In 1929, London Rowing Club participated in a “revolutionary experiment” called syncopated rowing, designed to minimize the negative effect check can have on the run of the boat by allowing for better balance and consistent speed. Also known as “phase-shift” rowing, this method which first appeared in 1925 asks the rowers to forget everything they’ve learned about rowing in perfect synchronization, and has each pair in an eight cover one-quarter of the stroke out of synch. If done correctly, four rowers would always have their blades in the water while the other four would be on the recovery.
A great article from 2007 in Rowing News explains the benefits:
“First some physics: It takes more energy to move a boat with varying velocity than if you were to keep it at a constant clip – even when both are traveling at the same speed. Two factors influence fluctuations in velocity: rowers’ longitudinal movement in the boat, and the intermittent power application between the drive and recovery phases of the stroke. Over the course of a race, a boat traveling at a constant speed will require 2.5 percent less energy than one that covers the distance with normal speed variations. Over 2,000 meters this translates to a 10-second savings.”
But phase-shift rowing also poses challenges. We’ve all been in a boat when synchronization fails and a teammate kidney punches you because they’re at the catch while you’re at the finish. To avoid this, more space is needed between pairs. The answer: longer boats. But longer boats means a larger wetted surface and an increase in drag.
In 1928, trials were apparently held in eight oar boats using the syncopated style, which appalled rowing experts who considered the method of propulsion “so opposed to the rudiments of ‘orthodox’ rowing as to be entirely unsatisfactory.”
But the matter was revived four years later as covered by The Sydney Morning Herald in an article under the heading “Syncopated Rowing. Successful Trials.” Written by the paper’s dedicated rowing reporter, it highlighted local “rowing men” who were “keenly interested in the scheme to perfect syncopated crews.” Included in this group were W. Sambell and C. Luxton of Melbourne, rowing at Oxford, who had been members of the English crew that competed at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Despite the style being heralded by such successful rowers, it was described as “dreadfully ugly … the main principle being that the boat would be kept running.”
The Herald article explained the rowing style this way:
“The theory is based on the principal of a mechanical engine, because, with a six cylinder engine, the six piston rods drive at different points on the crankshaft, giving smoother running than if all six hit at the same point. Whether the idea can be applied to the human frame is doubtful …
In previous tests most success was achieved on smooth water, but when conducted on rough water the system failed, the timing going to pieces.”
There is at least one more instance of a crew flirting with phase-shift rowing: at both the 1981 and 1982 World Championships, the Soviet national team was seen rowing a coxed four with the coxswain seated between the pairs. Despite this odd setup, no one actually saw them using the syncopated technique.
Apparently the challenges proved too much for crews to overcome, with the traditional stroke timing remaining in place for crews around the world to this day. As noted in the 1932 Herald article: “Most coaches agree that it is difficult enough to train men rowing together, without asking them to gauge their own time at a given period after the main in front.”
Read more about syncopated rowing:
“Out of sync, out of mind? Syncopated rowing promises better balance and more consistent speed, so why aren’t be all rowing in pairs?” Rowing News, May 2007.
“Syncopated Rowing. Successful Trials.” The Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 19, 1932.