May Masters Feature
May 02, 2012
Whenever we run a sculling clinic, we begin with two basic tenets – horizontal and relaxation. Rowing is a horizontal sport – the water is flat – and we want to do everything we can to apply the pressure horizontally. Up and down is not going to help us move the boat forward. In terms of relaxation, we want to row as efficiently as possible, which means we need to learn to relax all the muscles that aren’t helping the boat move forward. I believe that to master these two tenets, we need to start with the hands – how do they grip the oar, how do they feather the blade, how do they square the blade and how do they work to help balance the boat.
First the proper grip. When the blade is square, the wrist needs to be flat, the entire finger is in contact with the oar but very little of the hand. Think of the grip as a hook and hold on loosely, no death grips! The thumb should rest lightly on the end of the oar, but don’t use it to grip. We use all Concept II oars with small handles at Calm Waters. The handle is then very similar in size to a pull-up bar or a weight bar and easy to hang onto. (They don’t make different size pull-up bars or weight bars for different size hands, at least not that I’m aware of). Try to hold on to the oar as if you were hanging from a pull-up bar, except you’re holding on horizontally and not vertically. Or think of it as the same grip you would use for doing a dead lift or high pull, but without using the thumb.
When feathering the oar, try not to make it a wrist motion. Back when oars were made of wood and the sleeves were leather, it took a lot more effort to feather the oar and it was difficult to know whether the oars were squared or feathered or somewhere in between. Now with the hard plastic sleeves, the blade almost feathers itself and then tells you when it’s in the right position. It takes very little effort to maneuver the oar, but if you grip too tightly, you will find it’s almost impossible not to use a lot of wrist. So relax the grip. When you come to the finish, before you feather, stop pulling and let the oar coast for a fraction of a second. This should help loosen your grip if it’s not already. Using the thumb, gently push away on the oar while using the fingers to help roll the oar away from the body. The proximal phalange of your fingers (the top third of your finger, where the finger meets the hand) should go from being at approximately a 45-degree angle to being in line with the back of your hand or approximately at zero degrees. It’s a hard thing to teach and a hard practice to learn once you’ve gotten used to relying on your wrist. Practice with a butter knife and roll the “oar” out with your fingers. We want the feather to be a motion away from the body, not a motion towards it or, in other words, we want the release to be the beginning of the recovery and not the end of the drive. One drill I find helpful for practicing this movement is to isolate the release. Sit at the finish with the blades squared and buried and work on “feathering away.” Move the hands as if they’re going down a slide, moving both down and away at the same time.
When squaring the oar, again, it should take very little effort. A looser hold on the oar will make it easier to roll the oar up and easier to feel when it’s fully squared. Basically, one should use the outside heel of the hand as well as the pinkie, ring finger and middle finger to square the oar. First, make sure your hands are at the correct angle to the oar. In sculling, when sitting at the finish, the elbow, wrist and hand should be at a 90-degree angle to the oar (and parallel to the water) but at the catch, this angle will be significantly different, more like 40 to 45 degrees. In sweep, the inside hand is very similar to the sculling hand and that’s the only one that should be feathering and squaring the oar. The hand should be allowed to pivot on the oar during the recovery, changing the angle from 90 degrees at the finish to 40 to 45 degrees at the catch. Your thumb should have very little to do at the catch, instead a little squeeze with the three outside fingers and the heel of the hand will roll the oar until it gets squared. The wrist bone should roll up, as opposed to the hand rolling down. If you roll too hard or too fast, it’s quite easy to go beyond square so keep the roll-up gentle and somewhat gradual and the sleeve will fall into place.
In terms of balancing the boat, we’d like to have the hands do the majority of the work. The knees should try to stay balanced and right over the keel, as should the body (in sculling). Initially, we tell people to keep the oar on the water, preferring them to be relaxed and to get used to the hands moving horizontally away from the body. Gradually though, we can use subtle downward pressure of the hands on the oar handles to start to bring the oars off the water. Don’t go too far though – if we keep the blade close to the water, we won’t fall far if the boat gets unbalanced. Better to have the blade touch slightly than lurch way down to port or starboard because one hand is on the gunwale and the other is a foot off. Loose grip and light hands will help lead to smooth, horizontal and relaxed rowing!
Charlotte Hollings and her husband, John Dunn have spent more than 70 years immersed in the sport of rowing. Both have rowed on the U.S. National Team, winning several international medals. Charlotte’s coaching career has taken her west to Stanford University before heading back east to Boston University and then Cornell University. John remained close to home, coaching at his alma mater of Cornell University for 18 years, first as the frosh lightweight coach, then varsity lightweight and finally varsity women. In 2001, Hollings and Dunn started the sculling camp Calm Waters Rowing in Lancaster, Va. For more information, visit www.calmwatersrowing.com.