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A Shift to the Right?

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

A communication came to Doctor Rowing and a choice number of other high-level muckety-mucks in the American rowing world:

Gentlemen:

I hope that this finds you all safe, well, happy, and fully lubricated.

One thing that has struck me greatly in this Henley Royal Regatta is how many boats are being stroked on starboard/bow side, something that I don’t remember having seen as much of in almost 60 years of watching this sport. Is this a new trend? Is it about finding starboard oarsmen who are better at the stroke seat than port oarsmen? Is it an unexpected effect of Covid-19? Is it about variant riggings (especially the “bucket” arrangement)? Does it have anything to do with new takes on the nuances of the Henley course? An Englishman in the know—not as rare as you might think—offered “It’s the effect of Trumpism and Boris the Joker’s swing to the right.”

I did not watch the Olympics, so I don’t have that relatively recent reference point. Have I just been asleep at the Weil (as it were)?

Youth wants to know!

All best,
Tom Weil

Ah yes, Tom, I remember the days when we would look over at our opponents as we pulled up to the starting line and seeing a starboard stroke meant “This should be easy. They don’t have anyone good enough on port to do the job.” And in those halcyon days of yore—the ’70s—that might possibly have been true. I do know that in seven years of high school and college I never lost a race to a starboard-stroked crew. How many did I race? Exactly none.

And now, as you note, having paid far too much attention to the wonderful video coverage of the Henley Royal Regatta, they seem to be, if not everywhere, at least fairly common. What’s this world coming to? 

Why weren’t there more starboard-stroked boats in the “good old days?” For starters, Pocock did not build eights that had both sides drilled and fitted with hardware. The Pocock eights that I first climbed into in 1969 did not offer the possibility of being stroked from the starboard side. A straight port rig was what you got when buying one of those beautiful cedar shells. 

In England, the place from which George P. hailed, port-stroked boats were the rule—so much so that the whole starboard side was called “bow-side.” Why English rowing did not use the nautical terms “port” and “starboard” is one of those mysteries—such as the English obsession with cricket—that we can ponder forever.

In college in 1972, we raced in Schoenbrods. They were built by a German emigre who had worked for Karlisch. The radical notion that maybe there was a good man on starboard who could stroke must have been imported from Europe because all of a sudden there was a new possibility. You could have buckets—German rigs in eights (typically five and four on the same side); Italian rigs in fours (three and two on the same side); and Russian rigs (seven and six together), but many coaches subscribed to the old maxim “Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

The seed was planted, though. By the time, I had graduated from college and begun to coach, I thought, for some crazy reason, I should try a starboard stroke for the JV women at Trinity College. But the newer equipment hadn’t made its way down to that crew, so I enlisted other coaches to help me drill holes through the gunwales and ribs of our Pocock eight so that we could push hardware through. We couldn’t get the angles right, however, and the riggers were significantly off-pitch. Don’t even get me started on the heights. Experiment abandoned.

Todd Jesdale at Cornell had a somewhat similar experience. 

“In the mid-’60s, I do remember drilling the starboard side to accommodate riggers on that side and the opposite on port,” he told me. “It was not handsome work, but we used it. I don’t know when, but the obvious came to us at some point. The first Stämpfli at Cornell came in 1971, and it was stroked on starboard, then conventional rigging down the boat. National champions! The lightweight crews I coached in the ’60s were all port-stroked, even though we tried everything. I was really nervous drilling those boats.”

Rowing historian Bill Miller agrees. 

“With fixed Pocock rigging, there wasn’t any choice. Pocock always wanted to keep things simple. No adjustments. No second thoughts. Port stroke. The Europeans weren’t locked into one builder and they were free to experiment and think out-of-the-box—thus the adjustable rigger (spread, pitch, height, outward pitch). They could swap riggers from stroke to seven and seven to stroke and any other combinations, such as the bucket. At the Munich Olympics, our 1972 Pirsch 4- had all the adjustments. Our rig was 2/3 on starboard.” (An Italian rig with port stroke).

Interestingly, Bill sent me a photo of the 1932 Olympic eights heat and final races. Canada, the bronze-medal crew, had a straight starboard stroked rig.

Seven of 10 of the past five U.S. Olympic eights were starboard-stroked. In the most recent Olympics, the gold-medal Canadian women were starboard-stroked. They were one of two starboard strokes. In the men’s eights, all six finalists were port-stroked. In the finals of the 4- events, the women had three port-stroked and three starboard-stroked. All six of the men’s 4- were port-stroked. 
So where does this leave us? The 1932 Canadians were ahead of their time. Although the Olympic results don’t support your observation of a great number of starboard strokes, Tom, they are here to stay. But why so many—if indeed there were—at Henley? Let’s remember that Henley 2021 was virtually an all-British affair. Like a “make-up call” in sports with referees, when the ref, having made an egregious error, compensates for a bad call against one team by making an even worse call against the other team, this may be an English tactic to compensate for the ridiculous use of “bow-side” to mean starboard.

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