Boat Speed and Boat Balance

A critical skill set for a coxswain is to be able to figure out when the boat is off balance, to find out what is causing it to be off balance, and to fix the issues. A boat that has poor balance will be a slow boat because:

  • it is difficult for each rower to row properly and apply power effectively;
  • the boat is not in the best position to ‘run’ smoothly down the pond; and or
  • the boat will slow down a little each time it rocks or rolls.

Rowing shells are designed for speed and will move well when they are perfectly centered in the water. This is often called ‘on keel.’ Weight imbalances and movements on one side of center will tip the boat slightly to one side and send it ‘off keel’.

Testing boat balance

The following exercise can be done before every start to check for a set and balanced boat and to help rowers gain awareness of handle heights and posture.

Step one: ensure rowers are sitting properly in the boat.

  1. Stop the boat with all rowers sitting up tall and relaxed in the neutral position with their blades flat on the water. The coxswain should be sitting as well.
  2. Check that the boat is level on the water and that all oar handles are at the same level.
  3. If there is unevenness, the rowers should check their body position and posture and make necessary adjustments.

Step 2: check handle heights with the blade in and out of the water

  1. With rowers in the catch position, drop the blades in the water and hold them loosely to allow them to float. The boat should be balanced. Rowers should lift up slightly to bury the blades without disrupting boat balance.
  2. Rowers should tap down to release the blade from the water. Keep the squared blades just above the water – blade height off the water and handle heights should be identical for all rowers when the boat is balanced.

Rowers are now ready to row.

Body movements and timing

It is difficult to keep the boat from rolling or rocking from side to side and to feel complete balance at all times. If rowers’ movements are different from each other or they are not moving together during the recovery, catch, drive, and or finish, the boat will rock to one side and roll back making it difficult to run smoothly and making it difficult to maintain good rowing technique.

Rhythm and ratio of the rowing stroke and rower concentration and focus are major contributing factors to boat balance and speed.

The following errors related to movement and timing will affect boat balance:

  • Rowers movements are different from each other. E.g., a rower lunges just before the catch.
  • Rowers are not moving as one unit; timing is off. E.g., one or more rowers start to slide before the others; one or more rowers initiates the drive slightly before the others.
  • Rowers have unnecessary movements such moving their heads in the boat.
  • Rowers have excessive movements such as excessive layback, rushing up the slide, or slamming the blade at the catch.

Blade control

Controlling the blade on the drive, finish/release and the recovery is critical for boat balance. Key points:

  1. A rower will send the boat down on the other side if their blade goes deep during the drive (i.e. their hands are too high during the drive)
  2. The boat will dip to one side if the blade is released to early.
  3. The boat will turn if the blade gets stuck in the water at the finish.
  4. A rower will send the boat down on their own side if they ‘sky’ the blade by dipping their shoulders and or hands at the catch (i.e. their hands are too high low)

Rowers should try to keep their hands level at all times. On the recovery, the oar handle and shaft should be balanced in the oarlock and straight out across the boat and water. If the boat feels off balance, hand levels may be different among one or more rowers. Stroke side rowers may have to lower their hands slightly while bow side rowers raise theirs slightly and vice versa.

Diagnosing the problem

It is hard to pinpoint the issues of a boat that rocks and rolls because there are so many contributing factors. Here are a few ways that coxswains can help to diagnose the problem:

  1. Test the boat balance at various times to check sitting positions, posture, and handle heights (see above)
  2. Use pairs rowing to focus on a specific pair paying attention to handle heights, rowing deep and the finish/release
  3. Use drills to work on technique and timing – these can also highlight problems

Rowers should continue to develop individual and team technique and timing so that the boat feels stable and stays ‘on keel.’