The Innovators’ Dilemma

Story by Alan Oldham

Rowing has been evolving as a distinct activity from the first time prehistoric humans imagined they could move a boat faster by bracing a paddle on the gunwale and sitting backward to pry with the whole strength of their bodies. In a sense, the second-class lever might be called our sport’s foundational innovation.

From this small change, a great array of possibilities was opened up for rowing. From the humble fishing rowboats of far-flung settlements to the great war galleys of the ancient Mediterranean, to the ocean-crossing Viking long ships, the technology of rowing progressed to suit the needs of time and place.

Our modern sport took shape during a period of unprecedented technological advances. Innovations through the 19th century transformed competitive rowing from a kooky college pastime of splashing along in clunky river boats with oars wedged into gunwale slots only slightly more sophisticated than our prehistoric ancestors.

By century’s end, the outrigger had allowed for slimmer shells and wide clinker-built construction gave way to smooth structures of thin veneer; the sliding seat had replaced the simple wooden thwart, allowing full inclusion of the powerful leg muscles in the drive.

That age spawned countless more inventions, but most were either incremental or too far ahead of their time to have any significant effect on the sport. “Once the outrigger and sliding seat were developed, things were pretty status quo for almost 100 years,” says American rowing historian Bill Miller.

The advent of proto-national rowing associations and finally the International Rowing Federation (FISA) in 1892 spoke loudly to a growing desire for standardization throughout the sport.

A New Golden Age

A century and a quarter on and one could argue that we are in the midst of a new golden age of innovation in our sport. The practically complete transition from wood to composite synthetic materials is perhaps the most substantial advance, while data-driven technology has muscled aside the spring-and-cog-driven stopwatch, placing into the hands of individual rowers tools incalculably more powerful.

“Composites began to come in during the 1970s,” says Miller. “The boats got lighter and more durable. Empacher in Germany and Carbocraft in England were leaders in this transition—and Mike Vespoli here in the U.S.”

Rapid changes in materials brought with them the ability to realize some truly revolutionary advances that caused many to question if the sport was heading in the right direction. Although created in part to enact and enforce international standards for the sport, FISA hadn’t yet flexed its muscles. That was all about to change as something truly revolutionary entered—or more precisely re-entered—the scene.

“The sliding rigger was originally patented in the 1880s,” Miller explains. “It was tried in England in the 1950s, but it was Empacher who perfected it.”

Volker Nolte was the driving force behind turning this Victorian dream craft into a reality. “When I did my doctoral work, I had a computer program to look at what contributes to the best boat speed,” recalls Nolte. “The sliding rigger concept showed the most immediate effect on speed of the whole system. With it you could see that you could reduce the loss of speed. I am not the one who invented the principle, but I was the first one who scientifically proved it and published.”

“I convinced Empacher to build a prototype,” says Nolte, “but then it was left to me to continue to develop this boat. I rowed it in 1981 and was way too fast for the training I was doing.”

Without a clear definition of what constituted a change radical enough for a ban, FISA watched and waited, weighing the pros and cons. Very quickly though, the sliding rigger was demonstrating its potential.

By 1982, the top six men’s single scullers at the world championships had sliding riggers. “It was at that point that FISA said they would have to do something,” says Miller.

When FISA did act, they were decisive. “The sliding rigger was disallowed,” says Paul Fuchs, chair of FISA’s Equipment and Technology Commission, the international body’s innovation watchdog. “It was such a dramatic difference from traditional rowing,”

Nolte’s arguments that such a ban might hold the sport back fell on deaf ears, but he still saw something of the future in it. “I predicted that the wing rigger concept would prevail,” he recalls. And he was right.

A Second Test

While not as radical an innovation as the sliding rigger, the asymmetrical blade has arguably exerted an even greater influence on the sport for the simple reason that it was not banned, although it came close to it.

“It was the year before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when we introduced the big blade,” recalls Dick Dreissigacker, who, with his brother Peter, founded the oar and ergometer company Concept2. “We’d heard rumors about people working on different oars; we wanted to stay ahead of the game.”

“It was a simple design,” he says modestly, “it really wasn’t that new. If you look at pictures of crews in the 1800s they had asymmetrical blades.”

At first, the Dreissigackers had difficulty convincing crews to try their strange-looking oars. “Not too many people liked the look of them. They were also too short,” he remembers.

Then something happened that changed perceptions. Despite modest prospects entering the spring season, Dartmouth College started winning with the hatchets. “Dartmouth was the big surprise for everyone that early in the spring and we had people calling us up on Sunday saying, ‘We’ve got to get the hatchets right away since we just lost and need the new oars.’”

