R. C. (Rudolf Chambers) Lehmann.

The complete oarsman online

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beating the air. Let your hands, therefore, keep reaching
out and upward to the last moment. You are now ready for
the beginning.

But before I actually tackle the object of my quest, with
which we are now face to face, I must enter upon one more


The hold of the hands on the oar must be, not a vice-like
compression, but a light firm finger-grasp, the thumbs being
underneath. The little finger of the outside hand circles, so
far as it can, the end of the handle. One hand's breadth of
space intervenes between the two hands. The outside hand,
in which the oar was permitted to turn slightly on the feather,
has long since readjusted its hold on the oar. The hold of
the inside hand has never varied or relaxed. At the limit of
the forward reach the outside wrist must be flat, i.e. the line
from knuckles to shoulder must be a straight one. The
inside wrist, however, must be elevated, and that for two

(i) The arc traversed by the inside hand from the
recovery to the limit of extension is shorter than that
traversed by the outside hand. Since the two arms are
presumably of the same length, and since it is impossible to
lengthen the outside one, it results that the inside one must
in some way be slightly shortened. This can be done either
by bending the elbow or by so arranging the hold that the
wrist shall be slightly elevated. I have shown [H (2)] why
the elbow must not be bent. The wrist must, therefore,
be elevated. The accompanying diagram will make my
meaning quite plain. I do not pretend, by the way, that it is
drawn to scale

A is the rowlock. ABC is the line of the oar at the
finish. B is the position of inside hand, C the position of out-
side hand at the finish. D is the position of inside hand at

/ I






beginning, E the position of outside hand at beginning. The
dotted line BD represents the line of movement of the inside
hand ; the dotted line CE that of the outside hand.

(2) The second reason for this wrist elevation is to be

found in the increased leverage which is thus obtained for
feathering the oar.

This elevation is in practice accomplished by allowing the
hold of the inside hand to be taken further round the oar.
When the hand is in this position the line of the handle runs
diagonally across the palm from the pad at the outside corner
to the pad at the root of the first finger.


We have wandered through so many byways of discussion
and explanation since we started on the consideration of the
stroke that I may be pardoned for setting out again the
rationale of the beginning as English oarsmen understand
it. Its object, briefly, is to apply power promptly to the pro-
pulsion of the boat, and to apply it at a point which will
render its duration in the water as long as possible. To
prepare for t this we have gone .through a complicated and
difficult series of movements. We have been smart and
quick and springy at the points where it was essential that
no time should be wasted ; we have been slow and steady
and well balanced where it was necessary and possible to
rest ourselves with a view to the coming effort. Our bodies
are now swung well forward, our arms are extended, our
hands are resting lightly on the handle ; our buttons are firm


against the rowing pins, and our blades, duly in position, are
, poised just clear of the water's surface. Our slides are at
their front stops ; our feet, our knees, and all the other parts
of us are in the positions that have been described. But the
task of making the desired effort still remains. How is it to
be done ?

(1) Still maintaining your hold of the oar, let the weight-
pressure of your hands on the handle be still further decreased.
The handle will rise and the blade will sink into the water.
This movement may be said to be performed' almost as part
of the body-swinging and arm-extending movement already
described. In effect, therefore, the hands move, not in a
perfectly straight line from down to up, but as if they were
circling a cylinder. When they reach the top of the cylinder,
as it were, the blade is fully immersed. Under no conditions
must the hands be flung violently upwards. If this is done
the beginning will be chopped instead of gripped, the blade
will be plunged down too deeply, and all the necessary
concentration of power will be lost. The grip of the blade on
the water must be square. It is a fatal fault to " slice " in
with the top of the blade inclined towards the bows. The
whole of the blade must be covered at once.

