a cue as well to minimize the impact of everything that's visually going on with those blades. If you move your eyes just a little bit up the length of the oar, you can have a calmer picture of that. I also like to look at the holistic view of what's going on with all eight oar shafts as a clue into what might be going on with set. This is something that we talked about in more detail in Episode 030 about fixing set issues. This can be one visual cue that gives you insight into whether the boat is properly set because if it's not, you will notice that these angles formed by the shafts and the water are very different on either side of the boat. From the shafts, we can also get a sense of the angle of the oar in relation to the boat as a rower is at the catch or at the finish. This can provide - as I already mentioned - a little bit … some information … about timing and it also gives you a sense of the length of that rower's stroke. And this varies. It varies according to the rower’s height, their own individual flexibility in their body, the rigging, things that maybe within our control or the rowers control, or things that may not be. But that is additional information that can be gleaned. So if you notice, for example, at the catch all of the oars are in line but one has a wider angle between you and the bow, for instance … it's further away from you than the rest … that's a person who's a little bit longer in their stroke. That could be advantageous. It could be something that they are - like Anne said before - going for extra length they don't need to be going for … coming out of their shoulder socket … something like that. So that information can at least inform us and then it might take a subsequent conversation with the coach to say, “Could you tell what this rower was doing that was generating this observation that I made? Should I be correcting them? Are you okay if they're longer in their stroke than the other rowers?”
ANNE: And this is a great thing to watch from a launch in particular because that's where you can see whether or not the blades are all truly parallel to one another and are they staying parallel through the entire stroke cycle? The shafts are very informative as far as that goes. And another thing that's great to visualize from the launch but we can sometimes see that as well from the coxswain seat is whether or not there's bend in the oar. You can see it in pictures. Don't we all like to see those side views where you can see the oar bending? That is another thing that the shafts can tell you even from the coxswain seat. Sometimes you can see that.
BREANA: When we were talking about the blades, we spoke a lot about the depth of the oar and what you can perceive from that. The shaft can also be a secondary way to get that information and we like to use it as a cue for the rowers as well. So if that oar is dipping very deep into the water, then the water line is going to come further up the shaft of the oar. And so you can even use it as a call to tell a rower, “Take a look out at your oar and just notice the water is dripping off (you know) halfway up the shaft of the oar. That's where your oar was on your last stroke as you went into the water and we don't need to be quite that deep.” And you might make a correction based on that. So it's useful information for you and it can be very visually obvious to a rower as well if you encourage them to glance out - at your direction - and take note of what they can see from that water line and how far that has wicked up the shaft.
ANNE: And we should take a look … as we're watching that water line … whether or not it's during a particular part of the stroke. When is it going too deep? Is it staying the same as the others through most of the stroke and then just before the release it goes too deep or at a different time? That's another great way of using the water line as a piece of information and sharing that with the rower because they may not be aware. So we're moving now from the shaft inward again towards the rower. And the next item that pops up - and I say that sort of in sort of sad … that was a Freudian slip. The next thing that pops open is the oarlock. Oh, dear. Oh, it has too many times. So as we move up the shaft, the next piece of equipment is the oarlock - where the blade sits in and is locked in … except for times when it pops open. But we're not going to go there today. Let's talk about the parts of the oar that are at the oarlock.
BREANA: Yeah. So encompassing the oar at that point is a sleeve - is the term often used. And that is typically a very brightly colored piece of the oar that different manufacturers use to distinguish their brands. So you might find a really bright piece of plastic there and as we already mentioned, it is flat on several sides so that as the rowers square and feather, it clicks into place in the oarlock. And then further connecting that oarlock to the oar is a circular piece of plastic that's going to wrap around the circumference of the oar which people may call the collar of the oar or the button. And that piece is between the rowers body and the oarlock helping to hold that oar in place.
