Old style vs new style catch, Bernoulli, Schauberger, hull and blade shapes – an interesting e-mail dialogue

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Hi Aram,

I am 56 years old and trained many rowing styles under several different coaches.  But it seems to me in the US there is a generational divide when it comes to teaching the catch.  The older generation teaches that the blade should be backed into the water as opposed  to either un-weigting the arms letting gravity take the blade into the water or gently raising the arms and placing the blade into the water.

The older coaches claim that backing the blade into the water and fractionally pausing before driving the legs directs streams of water around the foil shape of the blade.  While this method may seem counter intuitive proponents say this style takes advantage of Bernoulli’s principle. Thus the blade creates greater lift and tracks through the water with less turbulence and greater acceleration.

The newer generation of coaches want all forces to be symmetrical and as much as possible along the horizontal plan.  The catch is a necessary evil because it is a downward motion and goes against horizontal energy.  The drive and recovery should be even in pace and pressure resulting in less surging but predicable acceleration.

Anyhow I could go on forever about rowing style but I would think that with modern equipment the catch could be studied and analyzed.  Could the style of catch cause greater deceleration on the recovery or greater acceleration on the drive?  Would love to hear your opinion and approach to the catch.

Thank you, Andy

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Hi Andy,

this is simple yet evenly complex to comment on, as we have to take into account a variety of material changes.

In the seventies, the oars, the riggers and the boats were significantly softer, both individually as well as their overall combined effect as a unit.

You might remember the significant bending of the wooden oars during the first part of the drive. As it took a while before a full force connection between the blade and the feet on the foot stretchers could be established, this also meant that pausing with the blade after it has been put in the water did not create as much of a harmful effect on momentary boat speed as it helped to stabilize it in the water. Bernoulli’s principle simply states the consistency of the total given energy of a certain water body at any given time, which makes it understandable what these “old” coaches wanted to achieve: Reducing blade speed (at a seemingly unconventional point of time) must therefore result in more pressure on the blade.

Although I am not sure if the pressure, which certainly develops, actually is one from the intended direction, there is something logical to it which should not (easily) be ignored.

With today’s ultra stiff material, and optimized blade shapes, the same approach would lead to immediate loss of overall speed of the boat.

Side note: My personal approach is that the softness is to be preferred over the “all-carbon-make-it-as-hard-as-possible” hype on new materials. It is simply healthier, and by no means slower.

My conclusio if it all, however, is that there are different things which have a much more significant effect on boat speed than pausing or not pausing the blade at the catch:

# The body position: Are you able to keep your blade under horizontal-only pressure during the drive?

# The vertical blade stability after the catch, and the time it takes you, to connect the blade pressure with the feet pressure almost 1:1

# The overall consistency in boat speed: from Bernoulli’s principle we may derive another phenomenon which is frequently ignored by most coaches and rowers alike: Every change in boat speed during a stroke cycle and during a race, requires a re-acceleration. Every re-acceleration requires the boat to “break” the wall of water which occurs every time we increase speed. Which means: keeping a certain speed is much easier than obtaining it.

Aram

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Hi Aram,

I will try and keep most of the threads of this conversation focused around the catch but I will drift into the realm of equipment as well.

The “pause” for proponents of the old style is difficult to define.  Some coaches would say that if it exists in reality it would be less than 1/10th of a second.  I believe others would define it as more of a momentary mental check list before launching the drive.  They might say, “Be sure you feel the bottom of the feet are connected to the foot board.” The blade should be properly buried and positioned and gripping the water.”  etc.

While I don’t adhere to any one style of rowing the pause in multi person boats appears to be the strength of the older style.  The timing of the leg drive and lay back seems to be better synchronized.  Whether this better timing during the drive phase is biomechanical or the result of mental preparation I’m not sure.

The weakness of of the old style catch in multi person boats would be the backing in motion.  Synchronizing the catch is difficult.  It takes a lot of practice to get folks to not lunge before the catch and to get small back splashes.  But most proponents of the style will tell you the backing motion is the most important component.  A popular explanation often used as to why the backing motion is important is the example of a fish swimming up stream encountering a water fall.   Before the fish leaps up the fall it will often rest before making the leap.  The fish will position itself nearly perpendicular to the current briefly remaining motionless and unaffected by the current.  Once the current takes hold of the fish and starts to push it back it will flick its tail and reposition its other body side nearly perpendicular to the current.  Supposedly the fish is using its foil shape to redirect streams of current to support its body against the current.

The entire thread of the fish and the stream and communicating with someone in Austria makes me want to summon the spirit of the great Austrian woodsman and natural scientist Viktor Shauberger.  He would no doubt connect vortices to rowing and how the oar creates vortices and perhaps what blade shape would be best to create vortices.

