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The Video That Makes Safety Fun

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

At our first practice of each new season, our high-school crews watch the USRowing safety video. The athletes love it. Whether you are a novice or have rowed for four years, it’s the best possible way to think about the risks of being out on the water. As the saying goes, “Forewarned is forearmed.” If you know what can happen, you can develop a plan for responding to the situation. I love this video not only for the valuable information it imparts but also because it does what English teachers everywhere try to get their students to do when writing. “Show, don’t tell.”

There was an older safety video from 1987 featuring Bill Stowe, 1964 Olympic gold medalist, with some valuable stuff, but the chronology was scrambled and poorly organized. In 2007, Willie Black, now-retired director of coaching education for USRowing and mastermind of the safety video, decided it was time to produce a new version with a chronology that makes more sense. After a little bit of introduction—weather, clothing, and blisters are shown—the video takes off when the rowers get to the boathouse.

As you might expect, it’s a pretty sober production; water safety is no laughing matter. The voice-over warns us of common problems that could arise. We see a kid walk into a rigger and bang his head; another boy trips on the dock; someone standing on the dock not paying attention gets whacked by a shell being carried at shoulders as the crew pivots. But the highlight is the Accidents sequence. The narrator tells us there are three types of crabs and he describes how to deal with each type: the small, medium, and … everyone’s favorite… the ejector crab. If you’ve never seen someone launched out of a shell by getting walloped in the abdomen by an oar, you’ve missed out on one of the great moments in all of sport. When an eight is moving well, when rowers are cranking on it, and a certain kind of crab, a deep one, happens, the oar can slam into a rower so fast and hard that the athlete can be knocked right over the gunwales, ass over teacup. It’s scary, but it’s also awesome, like seeing a skier wipe out, leaving hat, poles, gloves, skis in a “yard sale” on the slopes.

Whenever I show this video, you can feel the tension of anticipation. The veterans know that the showstopper is coming. As we see the two ejectees, one female, one male, pop up in the water unhurt and smiling, the nervousness of our first-time viewers turns to laughter, and before long, everyone is saying, “Can we see that again?”

I don’t really understand the physics of an ejector crab. I’ve seen a slow rollout of the boat; I’ve seen shoulders and arms get stuck briefly before the momentum of the crab gets the head in the water and then—whoosh—the rower is gone. Only once have I been in a boat where one happened. My second year of coxing in high school, we were doing some kind of piece. I saw the blade at three-seat hop across the water and then stick. “What’s Burnham doing?” I wondered. I saw something in the air, and then—SPLASH!—and Burnham popped up to the stern of the seven-seat. Our coach said he had flown through the air over the riggers.

How is it that people don’t get hurt when ejected from a boat? I’ve heard of bruises from going over the side, and we are all nervous about hitting the riggers, but I’ve yet to hear of an injury. The fear of an ejector crab is that the rower in the water must be rescued quickly, especially if the water is cold. That’s why it’s important to have a coaching launch in sight at all times.

About the filming, Willie Black said, “We asked the kids ‘Who wants to catch an ejector crab?’ One girl volunteered immediately, but as they began to row, she looked more and more nervous and then said she had changed her mind. Another girl said she would do it. She tried to catch the right kind of crab three times, but none of them ejected her. Finally, Lincoln LaRoe, my helper with the video, said, ‘Turn your oar backward when you try to catch.’ She did, and— BOOM!—that did the trick. The video follows this with a boy’s eight, and that kid really gets launched.”

The ejector crab is the star of the show, but there’s plenty of other good stuff. What to do when you swamp or flip. How about a collision with another shell? The video shows an actual scene of a motorboat running over the stern of an eight. (Jump for it!). “We used a really old shell, but yes, we did run right over the stern,” said Black.

“Years after we made the video, one night on the TV news, there was an interview with a high-school crew whose shell had swamped. ‘Were you scared?’ asked the newsman. ‘No,’ replied the boy who was interviewed. ‘We knew just what to do because we had watched the safety video.’

“That made my day,” said Black. 

So make sure you watch it (it’s on YouTube). Enjoy the ejector, but pay attention to all the other good stuff on there.

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