ANNE: The oarlock in the area where the collar or the button are adjacent to one another is - for me - a very special place and a very important place to watch. I spend a lot of time watching the connection of the collar to the oarlock. I sometimes refer to it as a pin. The pin, technically, is the vertical post upon which the oarlock swivels but I will use them interchangeably frequently. And it's very important that the collar maintain its connection to the oarlock … the pin … so that it maintains the pressure through the entire stroke. And one of the areas that I continually watch for is a gap. If I see a gap, then I can make calls to adjust the lateral pressure - reminding the rowers to keep that connection. And it might be that at their finish … which is where I most often see that gap … they might have problems with feathering which means their outside hand will drop down and it will pull it away. You want to make sure that they're pulling straight back - maintaining lateral pressure and not collapsing at the finish. There are other causes for the development of those gaps but often that's what's causing it.
BREANA: I love that cue from the oarlocks. I also use this as an additional location where I can glean information about the square up, the roll-up, and the timing, and the degree the angle to which a person has squared up because again, we have the sleeve of the oar designed intentionally with flat surfaces to enable the blade to be fully squared … fully perpendicular to the water and fully feathered … fully parallel to the water. And so you can glance down a whole side of the boat and watch those oars clicking in the oarlock and get a sense of is somebody over-feathering … somebody's under-feathering … somebody's squaring up too late. Those are the kinds of things you can perceive from that sleeve in the oarlock. And it also - as we mentioned earlier - serves as a good cue for the rower to remind them that they will get a visceral signal in their body and an auditory signal of that click onto that flat side of the sleeve of the oar. So you can watch that and help coach them. “That stroke you were not quite there. That stroke was the click. Did you feel it? Did you hear it?” And you can guide them towards feeling in their bodies what a fully squared and fully feathered blade should feel like.
ANNE: So what we've been doing so far is moving from the outside where we've got the blade, up the shaft to the area of the oar lock. And then let's talk for a little bit about the area from the oarlock in towards the handle. And for the most part during the rowing stroke, that ends up being pretty much a black box area - a mysterious area - that I cannot see as a coxswain except for stern pair. Sometimes I will be able to see their inside hand as the crew is at the catch but not all the time. So what I'm suggesting is that by using insights from the functioning and the behavior of the blades and the shafts and what's happening at the oarlock area, that we are extrapolating what's going on there but we can't really see it directly. So because we can't know exactly what's going on there, a lot of the corrections and suggestions that I make are just suggestions. I'll say, “Try this. Check to see if you might be pressing down.” I'm surmising. I'm proposing possible issues. Now if you have had time in a launch and you're actually able to see what's going on in that area that is out of your view in the coxswain seat, use that information as the most likely suspect or behavior that's causing an activity of the blade. But we can't really see it. We should (again) remember that small movements from the rower’s perspective create more dramatic movements the farther out we go towards the tip of the blade. And we should also remember that the handle is only one of three places that connects the rowers to the boat because you've got the feet … the foot stretchers, the seat, and then you've got the hands on the end of the oar. Having covered the entire length of the oar, let's talk for a moment about modifications that you or your coach might make to certain features of the oars.
BREANA: Sometimes the weather directs us to make modifications to the rowing stroke itself. If there's a really intense headwind, for example, you might encourage the rowers to move that square-up timing a little bit later in the stroke than they typically do to minimize how much time the blade is spending in that fully perpendicular to the water position … squared up acting like a little sail to your shell. There are also modifications that can be made to the oars themselves. So you may be familiar with the product of a CLAM. It was news to me that this is an acronym for the phrase: clip-on load adjusting mechanism. So if you just learned that for the first time, too, you're not alone.
ANNE: Yes. Bonus points for those people who already knew what CLAM stands for. Speaking of CLAMs, I'm going to suggest that everybody gets familiar with how these come on and off the oars when on land because it can be a little tricky and more than once I've had people puzzled and confused and taking a lot of time trying to figure out how to put them on. So my suggestion (again) - try to practice that on land so that everybody's comfortable if they have to suddenly put them into action.
BREANA: This is often another brightly colored piece - many of them are orange … maybe it's another color - and it looks like a little semi-circle akin to the shape of the button or the collar of the oar. And when those clams are on and engaged, instruct the rowers to make sure that the perfectly smooth - the flat side - of that clam is the thing that is pressing against the oarlock. So these are applied between the collar of the oar and the oarlock. And they click onto the sleeve in a certain configuration. The other side is hollow and that side should be against the button or the collar of the oar. Rowers will need some guidance … like Anne said … if this is not something that they do a lot. So you can help them out by just giving them a couple of pointers or better yet, spending a little time on land practicing that CLAM application process.