I learned to row in wooden boats with wooden oars. This might explain my preference for smaller blade shapes. I find it interesting that boat hull shapes used to be infinitely variable and oar shapes uniform.  Composites have reversed this dynamic, hulls, especially the bows, seem to be very similar and oar blades are becoming ever more variable in shape.  I remember the old macon oars that would bend and snap back to the straight position just before the release.   Rowing was more difficult. Technical rowers often made boats over fit strong athletes.  But rowing was more gentle on the body.  Recently I migrated from stiff shaft oars with large flat surfaces to soft shaft oars with small blades and the spline on the front.  The composite soft shafts bend similarly to the wooden oars but the spring energy or snap back response is much quicker.  I believe the spline in the front allows oars to track through the water in a more linear pattern and are less effected by turbulence.  The trade off is the blades are less buoyant and requires more finesse to master.

I’m not a coach and I hope my explanation of the old style catch did not get overly confusing.  The only published  writings that  I know of the old style is from Gordon Hamilton in his article Rowing in a Nutshell.  I will provide a link that has excerpts of his writing on the catch, (check section 3 in rowing in a nutshell). (I have not been to the Florida Rowing Center or am a proponent of the center but it is the only sight that has his Rowing in a Nutshell) http://www.floridarowingcenter.com/HamiltonArticles

Thank you for your responses I have been trying your methods on the erg and look forward to trying them on the water.  Your explanation about lactate training has made the complex easily understandable.

All the Best,

Andy

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Hi Andy,

it is interesting that you bring up Schauberger. I had the impression that he is hardly known.
As a matter of fact, some of his insights helped me to broaden my horizon of thinking, some years ago:
Victor Schauberger said that in nature, no matter what we look at, things work precisely the opposite way around compared to how they actually appear to work.
So a fish, for exmpale, doesn’t swim, it is pulled by the water.
Personally, I assume that the fish uses similar laws of physics as an airplane does with its wings. By “increasing” the water density behind its fins, the fish creates a local imbalance of water body in front of its fins, and therefore in front of its body. In other ways, the fish creates a local forward current and is therefore “pulled” forward by the water which surrounds it.

I use Schauberger’s insights when it comes to explaining the necessity of keeping the boat speed as constant as possible throughout a full stroke cycle, as we talked about earlier in our mail conversation.

I do have the impression that the current generations of coaches, especially in colleges, emphasize the “power” over efficiency, as harmful as this may be for an athlete’s health, the way it is done now in many programs.
This might be caused by the NCAA rules, which limit water time.
Athletes are “burned” while they are at college, as there is very little time for strategic build-up.

Naturally, athletes spend ages on standard ergs which do not require any rowing skills whatsoever.
It will take us at least a decade to establish the biorower (www.biorower.com) with its natural rowing approach there.
Changing the old ways often does.

Additionally, with the material change towards hard and stiff rowing gear (which in my opinion is harmful for any human body), the approach in technique had to be adapted likewise.

I have the impression, however, that the change in approach is more a result of the emphasize on power than the result of changing rowing gear.
It is an interesting aspect you have brought up about the endless varieties in hull shapes and, recently, in blade shapes.

When I started to work intensively with applied biomechanics in rowing, and the necessary training to achieve the required physique and technique to move the boat as efficiently as possible, more than 16 years ago , I understood that blade shapes and hull shapes have by no means the same effect on boat speed as efficient rowing technique.

At various world cup races, where I did expositions with the Biorower, there came huge guys, full of muscles, rowing quads and double sculls and other boats. When I saw their force curves and stroke lengths, it was obvious that they did not move the boat efficiently, and even worse, their way to apply force in the boat was counterproductive.

Instead of making the boat faster together, their force curves were of opposite styles. This was not the exception, this was the rule.

Force curves are not everything, as “not-harming-the-boat-speed” is almost equally important. Then there is a second acceleration phase during the recovery, which most people only use for “sliding forward”. Yet, they do help me to understand what is going on, as force curves always relate to the recovery.

When I look at most athletes’ training plans, I find more answers to their lack of boat speed during a full race, and to their susceptibility to injuries and sickness.

Most people train either too low or too high. With cross fit trend, mostly too high with a basically inexistent technique.
Sarcasm mode turned on: This is good for the physical rehab industry. Sarcasm mode turned off.

To sum it up: When it comes to boat speed, there are plenty of variables which count much more, both individually as well as combined, than hull shapes and blade shapes.

Some of today’s modern hull shapes are counterproductive, but they look new and “fast”.

The effect on the believe systems of these athletes who row with such boats usually sets more energy to row fast free, than the inefficient hull shape cost in terms of boat speed due to larger hull surface covered by water.

I hope that my thoughts sound logical to you. Each of your and my ideas probably should be explained in a more detailed way, but as we seem to be on equal opinion-ground, I think we understand each other well enough.

Best regards,

Aram

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