Balance in rowing is created by two things: your body and the oars or sculls.
So if your boat is off-balance, first thing to check is that everyone is sitting correctly in the boat. For sculling, sit true in the center of the boat – even weight on both butt cheeks and both feet squarely in the shoes. For sweep rowing, at the catch, have even weight on both butt cheeks (YES this is correct – do not lift one side of your butt off the seat EVER), even weight on both feet squarely in the shoes. Only your torso rotates in rowing sweep.
The second cause of balance problems are your hands holding the oars. There is a lot of mass in an oar and so even a small inaccuracy in handle heights can affect the balance of the boat. I recommend you do the exercise Testing and Proving that the Oars Balance the Boat. This illustrates to the crew that your hands’ actions make the boat dip to one side. Do it for both sweep and sculling crews.
How to learn correct oar hand heights
So having identified the possible cause of your balance problems, here are two drills which can help to teach the crew how to adjust their handle heights to the correct place. Learning a new handle height takes many hours and repetitions of practice.
Exercise: Handle heights at the catch and finish
This is a static exercise to teach the crew where the oar handle height should be at each end of the stroke. Do it while the boat is stationary at the start of the outing and when you turn the boat around.
Get the crew to roll up to the catch (if novices, do this half the crew at one time). Sit at the frontstops position with oars squared and buried under the water.
Look at the oar blade – is it fully under the water surface? Get the crew to notice how high up the back of the athlete in front of them their hands are. You can also get them to see where the oar handle is in relation to the front stay of the rigger and the gunwale. This helps them to have a visual marker for the correct handle height and position/angle.
Now roll to the finish, sit in the finish position with the blade squared and buried under the water.
Look at the blade – is it fully under the water surface? Get the crew to notice how high up their chest their own hands are – “touching their shirt” is a phrase I use. This is the place they need to touch every finish of every stroke.
Remember that it’s worth doing this exercise in every new boat and crew combination you practice. Different rigs and athlete weights affect oar handle heights.
Exercise: Correct handle heights through the stroke
Having established two fixed points in the rowing stroke where the boat is balanced level and the crew knows how to see that their handles are at the correct heights, let’s work on teaching them the correct heights through the drive and recovery phases of the stroke.
Recovery phase balance drill
Row full length strokes but on the recovery, run the oar blades along the surface of the water.
Feather out the finish, then immediately raise your hands so the flat of the blade touches the water.
Leave the blade on the water’s surface until just before the catch, when you can square the blade and take the catch.
Row a normal power phase of the stroke.
At the finish, feather and run the blade along the surface.
This drill teaches the crew how to row a balanced recovery. If everyone’s blade is on the water’s surface, they are more likely to all be holding their oars at the same height.
When they can do this correctly, move onto the next part of the drill.
At the finish get everyone to feather their blade out of the water while only tapping down the handle 1 cm.
Leave the blade 1 cm above the surface of the water until just before the catch, when you can square the blade and take the catch.
Row a normal power phase of the stroke.
At the finish, tap down 1 cm and feather. Row like this for 20 strokes.
Now progress to a 2 cm tap down. Repeat steps 1-4 above with 2 cm above the water on the recovery.
Advise the crew to “Be Careful” with their oar handles – a 1 cm tap down on the handle equates to around 2.5 cm at the blade tip. (Because the outboard is approximately 2.5 times the inboard length around the swivel).
If they cannot keep the balance with 1 cm tap down – go back to running the oar along the surface, re-establish the level balance on the recovery and then introduce the 1 cm tap down again.
Progress to 3 cm and 4 cm tap downs.
Remember, at any stage if the crew finds the balance isn’t coming, go back one step so the blades are closer to the water surface and they can get the balance back before adding greater depth tap down.
This drill helps the crew to understand the amount of control they exert on the balance of the boat with accurate hand movements at the point of extraction at the finish.
Make it more challenging by increasing the pressure while doing the drill.
Power phase balance drill
This drill helps the crew to understand how high to carry their oar handles during the power phase.
Row normally at half pressure or more.
Move to rowing with only half the blade under the water during the power phase.
Do this for 20 strokes.
Return to normal rowing
The athletes have to check both the blade depth under the water and also adjust their handle heights in order to do this drill. It helps them to appreciate the exact amount to raise the handle at the catch to cover ONLY the blade with water (not the shaft).
When the blades are in the water, and the handles are at the correct height, and the blades at the correct depth, the boat should sit level. If it doesn’t, check your rigging or whether the boat is warped.
This article is one in a series posted with the permission of Rowperfect UK, where it first appeared.