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Bow Balls: Why They Matter

BY MARGOT ZALKIND AND MIKE DAVENPORT
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

You’re ready to launch, nervous and psyched, and the dockmaster says, “Sorry. Go back and get a bow ball.” You thought the wad of duct tape you attached to your boat would suffice. But it doesn’t.

What’s the big deal? (And does it matter even if you are not racing? Yes.)

If someone at the launch site is safety-smart and paying good attention, they will not let you launch unless you have heel ties at every seat (which we covered last issue), and a firmly attached bow ball on your boat.

Do you know why?

From USRowing’s 2021 Rules of Rowing:

“Every boat shall have a supple or plastic ball, of a white or fluorescent color, firmly attached and mounted on its bow, unless equivalent provision for visibility and protection against puncture injury is included in the boat’s basic construction. The bow ball shall be at least four centimeters in diameter.”

When did bow balls become a safety feature of most shells? Rowing historian Bill Miller writes:

“I began rowing in 1966, and they were used regularly then. They were actually rubber balls with a string of leather fed through and then screwed or tacked to the sides of the bowsprit. I think it was in the 1970s that a molded rubber attachment was manufactured and replaced the rubber ball.

“One incident happened on the Charles River, which was a very busy rowing highway in the 1970s, and even more so now. A sculler was rowing on the proper side of the river when a coxed-four on the wrong side plowed into him without a bow ball. The wooden prow penetrated his back, broke off and remained there. He was extracted from his single and rushed to Mass General Hospital, where the remains of the bow were removed. Luckily, it did not cause damage to his spine, but concern was infection from the dirty water. Antibiotics were prescribed, and a watchful eye kept to see if infection developed. Nothing developed, but his sculling was impossible for many weeks.

“Without a bow ball, severe body injury can occur, and dirty river water presents additional danger.”

Too often, we see boats with bow balls attached with duct tape, adhesive tape, or some glue. We’ve seen bow balls made of wadded-up tape and even newspaper.

News item, October 17, 2002

SCULLER HURT WHEN STRUCK ON CHARLES 

A Lexington sculler suffered serious injuries yesterday morning when the prow of an eight-man boat rammed into his side and hurled him into the Charles River in Watertown.

The rower, 55, apparently did not see the larger racing shell speeding toward him when, as he was passing another boat, it crossed the center of the river, according to State Police. The end of the larger boat penetrated deeply into the rower’s torso, witnesses said. The bumper (bow ball) on the prow of the eight-person shell was knocked off by the impact.

The initial contact between the vessels tore a rubber safety bumper from the larger boat, reports stated, and the sharp prow of the larger craft entered the left side of the patient’s lower back, above the iliac crest, and exited the central portion of his lower abdomen.

 He then slipped off the larger vessel’s prow and fell into the water. He did not lose consciousness and within five minutes was pulled from the water by the occupants of the larger boat and brought to shore. Emergency medical services were called.

Bottom line? Bow balls protect anyone and anything they might slam into. Make sure your boat has all the right safety equipment. 

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