Similar surprises soon followed in Europe. Before long, the hatchet blade was everywhere and calls to ban the blade were getting louder. “‘Ban the blade!’ they said. But no one knew what to ban,” says Dreissigacker. “‘What are you going to ban about it?’ we thought. People had cut different sized blades all the time.”

In the end any argument was moot; the market had been flooded before a meaningful discussion of the new blade could take place. “By the Olympics, most crews had them,” says Dreissigacker. “Some even switched at the Olympics. They just needed to have them right there.”

“The hatchet blade came in under the radar,” says Fuchs, whose involvement with FISA began around that time. “There was nothing secret about it. It was pretty much a fait accompli because they had already changed the whole world of oar design before FISA got their head around it.”

Affordability and accessibility had also calmed opposition. Because the Dreissigackers had not patented their design, anyone could make it.

“The hatchet blade was one reason why FISA’s innovation rule came about,” says Fuchs. “We want evolution, not revolution. To evolve is one thing, but if you are automatically going to give someone an advantage, economically or physically, that is something we are not interested in pursuing.”

“Equipment is expensive as it is. If you are looking at less-developed nations, they may be able to row fast, but these are very poor programs. If all of a sudden something revolutionary made all current equipment obsolete, they would have trouble.”

“The sort of innovation that would do that is a rare thing,” Fuchs concludes, “but it is a critical issue.”

FISA outlines the general parameters of the sport in the international rule book. Rule 1 defines rowing as “the propulsion of a displacement boat, with or without coxswain, by the muscular force of one or more rowers, using oars as simple levers of the second order and sitting with their backs to the direction of movement of the boat. Rowing on a machine or in a tank, which simulates the action of rowing in a boat, is also considered as rowing. In a rowing boat, all load bearing parts, including the axes of moving parts, must be firmly fixed to the body of the boat, but the rower’s seat may move along the axis of the boat…”

The sliding rigger is out because it violates the “firmly-fixed” test. The “second order lever” stipulation upholds that ancient innovation so rowers could sit backward in the first place. Finally, “displacement” means that a shell must actually be “in” the water and not, say, flying above it.

The Hydrofoil

Flying is essentially what hydrofoils help boats do, acting like underwater airplane wings producing lift. Because the boat isn’t displacing its own mass, hydrofoils are undoubtedly banned. It is an incredible sight and yes, it has been done in rowing; there’s even a YouTube video from the Yale Hydrofoil Sculling Project.

Although she had only started rowing on her novice team, that video was enough to inspire Lilly Van Steenberg to build a hydrofoil single as part of her naval architecture degree at the United States Naval Academy. “I just thought it was really cool,” says Van Steenberg. “I was definitely not at the level of the Yale rower in the video, but I was curious if the average person could make use of this sort of thing.”

Hydrofoils, it turns out, are not a simple thing to build and even harder to render practical for rowing.

“You have to design the hydrofoils around a certain speed,” Van Steenberg explains. She converted her shell to a sliding rigger for smoother running speed. “In a normal configuration, the rower’s body weight is shifting forward and aft, which is a problem for hydrofoils because they hold their angle relative to the boat through the water.”

“It definitely could allow you to go much faster,” says Van Steenberg, “but you would have to be able to change the foils’ angles of attack. Otherwise, once you start flying at a certain speed, if you keep getting faster, the foils will keep lifting until they are out of the water.”

“Some large ships have the technology to do this, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon for rowing.”

While changes that threaten to undermine the fundamental nature of the sport as defined in FISA’s Rule 1 are easy to spot, most advances are subtler. This is where FISA’s Rule 40 comes in.

“Innovations in equipment,” Rule 40 begins, “ including, but not limited to, boats, oars, related equipment, and clothing, must meet the following requirements before being used in the sport of rowing:

1. be commercially available to all competitors (patents may not exclude the use by a team or a competitor);

2. not significantly add to the cost of the sport;

3. not provide an advantage to some competitors over others or change the nature of the sport;

4. be safe and environmentally sound; and

5. be a positive development for the sport of rowing and maintain the principles, in particular those of fairness and equality, in the sport.”

Innovation Within the Rules

“Let’s say you come up with something new,” says Fuchs. “If you want to be able to use it in a given year, you have to present it to FISA before the end of the preceding year.”

“We ask questions as a commission,” he continues, “and once we are satisfied we have all the information, we make a recommendation to FISA’s executive committee, who make the final decision. The commission is not the decision-maker, but an adviser.”

