Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ran Laurie – The Man with the Narrow Blade?

Ran Laurie stroking the 1936 Cambridge crew. Jack Wilson in 7-seat and Noel Duckworth coxing.

After my review of Daniel James Brown’s brilliant book The Boys in the Boat (on HTBS on 19 August), he and I have had some fruitful e-mail exchanges about rowing, a sort of continuing ‘discussion’ that, in a way, started when we first met at one of his book signings in Connecticut in June. One of the things that we have chatted about is the stroke’s ‘narrow-blade-question’. In his book, Brown writes,

In the British boat, Ran Laurie dug furiously at the water. He was still relatively fresh. He wanted to do more. But like many British strokes in those days, he was wielding an oar with a smaller, narrower blade than the rest of his crew – the idea being that the stroke’s job was to set the pace, not to power the boat. With the small blade, he avoided the risk of burning himself out and losing his form. (p. 312)

I have a hard time believing that Ran Laurie, one of the great Cambridge strokes before the Second World War, had a smaller, narrower blade than the rest of his crew in an important race like the Olympic final, which I mentioned in my review on 19 August. I also contacted some of my rowing history colleague, who, like me, had never heard of such a thing (this, of course, does not mean that it did not exist!).

William George Ranald ‘Ran’ Mundell Laurie

Then, the other day I received an e-mail from Brown where he told me that, while he is now preparing the paperback edition of The Boys in the Boat which is coming out next year, he had found the source for Ran Laurie’s ‘narrow blade’: Stanley Pocock’s book “Way Enough!” – Recollections of a Life in Rowing (2000). In his autobiography, George Pocock’s son, Stan, writes,

Speaking of different-sized blades and the effect of wind on the load reminds me of an incident at the Berlin Olympics. In those days, it was not uncommon for a coach to reduce the size of the stroke man’s blade to make sure he didn’t row himself out – the rest of the crew could provide the horsepower; the stroke’s job was to set the pace. In the first heat, the British pushed the Americans to a new Olympic record in a following wind. On the day of the Finals there was a head wind blowing, and the Americans, in winning, left the Brits (who had made it through the repêchage) far behind. Afterward, their stroke [Ran Laurie] told Dad [George Pocock] that he had not been able to pull hard enough to row himself out. The lighter water caused by the head wind had rendered his small blade too small. (p. 77)

So there it is, in black and white – well, I’ll be damned!

But, then again, I am still a little skeptical. Although, if it is correct what Stan Pocock writes, it was probably the coach that decided that the British stroke in the eight should row with a narrow blade, not Laurie himself, but I am incredibly surprised that a coach would tell an oarsman on that level that he should save himself and let the rest of the crew deliver the power in the boat. I believe that I have read most of what there is to read about this exceptional oarsman, and Laurie does not seem to have been a man who was cutting corner in his rowing career. He was a very powerful oarsman. About Ran Laurie, his son Hugh writes:

I remembered rowing a pair with my father. I was a teenager in full-time training, six foot three and fourteen stone, he was GP in his mid-fifties who did a spot of gardening, and I had to go like hell to keep the boat straight. The power, and the will, was almost frightening. He simply never paddled light. He would jump off that stretcher as if he meant to break it.
(p. 79 in Battle of the Blues: The Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race from 1829, ed. Christopher Dodd & John Marks; 2004)

Ran Laurie and Jack Wilson after they crossed the finish line as Olympic champions in the pair in 1948 on the Henley course.

It is said that Ran Laurie always believed that if his great friend and rowing partner, Jack Wilson, whom he had rowed with at Cambridge, had been a member of the 1936 British Olympic eight, Great Britain would have taken the gold medal. Unfortunately, Wilson had already left England for his new job in Sudan Political Service when it was time for the Olympic rowing.