(2) As the blade thus sinks swiftly into the water the
whole body must, without the waste of a fraction of a second,
be hurled back, so that its weight may be applied to pro-
pulsion with ;; lightning celerity. The effect should be that
of the swift uncoiling of a steel spring. Again, as in the
forward swing, but now with tremendous rapidity and impulse,
the body moves in a solid column from the hips. This
impulse is helped by a springy pressure of the balls of the
feet against the stretcher. The greater strain here will
naturally fall upon the outside hand, which must maintain
an unrelaxing grip of the oar. The arms must remain
perfectly straight, for their chief function is to transmit the
weight-power of the body to the oar. The head must go
back with the body. It must not be jerked back indepen-
dently. The beginning has now been accomplished.







Immediately after the body has thus started on its back-
ward journey the slide must begin to move. The two
movements of body and slide take place in so swift a suc-
cession, and occupy so small a fraction of time, that it is
extremely difficult to disentangle them even for the purpose of
instruction on paper. The experienced oarsman is conscious
of his body-beginning, but he is quite unconscious of the
start of his slide. The coach on the launch or the bank
knows well enough when the slide begins too soon or too
late, but when the two movements are correctly performed
he cannot separate them with his eye. He knows, however,
that when he has strongly and repeatedly impressed upon his
pupils the necessity of not driving the slide away too soon
(a more usual fault than that of keeping the slide too late),
and of letting it follow the impulse of the body, he will
eventually secure a combination which will satisfy him as
being the proper one. Most professional scullers drive their
slides away before their bodies have a chance of getting to
work. They have learnt their sculling by the light of nature,
and the natural impulse of untaught and unpractised men is
to ease the concentration of the forward position by letting
the slide drift away. The consequence is that, having lost
the first and necessary moment for the use of their bodies,
they never get a chance of using them subsequently. They
are thus compelled to throw on the arms a strain which these
are not fitted to bear. Such was not the method of the late
Edward Hanlan, the greatest professional sculler I have ever
seen. His sculling was distinguished by extraordinary length
and power, qualities which he secured, not merely by a re-
markable suppleness, but by the perfect combination of body
and legs for his work in the water. He seized his beginning
decisively and instantly by the prompt application of body-
weight. His body moved first ; his slide followed so quickly
that the movements were blent into one but the body always
kept its advance. His enormous leg-power, splendidly used,



helped him out with his stroke and enabled him to maintain
its great power to the finish of it. I watched his sculling
carefully more than twenty-five years ago, and have never
forgotten the lessons I learnt from it. Mr. F. S. Kelly, too,
amongst amateurs of the present day, shows by his example
that the due use of the body is important even to scullers.
His style puts to shame the scramblers and shufflers. It has
enabled him to beat all sculling records over the Henley
course, and even to defeat by five seconds the best time ever
accomplished by a pair-oar !

The fault of using nearly the whole of the body-swing
without the help of leg-power is never inculcated now, for
there is a universal agreement in regard to the principles of
the matter. It has, however, in times past, had its advocates
and exponents, chiefly, I think, at Oxford. The late Mr.
D. H. McLean, in his luminous and concise article on Rowing
in the Encyclopedia of Sport, refers to the Oxford crew of
1878. This crew was composed of first-rate material, and
gave a splendid exhibition of power, body-form, uniformity
and pace, but its sliding was, according to our existing ideas,
absolutely unorthodox. Mr. McLean may have seen the
crew as a small boy at Eton, for they practised there
occasionally if my memory serves me. I saw them during
their practice at Putney, and I remember being particularly
struck by one feature of their rowing. Though they used
their bodies at the beginning with immense dash and gusto,
they used their legs scarcely at all. As they finished their
stroke their knees were bent, and in this position they showed
above the sax-boards of the boat. This meant that they
relied practically entirely on their bodies, and treated the
slide as a mere incident of the stroke, and an unimportant
one at that. As they started from this as a principle, they
were doubtless wise in not attempting to use their legs to any
great extent. Had they done so they would inevitably have
split their waterwork up into two separate parts, and their
uniformity would have suffered. Some little time after this,
as a result of four successive defeats at the hands of Cambridge,