In this regard, FISA is an accessible and open partner in the innovation process, something not lost on the manufacturers. “The process from our end is simply I pick up the phone or send Paul [Fuchs] an email and we start a conversation,” says Michael Naughton, VP of product development at Nielsen-Kellerman.

“I think FISA is a bit unique there,” adds Glen Burston, operations manager at Hudson Boat Works. “It is not a stone wall, they are always willing to have a discussion about these rules to look at ways to enhance the sport experience.”

Like Concept2 in oar and erg development, these companies are pushing innovation in their respective fields of electronics and boat design. Ensuring a product that customers at all levels can use is a top priority for their engineers.

“Fortunately we haven’t had any issues with compliance so far,” says Burston. “This speaks to the general clarity of the rules around boat construction.”

In fact, Burston points out that the greatest constraints have more to do with what’s actually possible and practical. “Although there are performance benefits of certain boats within a specific boat class,” Burston says, “the performance range is really very narrow for high-end boats.”

The equipment specifications FISA does lay out in Rule 39 include minimum boat weights, maximum lengths, hull buoyancy, and the size of the coxswain’s opening (the last two for safety).

“The introduction of composite materials meant that boats were becoming so light and potentially flimsy,” Miller reflects on the initial rationale for boat weights. “They didn’t want them to become throw-away boats. Back then, boat builders would be cutting corners to hit that limit, so it made sense.”

One boat-related ban that isn’t changing anytime soon is on treating the hull. Nestled into FISA’s Rule 39, Section 4 specifically prohibits modifying the “natural properties of water or of the boundary layer of the hull-water interface.”

“There are a few things that can be applied to the hull,” says Miller. “One is riblets, a rougher surface that would actually pick up the molecules of water that attach to it and cut down the resistance by allowing for continuation of laminar flow over the hull further to the stern.”

“Every once in a while someone comes up with a new coating for the boat,” says Fuchs. “The biggest issues we have to deal with today though have to do with electronics.”

Section 5 of FISA’s Rule 39 deals with communications and electronics. The rule is both straightforward and, as it turns out, incredibly complex, according to Naughton.

“If a lawyer looked at it, they would say that every piece of measuring technology is technically illegal,” he says. “There is a group of measurements called ‘allowable data’ that you are allowed to measure and view during an event including time, stroke rate, velocity, acceleration, and heart rate.”

“What isn’t included is stroke count, distance, pace (split), and other derivatives like distance per stroke, which have been in rowing electronics for over 20 years,” Naughton continues. “Aside from the allowable data and derivatives, nothing else can be measured, recorded, viewed—nothing. That includes everything from angle, force, power, slip and wash, and location (GPS is now commonly used to measure your speed and distance), which are becoming commonplace at all levels.”

The main intent of this rule seems to be that data not be transmitted or received during racing. So technically even cellphones are banned.

“This is a rule written about something that is tricky to write a rule about,” he admits. “I can’t imagine it is an easy task for FISA. There are either a hundred caveats or you open it up.”

Naughton points to the SpeedCoach XL as an example of how they ensure that the technology remained legal. “We worked with FISA at great lengths to ensure that it had a visible means (removing the antenna) of showing the officials that it is able to or not able to transmit out of the boat.”

The next generation of electronics will not be so easily classified within the existing rules and change must necessarily come. For Naughton, that conversation is starting with the new NK force gauge oarlock. “It has been developed in a way that satisfies all the criteria of being an approved product for FISA in relation to fairness and availability,” says Naughton. “It does not, however, sit in the rules specifying which measurements are allowed.”

Moving Forward, Looking Back

As the point of contact between the blade and boat, the oarlock is fundamental—an updated version of that prehistoric notch in our paleo rowboat. It seems fitting that the future of rowing can be found here in this oldest of innovations.

“I think true innovations are rare,” says Naughton. “Tweaks are common, but innovations are rare. For us, the new oarlock is an innovation and that deserves a conversation with FISA. I will do my part to help change the rules so that people can compete with it.”

“There is nothing really new out there,” says Dreissigacker, whose company also singlehandedly standardized the current oarlock shape and size, “just things getting shuttled around. Materials have changed; that allows you to do stuff you couldn’t do. It is really personalizing equipment more than anything now.”

Whether rowing’s evolution continues gradually or rapidly, what will always remain is the human element, the need to rise to the physical challenge of competition. “It’s the old fallacy of composition,” says Miller. “If you are in the fifth grade and want to stand on your toes to watch the parade better, if everybody else does it too, you won’t see it any better. It will come down to the same factors for winning and losing as now.”