ANNE: It's funny because CLAMs tend to befuddle a lot of us. But one thing that people don't seem to shy away from is discussions about spacers - and spacers being the small, plastic, clip-on items that can help to adjust the oarlock height. So rather than go into a long discussion about spacers now - just want to quickly mention though that it does affect oarlock height and the oarlock height affects the rowing, of course. So the coach might direct them to move spacers to improve the blade work or the crew just might opt to do that on their own.
BREANA: And let's not leave today's episode without giving just a little bit of love to bow loaders. We, of course, have been very focused on the stern loader context because that is where you can glean the most visual information from the blades. But there are still some things that you can perceive in a bow loader - particularly bow seat. There or when they're at the catch, is going to be in your peripheral vision so you can glean some of those things that we talked about from the moment of blade entry … like timing. Again, you have to now compare that to the auditory or boat feel signals that you get. You can look at the angle of that entry, you can see if they're missing water, you can feel if they're getting backsplash like we said before. But that's one thing that you can perceive. I also - during a practice in a bow loader - will sometimes turn round slightly. Just turn your neck. You don't just sit up in any kind of dramatic way but if you turn your body a little bit and glance at one side or the other, you can also get a visual sense of what everybody on that side is doing in terms of timing … in terms of other things that we have been talking about here. So it is possible to get some insights even in a bow loader.
ANNE: That's also how I work things in a bow loader and trying to watch blade performance and activity. You're not alone in that, Breana. Shall we go now to our Shout Out?
BREANA: Yes. I wanted to - since we're talking about blades - shout out just the most fun blades that I've ever seen. I really enjoy every time that I get to see this team at a Regatta - which is Middlebury College in the United States whose oars have cow print on them. They're black and white cow oars. They're just so fun every time that I get to see them.
ANNE: I smile every time I see them too, Breana. They are distinctive and they make me happy.
BREANA: Yeah. And on a serious note, blade designs are distinct for a reason not just because they're fun and cool to look at, but we can also use them for our benefit as coxswains. I often - as I'm looking at the boats that will be in the same event as me in a head race or a sprint race - if they're very distinct, I might even jot them down in my notes that I'm going to bring with me in the boat on my note card. And that will help me know that I'm in the right place for my race. So it might be bright green oars with this distinctive stripe on them and that is the team in lane 3. I'm in lane 4. If I see that team, I know at least both of us are together and hopefully in the right place. So there's actual, real use for these distinct blade designs as well.
ANNE: And I have my own separate Shout Out. Last year, my crew gave me a series of glow-in-the-dark green and red bracelets to - this year - put around the oars so when we go out and it's very dark, we'll have green and red luminescent signals all the way through our dark rows. I can't wait to try those out. I think that's very fun. So there is so much to it, right? It's all about those oars.
BREANA: It really is. And as coxswains, we have to take advantage of the visual cues that are coming from those oars and use those cues to make calls that are going to unify the crew and improve their rowing. And if we really think about it - except for those instances where there's a really serious tailwind or there's a current, those oars are the only way in which the boat is propelled forward.
ANNE: Yes. And at the end of the day, the fastest boats are the ones that can most effectively use those oars.
BREANA: You may feel overwhelmed at first as you look down the shell at everything that's going on with all of these blades, but over time you will build your ability to see patterns.
ANNE: And if you're in doubt, we suggest you start at the outside as we did. Work from what you can perceive there and move inward. And as usual, we'd love to hear from our listeners about other approaches that they have used to get visual cues from the oar. So please share with us on Discord at CoxPod.com/Discord. And we're happy to report that there are already lots of coxswains sharing their insights there.
BREANA: We look forward to seeing you there. And as we come to the close of this episode, we want to thank you for listening. If you like what we're doing, please consider financially supporting us on Patreon. We're excited to bring you more content soon. And until next time, I'm Breana. And I'm Anne - signing off for now.