Oxford men recognised the true doctrine, and have ever since
been among its most brilliant exponents. In regard to this
point of rowing style we are all now in agreement. We desire
that the body-impulse should precede very slightly the action
of the slide. Immediately thereupon the power of the legs
must be brought into play, and, as the impulse of the body
decreases, the leg-power, thrusting back the slide, should
develop in aid of the body.* In this way a uniform power
will be maintained on the blade. The leg-power, therefore,
must not be spent in a sudden shoot, but must be distributed
through the whole of the rest of the stroke. It must be
remembered that all this power of bodies and legs is to take
effect through the blade in the water and to be by the blade
transmitted to the point of leverage, the rowing .pin. The
pressure of the blade against the water must be continitous
and unwavering, and all the oarsman's movements must be so
ordered as first to apply and then to maintain it throughout
the stroke.


While this has been going on the arms have been perfectly
straight, the hands keeping a sufficient pressure on the handle
to prevent the undue immersion of the blade. As the body
in its swing back passes beyond the perpendicular the arms
must begin to bend for the finish. A small amount of body-
swing and a few inches of slide still remain to be completed,
and during this completion the hands are to be rowed home
to the chest. No doubt it is right to tell a novice who is apt
to do all his work with his arms that the arms are mere
connecting-rods, and that when they bend he must not pull
with them. Thus you teach him to rely on his body and not

* I believe it to be possible (I have certainly found it so myself, and have seen
others do it with good results) to renew the body-swing when about two-thirds of
the stroke in the water have been rowed. At this point an experienced oarsman,
finding the application of his weight-power to be diminishing, can put in an
extra heave, so to speak, and help out the finish of the stroke. No mere novice,
however, should attempt this.


to lug or " hoick " with his arms. But the experienced oars-
man realises that after the arms are bent there is still a strain
upon them which they have to overcome. Swing and slide
are continuing : in other words, body-power and leg-power
have still to be applied to the blade. If the arms are allowed
to become perfectly slack there is no mechanism of trans-
mission, and the pace of the boat will overtake the power of
the blade. Hence come dirty feathers, and even crabs. The
essence of the matter is that the power on the blade should
be continuous and unwavering from the beginning to the

The elbows must not bend outwards. They are to come
swinging home in a straight line so as to pass the ribs. We
have now come to the finish of the stroke.


As the elbows bend and pass the ribs the shoulders are to
be freely rowed back so as to disclose the chest. On no account
must they jut up.


While the elbows are bending and the shoulders are being
rowed back, the legs are squeezing the last ounce of power
out of the slide until the knees are firmly depressed. The
legs are thus braced into a position which they have to
maintain until the recovery has been completed and the
swing forward has started.


The ordinary instruction is " row the elbows close past the
sides at the finish, especially the outside elbow." The inside
elbow, of course, must be kept close, but with regard to the
outside elbow I propose to commit myself to what some
oarsmen may regard as a heresy. Very careful and prolonged
observation has convinced me that the instruction I have






quoted is not quite correct. With the leverage of oars now
in general use for racing craft, the man who insists on passing
his outside elbow very close to his side (and on retaining a
rigid grip on the oar-handle with his outside hand during the
whole of the finish and recovery) will almost inevitably
cramp his freedom and lose real power over his oar. The
hideous contortion of the jaggedly protruding elbow must, of
course, be avoided, but I advise the oarsman not to attempt
to cramp himself. Let him swing his elbow straight back,
clear of his ribs by some three inches, with the wrist flat.
At the same time, while the oar is coming home to the chest
for the last three or four inches, let him slightly alter the
hold of the outside hand : in fact, let him accommodate it to
the position of the oar-handle without in any way enfeebling
it for the practical work of the finish. He will thus have
greater freedom for the extraction of the oar and the. recovery
(see A and B supra). Those who cramp themselves in the
manner I have described, and endeavour, as they usually do,
to throw the feathering work of the inside wrist on to the
outside wrist, almost invariably pull the button away and lose
both steadiness and smartness.


