The catch in rowing technique

Rowing and Sculling Catch Position, rowperfect, rowing technique

The catch is the placing of the blade in the water at the end of the recovery.

The rowing catch technique is also the connection of the blade to the water, the connection of the rower’s power to the boat at the beginning of the drive.

It lies between the recovery where the hull is gliding free and the rower is rolling forward out of contact with the water and the drive phase where the crew is connected to the water and applying force to accelerate the boat.

The rowing catch occurs when the rower is moving and changing direction, the blade is moving and changing direction, and when the boat is changing speed.

Think of Tiger Woods hitting a golf ball.  He’s not a big man. We know plenty of rowers taller and stronger than he but few, if any, could drive the ball as far. It’s not just about being able to hit the ball, although some of us find that hard enough. Timing the swing to transfer the maximum momentum from the club to the ball is something Tiger does better than we do.

A well timed catch allows the rower to begin applying power without there having been any check to the speed of the hull. Of course Tiger has it easy; he is standing on solid ground and the ball is sitting still.

Think of Roger Federer playing tennis.  Making those smooth and apparently effortless returns isn’t all about speed. His timing comes from his being in a good position on the court, his body being in a good position, his racquet in a good position – all ready to change the moving ball’s direction.
A good rowing catch technique comes as much from being in the right place and in the right position as it does from being at the right time.

Benefits of a good catch

  • Turn your bicycle upside down and stand it on the handlebars and seat.
upside down bicycle
Try this to understand the rowing catch
  • Spin the wheel by stroking across the top of the tyre with your fingers.
  • What do you feel each time your finger comes in contact with the tyre?
  • What do you see?

A well-timed catch allows the boat to run on freely. A boat that isn’t slowed, or even stopped, by the catch will be quicker.

A good catch allows the boat to run more nearly horizontal; this way less energy is wasted moving the hull in directions other than the shortest distance to the finishing line.

Spin it again

  • Try spinning the wheel again, this time stroking directly downwards on the side of the wheel.
  • How much spin do you get with these short strokes?
  • OK, go back to stroking across the top. Take the rating down (take longer between strokes) and try to spin the wheel as fast as you can.
  • What happens to the amount of time your finger stays in contact with the wheel as you try to build speed?
  • Did you notice your fingers starting position move closer to the frame?

A good catch also places the blade closer to the bow making for a longer stroke. The longer the propulsive phase the faster the boat.
The patience and smoothness of a well-prepared catch set up a better rhythm for the crew.

The perils of a bad catch

An ill timed catch results in the boat slowing unnecessarily before the blades are anchored in the water and thus losing speed.

  • Set your bike upside down again and let the brave (or foolhardy?) amongst you try spinning the wheel by inserting a finger between the spokes and pushing against the next spoke before quickly withdrawing your finger.
  • Repeat to take the next stroke.
  • What happens if you are too slow changing from sticking your finger in to pushing the wheel along?
  • If you stick your finger right through?
  • Think what might be happening in your rowing stroke as you change the vertical movement placing the blade into the horizontal drive.

Being too slow into the water or too slow connecting to the water slows the boat down. Going deep at the catch also makes it difficult to connect with the water.

If the blades are not placed in the water at the optimal time (when the seat reaches full forward movement) the boat will pitch more than it should, lowering the boat speed.

A poorly timed catch makes it difficult for a crew to generate the ideal rhythm during the drive; if the catch isn’t taken at the full extent of the reach forward then the stroke is short and doesn’t allow the “hang and accelerate” of a good drive phase.

The catch position for the body

Rowing and Sculling Catch Position, rowperfect, rowing technique
Rowing and Sculling Catch Position

At the catch the rower’s shins are vertical, with his chest against the thighs and his pelvis tilted slightly towards the stern. Shoulders are extended forward and relaxed, arms straight but not rigid. The rower is balanced on his feet.

A brief description of the catch

The catch involves placing the blade at the full extent of the reach and changing the direction of the movement of the seat nearly simultaneously. In an ideal world the blade would enter the water and the seat would change direction instantaneously; there would be no check at all to the speed of the boat.

Many sports involve hitting or catching objects with sticks; cricket, lacrosse, tennis, hockey, polo and so on. Rowing involves sitting on a moving seat, in a moving craft, trying to catch a piece of a liquid that is moving past. And then it needs to be done in time with up to seven others.

In a purely mechanical sense the rower seeking a good catch must ensure the blade is square before he/she arrives at full extension and lift the handle as he/she arrives at the turning point of the seat so the blade is quickly buried with a minimum of disturbance. Simultaneously the legs begin to drive and the pressure generated on the foot stretcher moves the seat backwards applying force through the link of the body and arms to the handle and thus the blade and pin.

