Weighing In on The Role of Racing Shells
August 03, 2012
For its seventh consecutive gold medal the American women’s eight muscled 1715.41 pounds down the 2,000-meter Eton Dorney course during the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Combined the nine-woman crew weighed in at a fit yet astonishing 1504 pounds.
Its means of transportation, a yellowish-gold racing shell, was slightly less than one-eight of the total load.
“People argue that the boat makes a big difference, but you see crews from different countries racing different shells and medaling,” said USRowing Association CEO Glenn Merry.
“When it comes down to it, the boat is a very important piece of equipment but it’s the athletes in the boat that have the most control over it.”
Yet there is no denying that as the largest piece of rowing equipment, the 211.41 pound, 57 foot, carbon-fiber boat is an essential part of the “row to London” for every national teams’ eight.
With a variety of shell manufacturers scattered worldwide, rowers have several options of colors and designs.
Many rowers and coaches have their favorites.
The United States women’s eight consistently prefers to transport themselves down the course in the handiwork of Bootswerft Empacher of Eberbach, Germany.
The 2012 London Olympics Games were no exception.
“For this games we have several different manufacturers. Empacher made the women’s eight, Hudson is the manufacturer of the men’s eight and then the rest of the boats are mainly Empacher. One of the singles may be a different manufacturer,” said Merry.
In the months leading up to the Games, the women spent thousands of miles of training in Princeton, N.J., in an shell, nearly identical to the race boat.
A constant in the less than predictable journey of an Olympic crew.
Despite practicing the shell for months, the men’s eight waited until the last minute to decide to race a similar boat made by Hudson Boat Works of London, Ontario, at the Games.
“When it comes down to it, it’s the athletes and coaches that dictate our final choice,” said Merry.
Having chosen a shell built outside of Europe, a fraction of the United States National Team was at the mercy of manufacturing and shipping timelines.
The women’s eight and smaller boats raced by the United States National Team were transported from within Europe.
“Once Mike and the guys decided, we got straight to work on building an Olympic boat like the one they’d been rowing in California,” said Craig McAllister of Hudson.
“It ended up being an all hands on deck project to finish the boat on such a tight deadline in order to keep the timeline for shipping to Europe.”
At past Olympics the responsibility of shipping and transportation of the United States fleet has fallen on various individuals and manufactures.
“In Beijing we shipped boats in a container and then there were a couple manufacture boats that we picked up there,” said Merry.
“This year is a bit different in that all of the manufacturers are taking care of that and we [USRowing] didn’t have to ship anything over.”
Hudson crafted the boat to the specifications of the team and regulations of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron, the committee that oversees international rowing competitions. The fragile cargo was placed on a specially built steel rack inside a shipping container. The location of the shell was monitored at points throughout the transatlantic and subsequent on-land trips to ensure a timely arrival.
Per FISA regulations all eight-person shells raced in international competition must be crafted in segments capable of fitting into standard sized cargo 40 foot long shipping container.
The US men’s national team benefitted from the rule created to prevent nations with driving as a feasible means for boat transportation from having any sort of advantage over international crews.
Upon reaching the destination the two sections were put together and boat construction and slight alterations were completed.
As racing nears an end the next step is to find a new purpose for the boats.
With technology continuously changing, the improved designs of existing boats will make the United States competition shells outdated and undesirable to race in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“When the Olympics are over the leased boats are returned to the manufacturers and they are often sold to as pre-used,” said Merry. “In years past universities will buy a boat, the women’s team uses in the world cup, world championships or Olympics and then that boat gets delivered to the university in the United States.”
For a select few boats the fate is a bit more sentimental.
“The Rusty Wails [the shell used by men’s eight to win gold at the 2004 Olympics] is still in the [United States Training Center-Princeton] boat house and will be used for a few more ceremonial rows this year and then will be retired to the Mystic Seaport [Museum of Americans and the Sea],” said Merry.
In the grand scheme of things the specifics of racing shells are dwarfed by the achievements of their respective Olympic crews. Nonetheless they carry significant weight throughout the row to those accomplishments.
For 2012 Olympic Games news, features and daily quotes from Team USA athletes, coaches, staff and family members, visit http://www.usrowing.org/Pressbox/2012Olympics.aspx.
Monica Worsley, photo by Ed Hewitt, row2k Media