The hands are to come home until the roots of the thumbs
touch the chest. It is important to remember that the blade,
having been covered in the water at the beginning, must
remain so covered until the finish. The hands, therefore,
must be maintained at the same level from start to finish. If
they rise they bury the oar unduly in the water ; if they are
pulled down into the stomach they uncover the oar and cause
a loss of power. In other words, the oarsman " rows light "
or " washes out " at the finish.


While the finish is being rowed home the body must on
no account be pulled forward to meet the oar. It must, in


rowing language, " stay on the finish." When the knees are
down and the hands are home to the chest the body ought
to occupy a position beyond the perpendicular, but not so
ostentatiously beyond it as to give the impression of lying
back in the boat. It must be a position from which the
recovery will be easy and elastic. There must be no collapse
in any part of it. The oarsman should be sitting on the
bones that nature has provided for that purpose, with his
shoulders back, his chest open, but not artificially expanded,
and his stomach duly supporting his chest. There must not
be any wrinkles on the front of his zephyr. The head must
be erect in a line with the body. The whole position should
be erect, graceful, and easy.


As the inside hand and wrist have the greater share in
the work of feathering the oar and pushing it forward (see B
and H (3), supra), so the outside hand has to bear the greater
strain during the water-work right up to its very end. A
hard beginning will have made a firm finish possible ; but to
insist on what is often called " a hard finish " while neglecting
the beginning, which alone makes it in any way feasible, is


The text-books will tell you that slide and swing and
hands ought to finish together. This, no doubt, is the ideal
method, and to that extent I must agree with the text-books.
I must add, however, that it has not been attained by any
oarsman I have ever seen and I think I have seen all the
best performers during the last 33 years. Swing and slide
yes. But even if, as I think you must, you include the
rowing-back of the shoulders in the swing, there has always
been a very slight, but perceptible, interval between the
conclusion of these movements and the attainment of the


chest by the hands. To keep that interval short and
constantly to make it shorter must be the oarsman's effort.
Thus he will have the satisfaction of striving after the ideal
though he may never be able quite to reach it before Time
lays him on the shelf.

I have now taken the oarsman, letter by letter, through
the alphabet of the stroke. It has been a dry, but not, I
hope, an unprofitable task. Together if I may put it in
another way we have dissected the dead body of rowing.
It must be his part to apply the lessons he has learnt to the
living and breathing body. I can promise him no short cut
to perfect knowledge. Slowly, and sometimes painfully, and
by constant practice he must seek the attainment of his
desire. What seems at first impossible becomes in the end a
second nature, and one fine day he will realise (and it may
be that his coaches will acknowledge) that he rows with
power, elegance, and effect, and, therefore, with a high sense
of pleasure. In the mean time, if, being a novice, he is
depressed by the painful minutiae which I have set out before
him, let him for a space abandon the printed page and visit
the banks of some renowned river on which he may see a
good crew in actual motion. The spectacle cannot fail to
raise his spirits and fire his ambition. He will see eight men
moving in a gallant harmony of united effort. He will note
their proud demeanour, the grace and ease of their carriage,
the swift and almost disdainful departure of their hands, and
the slow inexorable swing of their balanced bodies. No
ragged ill-timed edge will mar the flashing level of their
blades, no splash will disturb the surface of the water, and
then, in a moment, before he can realise what has happened,
the eight blades will have bitten into the water, the eight
bodies, springing with one mighty impulse, will have hurled
themselves back, and the long frail craft, gathering and
renewing her speed, will glide on her way. Unison and
rhythm he will observe, strength controlled by skill, and
ardour tempered by discipline. And while he admires this


combination of energy and restraint, while his enthusiasm is
stirred by the speed of the ship and the symmetry of those
who have set her in motion, let him remember that only by
patient toil and long and loyal striving have these men
attained to their perfection. He too, if he perseveres, will in
the future bear his part in such a crew, he will receive admira-
tion instead of merely bestowing it, and will be made one in
the noble brotherhood of oars.


