Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Jazz Rowing'

Among the top five rowing oddities is ‘syncopated rowing’, or, as it was also called after the popular music tune of that day, ‘jazz rowing’. What it meant was that, in an eight, the oarsmen were divided up in four pairs, so that their stroke cycle would be in shifts, meaning there would always be 2 oars in the water at all times.

However, syncopated rowing was probably first tried out by the former professional rower, later coach and 'rowing appliance manufacturer', Michael Davis around the year 1880.

Dr. Gilbert C. Bourne did not have any high thoughts of syncopated rowing in his book A Textbook of Oarsmanship, which was published in 1925. He writes, “Mathematicians frequently assure me that, if only we could rig out and train a crew that one pair of oars was always at work, the boat would go much faster. An oarsman can only plead his experience in mitigation of his ignorance of mathematics and say politely that he is quite sure it would not.”

Of course, it would need a specially built boat with more space, especially in the middle of the craft to allow the different pairs more room to move back and forth without smacking their oar looms in the back of the fellow seated in front of them. In autumn 1929, this technique was actually tried out on the Thames by a crew of the London RC, trained and lead by F.E. Hellyer.

One newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, had a correspondent present, who wrote on 3 October “The crew starts together as usual till the boat is moving. Then stroke and No. 7 slide a shade ahead of the next pair, and so on down the boat. Consequently there is always a pair of oars in the water. It is dreadfully ugly.”

To view an almost 2 min. newsreel of these trials, please click here.

It was also tried out with the coxswain steering from the middle of the shell, and in Chris Dodd’s eminent book about the London RC, Water Boiling Aft (2006), there is a funny photograph of coxswain Edwin Phelps seated in the centre of an eight, looking terribly baffled. There were also some trials made at Cambridge in the 1930s.

In Dodd’s The Story of World Rowing (1992) the author notes that syncopated rowing has been tried out in the late 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s by the Russians (aka Soviets). Some Soviet women crews competed in fours with the coxswain in the centre of the shell at the World Championships and the Olympics, even taking medals in these boats. It was, however, concluded, both in the 1930s and 1980s, that there was no actual speed advantage to rowing this way.

Dr. Volker Nolte had an article about syncopated rowing published in Rowing News in May 2007, and to read the on-line article, click here.

Browsing around on the web, I actually found a patent for ‘stroke cycle phase shift rowing’ on ‘free patent online’ with the filing date 3 March 2003, and publication date 19 April 2005.

This entry shows two things: nothing is new under the rowing sun; and we never learn...

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