The same is true for a sculler working two blades simultaneously.

How should the catch feel?

  • Sit at the backstops in and place the blades square in the water. (This is easier in a crew boat than a single.)
  • Back the boat down by pushing your hands away from you. Push firmly till they are over your knees and the boat has started moving. As your hands go over your knees and the boat has started moving. You may need to push up on the handle(s) to keep the blade(s) in the water.
  • Once the boat is moving relax and follow the handles forward to the catch position. (Let the handle(s) draw you forward.)
  • Feel how easily you stretch forward, how easily the handle(s) glide with the movement of the boat.
  • Feel how the pressure comes onto your feet as you get closer to the catch position.
  • Keep your blade(s) in the water as you move through the catch and take a stroke.
  • Feel how smooth the transition between gliding forward and pushing back is. Feel how the blades are locked against the water as you change direction.

Solid, precise, patient, definite, handle moving away from the athlete, thumbs moving apart (for scullers) are all good descriptions of the catch.

The myth of the ‘sculling catch’

Robbie Manson, NZL, Rowing, sculling at the catch
Robbie Manson sculling at the catch

Something that I have never understood is the idea that sculling and rowing have, or should have, a different catch. There appears to be some idea out there that scullers are gentle and skilled at inserting the blade into the water and that sweep rowers can get away with just banging it in.

The principles are the same from a single scull 1x to an 8+. The blades must be inserted as quickly as possible without disturbing the boat. Yes, the build up of pressure after the entry must be faster in a speeding eight than in a comparatively slow single but the catch follows the same logic and the sequence of actions to connect the athlete(s) to the water are the same.

7 thoughts on “The catch in rowing technique

  1. Michael Macrossan says:

    I like the bicycle wheel analogy, if that analogy means your hand must match the bicycle wheel’s speed when it contacts the spinning wheel. But isn’t that contradicted by “hands moving away from the athlete [is a] good description[s] of the catch”?

    In rowing, the hands moving away from the rower’s body implies the blade is moving towards the bow, but the water you are trying to catch is moving towards the stern. Was ‘away from the body’ a misprint?

    • Rebecca Caroe says:

      No, Michael. Away from the body at the catch is not a misprint.

      The very small moment in time when the oar is going into the water (the catch) you need to have the blade moving towards the bow and as it buries into the water. And the handle changes direction during this tiny moment in time so that the oar goes under the water with maybe a tiny backsplash – but ideally very little splash. Getting the lower edge of the blade as close to the water as possible before the handle changes direction is part of this skill.
      I could have written it more clearly.

      It’s a very fine motor skill that can do this. Most of us are still chasing that perfect catch!

  2. Pingback: The finish in rowing technique • Rowperfect UK

  3. Janelle Filkin says:

    Hi, Rebecca. I love the bike wheel analogy; propelling the wheel too slowly (putting your oar in) with your fingers and, I suspect, you would feel a slight jarring and burn.

    As you pointed out, a poorly timed catch will slow the boat down, either through missed water or a messy catch that will rock the boat and cause oars to go too deep or drag.

    In some training sessions, crew members complain they feel rushed at the catch. Often, those who complain are too slow in their catch preparation–they aren’t squared in time.

    We look at how the rower is turning the oar with their inside hand. Are they following the arc of the oar and turning out, or are they turning down (which can pause the oar in its trajectory or slightly “sky” it)?

    Once we’ve mastered that, I like to incorporate early square exercises in our warm-up. You know the old hands away, body over, 1/4 slide, 1/2 slide, etc square blade drill? I like to alter that to start with square blade hands away, then change to feathered hands away. Squared body rock, then switch to feathered body rock. Squared 1/4 slide, feathered 1/4 slide. Keep alternating like that through to full-slide. We find feathering on those shorter strokes makes them do it earlier in the full-slide strokes.
    Do you have any opinions on those exercises or do you have other methods of improving catch preparation?

    Janelle Filkin

    • Rebecca Caroe says:

      Janelle – you are spot on here. All those drills are a great way to practice early preparation and squaring for the catch. Other drills for preparation include getting the crew to place the oar in the water in time with when their seat changes direction. If you are doing sweep rowing – get them rowing square blades (half the crew sit the boat). Then take the inside hand off the oar handle and hold the back of your seat behind you. This allows the rower to feel the change of direction on the slide. Then tell them to time the placement into the water off the seat….. see if they can do it square blades first. Then allow them to put both hands on the oar and stay square blades – can they time the catch accurately? And lastly move to feathering. At this point many work out how early they need to square in order not to be slow placing the blade. If you can video them doing the drill from square off the boat – that will demonstrate to many how much they improve.

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