Fixed Seats Their Importance The Method of teaching Beginners

BEFORE a novice can be set to row in a racing bc;at of
any kind it is absolutely necessary that he should receive
careful instruction in the rudiments of knowledge from an
experienced and painstaking teacher. Unless a youngster
comes from one of the rowing schools it must be assumed
that he has a complete ignorance of the subject, and that, if
left to himself, he would set about the work of rowing, no
doubt with good will, but equally certainly with perfect
inefficiency. Even the simplest movements of the correct
style which he is to learn will be, not merely new, but in the
highest degree difficult for him. For all efforts of strength
he has hitherto used his arms, and his first impulse will be to
rely on his arms for the effort of rowing a stroke in the water.
He must learn to use his arms very little, and to obtain
power chiefly from the swinging weight of his body. His
hands, his wrists, his shoulders, his back, his legs and his
feet will all have to assume unaccustomed positions and
perform unusual functions, and each of them will present a
new and complicated problem for solution. It is obvious,
therefore, that instruction must be careful, and that the rate
of progress must necessarily be slow.

I must emphasise another point. The object of instruction
is to develop an oarsman capable of doing his work eventually
in a racing-boat fitted with sliding seats. It must be
remembered, however, that the fundamental principles of
skilled oarsmanship are the same for a sliding-seat boat



as for one with fixed seats. Slides; introduce a new and
important element of strength that is all. The elementary
conditions of movement are not altered by the fact that
the slide throws a greater share of work on the legs, and
lengthens the stroke in the water. Swing, body-balance, a
beginning taken with the body-weight, swift and springy
wrist work, an elastic recovery, the immediate reversal of
motion at both ends of the stroke all these are common to
fixed seats and to slides. Moreover, there is one essential
part of oarsmanship, the body swing, which is made infinitely
more difficult of acquirement to a beginner if he starts work
on a seat that is moving under him instead of on one that is
rigidly fixed. On all accounts, therefore, it will be the part
of wisdom to begin the elementary instruction of a novice in
a fixed-seat boat. The best kind of boat for the purpose is
what is known as a tub pair, a clinker built, in-rigged or
half out- rigged boat with a beam of about 3 feet 10 inches.
The thwarts on which the oarsmen sit should be so fixed
that a line drawn horizontally across the boat at right angles
from the rowing thole would be 12 inches distant from the
aft, or sitting edge of the thwart. The oars should measure
12 feet all over, with an inboard measurement of 3 feet
5^ inches to 3 feet 6 inches, and blades 5^ inches in breadth.
Before he allows his novice to take his place in the boat the
coach must satisfy himself that the oar he is to use and
the rowlock in which that oar is to move are in good and
workmanlike order. Rowing thole, the leather face of the
oar, and its button must be in such a condition that, when
they are brought together in their proper relation, the blade
of the oar may move squarely and firmly through the water.
Any defect here must be at once rectified, for if it is left
untouched, the difficulties of the novice will be increased, and
he will learn faults of which he may never afterwards be able
to rid himself. The strength and due stiffness of the oar
must also be tested. A weak, "whippy" oar will lead to
any amount of trouble. Too often any kind of old oar,
weakened by use, or warped, it may be, by long disuse, is


considered good enough for novices. As a matter of fact,
they ought to use only the very best and truest oars.

Now let your novice take his place in the tub I address
myself to the coach, for in this way I can best convey what
I desire.

(1) Let him sit on his bones close to the aft edge of the
thwart or seat, and exactly opposite to his heels. When I

Online LibraryR. C. (Rudolf Chambers) LehmannThe complete oarsman → online text (page 5 of 39)