Marc Mandel, the head coach of Gonzaga College High School (the D.C. schoolboy varsity eight that performed so well at the 2015 Royal Henley Regatta) must get credit for the spread of “plop.”
Gonzaga charmed the Brits with their precise bladework. Though they did not win their event, they had the Oxford–Cambridge old blues brigade talking, and asking, “what IS that American school – it a college or is it a high school?”
What the heavies saw was the plop.
Plop is the ability to make the oar enter the water at the catch so quickly that the loom of the oar or the joint actually slaps the water, making a distinctive noise. This is the plop.
The why of the plop goes right back to the hydrodynamics of rowing.
Ideally, a crew would place the oar in the water, and ideally the oar would be designed in such a way that there would be no slip, and the rower would lever the boat past the oar. This would be close to 100 percent rowing efficiency.
But reality is not like that; there is slip and slip is energy wasted – it shows in swirling water and a large puddle. The closer we can get to theoretical efficiency, the better, thus the plop.
Most rowers don’t make the plop. Some row it in, some slam it in, and some simply drift it in without force or energy. What Mandel is trying to teach is a method of entering the water so that the rest of the most important thing in rowing – the drive – can occur correctly and efficiently.
After all, that is what plop is for, not simply the distinction of the sound or the “pretty” action of the blade. For when you have plop you are in position to perform the rest of the drive pretty well. And the rest of the drive – a subject that is seldom dissected or mentioned, is what wins races.
Another analytical coach, John Riley of Penn AC in Philadelphia (and other clubs,) approaches it this way: “In the middle,” he’s been heard to shout. John refers to the almost magic nano-second when all three sets of large muscles – the back set, the legs, and the arms and shoulder set are all working together, while the oar passes through 90 degrees to the rigger and the boat. That’s where the real work of moving the boat should be done because it’s where the rower is most efficient with his lever.
Without the plop, the “middle” is almost impossible to achieve.
We know that it takes a dozen different words or images to communicate an idea in rowing; so here’s another way to think about the plop. It’s called “perfect splash.” This splash happens when the blade enters quickly enough to cause water to jerk upwards on both sides of the blade. It is highly visible and a guarantee that something close to plop has been achieved. The more important visual of perfect splash is the water rising on the back of the blade, commonly called “backsplash,” which is the logical result of the boat’s forward speed and the blade entering vertically – straight down into the water.
The reason it’s hard to achieve “splash” and plop is that there is a lot going on at the same instant. The slide is fast approaching its muscular limit, when the tendons and muscles can compress no farther (“butt to heel” as coxes put it), and the oar is in motion forward also, and the squaring motion is almost finished as well (in my mind should already be finished) and the back and shoulders are steady, ready for the slight lift of the wrists and forearms to make the catch. No wonder we miss making it. Eight people have to make it together.
LAST WORDS ON PLOP
It is not a big motion, but a simple lift of the forearm and wrist. The connection must be quick but definite. The blade must be covered completely – no paint showing. The feeling is almost as if you were lightly tossing a ball upward. Those of us who are known as “hammers” will have more difficulty. Women generally do it better. Watch the videos of the great ones on You Tube –“Drew Ginn rowing,” “Heather and Helen British pair” and others.
Or come down to the Anacostia Community Boathouse in Washington, D.C. any afternoon about 3:30 weekdays and watch the Gonzaga boys with Marc Mandel do it.
Columnist Duncan Spencer, 74, is a former newspaper reporter with The Hill; he has rowed at Yale University, Oxford University, and Capital Rowing Club. He is a former US team member, a Henley gold medalist, multiple Head of the Charles winner and an incurable rowing addict. His son Joe can be seen rowing 3 seat in the Penn AC image accompanying this article.