Interview with David Low, Open Water Sculler


David is a world-class sailor who has crossed the Pacific three times and who took up open water sculling three years ago. I was privileged to go on outings with him three times during which he carefully instructed me in the curiosities of the waters we were covering and showed me his favourite open water racing and sculling techniques.

I asked him what are the things that rowers and scullers can learn from sailing and other sports.

Hull movement
Most rowers dont appreciate that the objective is about the boat going through the water not just about strength. If you can improve the passage of the hull through the water, you will gain more boat speed.

Have a look at your stern through a stroke cycle – it wiggles a bit either up and down or side to side (yaw or pitch). This is nothing compared to how much the bow moves. Because there is a fin (skeg) in the stern, it limits the movement. Any variation in movement of the hull is a brake on progress. There is a vortex going under the bow – you never see it but it spoils the flow of water under the boat. You are aiming to prevent any yaw or pitch happening.

Fins and steering

Most fins are anodised and made of flat aluminium. A good one has a shape like an aerofoil. In open water you need the boat to correct for broaching on waves. Modern sailing boats have a short keel and rudder set far aft so you can steer down a wave. David has a plan to develop a steering mechanism for singles using your toes (much like canoeists do). Kayakers have recently started beating open water scullers – because of improvements to their equipment. In order to go fast down a wave you need more lift and buoyancy because you want to stay ont he wave with your stern buried (like a surfboard which has the bow out of the water and the stern buried in the breaking wave).

Blade height

Feel the water with the sculls over the surface to sense where the waves are. Take an early catch or a deeper catch if you need to be sure you are burying the sculls each stroke. Carry your blades lower/closer to the water's surface because wind is much slower closer to the water surface. Therefore you have less resistance there.

Watch swimmers

Top swimmers cut through water, and do it differently each turn at the end of the pool. This is because they feel the water and adapt technique to suit the conditions, like a porpoise. A swimmer will get through the water differently depending on the eddies they feel. Let the boat adapt to the water and go with it, doing the same thing all the time won't make you faster. let the boat smoothly flow through the water, don't force things.

Many 2k rowers slam the catch and finish and make hard connections, When you are doing long distance sculling you have to worry about your metabolism and movement economy. e.g. lactate can be dispersed by breathing more frequently – pant to get rid of lactate

Watch Cyclists

Cyclists are also worth watching, they use style and pace changes to enable you to rest different muscle groups. You can also distract your opponent by getting them to focus on the wrong things and neglect their technique, e.g. getting out of phase with the sculler next to you on the stroke cycle, forcing them wide on corners. This works well in head races.

Rough water technique

Coaches will tell you to lift off the seat but in rough water you need to stay in touch with the boat. The water flows up and down the keel of the boat and if this rises / falls more with your weight coming on and off the seat, it increases the resistance and slows you down. When you take the weight off the seat the bow lifts but then drops down when you return and the hull sinks into the water. By raising the feet this encourages a more horizontal drive phase which reduces the vertical movement of the boat and you won need to lift off the seat. Row into the finish as the power comes on the bow starts to sink and the angle of the incline then becomes more level so the vector is horizontal.

David is a member of the Open Water Rowing Center , Sausalito, California


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