After coming home to England from the Berlin Games, Noel Duckworth, the cox of the British eight, wrote a critical account in The Cambridge Review:

The crew which was chosen was at best a patched-up affair. The crew lacked life, dash and determination because it had spent all its enthusiasm and energies previously at Henley. If only a crew had been chosen a good time before the Games and had used Henley as a canter preliminary to hard racing, England would have won. But as it was, against the quasi-professional continental crews this thin, emaciated, time-worn crew stood no chance.
(From Michael Smyth’s Canon Noel Duckworth: An Extraordinary Life; 2012, p. 23)

Duckworth should know these things. He had coxed three winning Cambridge crews against Oxford in the Boat Race, all three years with Ran Laurie (and Jack Wilson) in the boat, in 1934, 1935 and 1936. Laurie also took the 1934 Grand Challenge Cup at Henley in the colours of Leander (with Duckworth as coxswain) by stroking his crew in a new record time in their first heat, overpowering London Rowing Club at 6 min. 45 sec. Next day, Leander knocked off another second by defeating Thames Rowing Club. In the final, Leander had no problems beating Princeton University, winning in 6 min. 45 sec.

Laurie did not row for Leander at the 1935 Henley Regatta. Instead, he stroked his college, Selwyn College, in their attempt to take the Ladies’ Challenge Cup. In the first round, they beat St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, but lost in the second round to Radley College. He also rowed with Jack Wilson in the Silver Goblets that year. They won their first heat, but withdrew after that. Wilson, however, took a cup at Henley that year, as he was in the Pembroke College crew which took the Grand.

In 1936, Laurie was back in a Leander crew again, when he stroked the Leander eight for the Grand. In the crew was also: bow A.D. Kingsford, 2. F.M.G. Stammens, 3. M.P. Lonnon, 4. T.G. Askwith, 5. J.C. Cheery, 6. J.M. Couchman, 7. D.J. Wilson [this is not Jack Wilson!] and cox D.R. Rose. They lost in the final, on 4 July, 1936, to an excellent crew from Ruder Club, Zürich, Switzerland. Despite the British eight's loss at Henley, the crew was picked to represent Great Britain at the Olympic rowing regatta thirty-nine days later, however, with some changes in the crew. Instead of Stammens and Wilson, Desmond Kingsford and Hugh Mason were picked to row in the Olympic eight. (Mason had rowed in the winning Cambridge boat earlier that spring). Duckworth took the cox place instead of Rose for the Olympics.

Here is a short clip of the Cambridge crew training for the 1936 Boat Race.

Back to the ‘narrow-blade-question’ – was this, then, a 1930s English habit? No, it seems not to have been. According to Brown again, it was also used by Harvard. In an unsigned article that Brown has found, and kindly shared with me, in The Harvard Crimson of 15 June, 1929, the Crimson stroke James Lawrence used a narrow blade, as Brown writes in his e-mail, ‘in order to conserve energy’:

The selection of Lawrence has raised high hopes among many of the Crimson followers since his previous record as stroke of the Junior Varsity crew indicates that at least he will be able to display the endurance necessary to handle the raise of heat at the end of the race. While not pulling as strong an oar as other oarsmen who have been previously tried out this season in the stroke seat, the favor of a narrow oar, such as was employed by John Watts '28 last year, may remedy the situation and allow him the reserve necessary for the final effort.

(To read the entire article, please click here.)

I do have a better understanding for a narrower stroke blade in this case, simply because the battle between the varsity crews of Harvard and Yale is a four-mile race (6,437 metres), not 1.9812-metre race – according to the official report of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, 6,500 feet was the ‘regulation length’. This has, as we know, been changed to 2,000-metre which is the distance at the Olympic rowing these days.

I do not think that the last thing has been written here on HTBS about the 1920s and 1930s use of narrow-blade for a crew’s stroke. I welcome more information about this practice, so please contact us if you have any ideas or more sources on this ~ thank you.

Thanks to Daniel James Brown for sharing his find about Ran Laurie's narrow blade and the article in The Harvard Crimson.

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