Rowing through the storm

Every rower hopes for perfect, glass-like conditions when they get out on the water. If only the rivers and lakes we set our boats on were free from pesky wind and challenging weather. We might be lucky enough in the early morning for relative calm, but it’s a near certainty that one of these days you’ll find yourself pressing the bow into the wind. Summer storms in Central Europe can sometimes take you by surprise and are not always predictable.

The chop catches the bottom edge of your blade. A wind gust turns it into a sail. A rogue wave splashes over the gunwales. Rowing boats are made for flat water, so when the instability due to increasing tailwinds, light headwinds, or sudden gusts just seem impossible to overcome, sometimes all you can think is “Are we back at the dock yet?”

Most rowing programs spend the majority of practice time focusing on perfecting the stroke and building endurance and power based on ideal conditions – calm, no wind, no chop, no debris. And when wind picks up, coaches tend to stick to their workout plans and hope for the best. The case to be made is that you just never know what the conditions will be like on race day, so use the opportunity to row in the wind. But how often does your coach talk about what to do when weather is less-than-perfect?

In order to row effectively in the wind you need to:

Row on flat water competently

If only it were that simple. But it’s a starting point for prepping yourself mentally. When you have solid flat-water rowing skills, you’ll be a more confident rough-water rower.

Learn to relax

Elite coach Carlos Dinares puts it this way: “Good coordination in rowing can be defined as the right muscles tensing the right amount at the right speed at the right time.” This is true no matter what the conditions, but in the wind it’s common for rowers to turn into robots – arms extended and stiff on the recovery, shoulders tense through the drive…

If we think of relaxation as competent coordination, that means firing the right muscles at the right time and relaxing all of the other muscles not involved in the movement. This skill of relaxing non-essential muscles will decrease tension that interferes with desired movement and help save energy.

Get – and Stay – Connected

Finding the set on the recovery is hard enough on flat water. Add chop and wind and the whole exercise gets even trickier. Prepare yourself for good set by getting quick connection at the catch, pressing through the drive and keeping the blade in the water as long as possible. Boat stability is best when all blades are in the water. Take advantage of the stability through the drive to create boat speed when the blades release and set yourself up for a controlled stable recovery.

Wind on Lake Lugano. Photo: RC Schaffhausen

Think About Blade Work and Layback

TAILWIND: Square up earlier in a tailwind (wind at the stern) for the wind to catch the large face of the blade and act like something of a mini-sail. Focus on precise blade entry. In a tailwind, it’s easier to lay back, but more challenging to get your hands away. If you control your handle on the recovery, the wind will give you “free length” as it draws you up the slide.

HEADWIND: Square up later or flip catch in a headwind (bow into the wind) to lower wind resistance on the blade and keep your stroke long into the catch. Emphasize leg drive and focus on strong – but not exaggerated –layback to help maintain connection through the finish.

CROSSWIND: Maintain even pressure port to starboard (unless called to add power for a turn or course adjustment). If the wind is steady from one direction, press a bit of extra weight into the windward hip and/or foot and engage the core for stability.

Blade work and layback are two elements of the stroke that are highly specific to each crew, and are dependent on what the coaching staff prefers. Talk to your coaches before trying something new.

when I got to the boathouse last night it seemed like any other hot, humid summer day in the nation’s capital. I hadn’t looked at the forecast and was optimistic about taking out novice boats to practice race starts for the first time. We’ve got a race coming up this Saturday and there’s work to be done.

With all but one boat launched, the wind started to pick up. The river was rougher than usual, so I reminded the rowers to make sure to get hands down and away at the finish, and clear their blades on the recovery. There were some clouds overhead, but nothing terribly worrisome. Then, just as I was getting into my launch to start it up, another coach gave me a weather report: “We’ve just been put under a severe thunderstorm watch.”

But the weather and water seemed manageable, so I instructed the coxswains and my assistant coach to work through the pick drill to warm up, then reassess the situation. That was the wrong call.

Within five minutes the skies got dark and the winds started whipping. Strong gusts blew across the surface of the river, kicking up spray that showered the rowers. The chop got bigger, the spray more biting. The novice rowers did their best to drive against the forces of mother nature, and the novice coxswains steeled their nerves and held on tight to the steering cables. I had to yell over the sound of the wind. I had to hold my hat to keep it from blowing off my head. My assistant coach watched as her Kippy Kit got picked up and blown off the deck of her launch. I started to worry.

The next 10 minutes were the longest and scariest of my coaching career. Four boats, 28 novice rowers, four novice coxswains, two coaches in launches. All fighting mother nature to get back to the dock. Those 10 minutes felt like an hour, and in between shouting commands to coxswains, and remaining in radio contact with the other coach, I just kept thinking: “You are so dumb.”

As a coach I always have the rowers’ safety in mind. Other rowers and coaches know me for my very detail-oriented coaching style, and extreme adherence to river traffic patterns and safety. What was I thinking?! At that moment back on the dock, when another coach gave me the weather warning, I threw caution to wind. Literally.

Weather conditions in Rio 2016. Photo: Fortune.com

I put all of my rowers in a dangerous situation, and I regret it. I couldn’t sleep last night because I was burdened with guilt. I kept thinking about what prompted my bad judgement.

This morning the river was calm, and if the weather holds we’ll get back out on the water tonight and pick up where we left off. Working on race starts. And the rowers will have one heck of a foul weather rowing story to tell.

Coaches’ Foul Weather Check-List

USE A WEATHER APP on your smartphone for realtime updates. My meteorologist friend Justin suggests (for iPhone) Weather Underground, where you can pick a station on the map and see the conditions it’s reporting. I use a combination of the Hi-Def Radar, My Radar, Lightening Cast and WindCompass apps, for updates that are timely and reliable. Follow local media (news, radio, newspapers) and set your phone to show notifications from them.

NOTE: USRowing safety guidelines don’t give specific wind speed suggestions, but does clearly state:

“It is recommended that extreme caution is used rowing in high winds.

If sudden winds come up, return to the boathouse if the trip is safe, or take the boat to the nearest shore and wait for the winds to calm.

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