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Hands Across the Water


One of the tricky parts of rowing is managing how your hands move as they cross each other around the perpendicular position during drive and recovery. It’s the combination of striving for a long stroke, applying high blade force over an extended period, and working to maintain a largely perpendicular direction of handle force relative to the shaft that forces you to choose such large inboards that your hands cross.

PR1 para rowers can choose short inboard levers that allow their hands to move symmetrically at the same height and to pass each other without crossing. For able-bodied rowers in a sculling boat, there are three options: 

1) Row with one hand on top of the other, keeping the same oar angle with both sculls. This means having to pull with your hands at different heights—from two to four inches—and adjusting the height of the oarlocks by about the same measure. This is likely to cause major problems with bladework and balance.

2) Carry the hands at exactly the same height but, by turns, in front of each other. This would require a horizontal difference in hand position of at least four to eight inches. To achieve this hand gap in the middle of the stroke, you need to maintain it throughout the drive and recovery or start the drive with the same rowing angle but then pull one hand faster to achieve the difference in the middle and then pull the other hand faster toward the end to achieve the same rowing angle again. Neither is ideal. Either you lose stroke length because each hand misses a significant portion of the stroke or the boat serpentines because of the difference in effort required to accelerate your hands alternately. 

3) Pull at different hand heights and with offset hands—the pattern used commonly in sculling. The art of sculling is to minimize the negative effects of this type of hand movement. Even the most skilled rower exhibits small differences in oar angle between sculls, with the angle of the hand closer to the body when crossing over about two degrees less at the catch and more by the same amount at the finish. In addition, the vertical difference between your hands during crossing is greater than the usual one-centimeter difference in height, so the boat is rolled slightly to the side where your hand is lower in the middle of the drive to maintain the same blade depth.

Because of this small roll, rowers by convention carry the same hand lower so that everyone experiences the same boat motion. The crew community rows with the right hand below the left, and port oarlocks are one centimeter lower than their  starboard counterparts (unless a customer requests otherwise).

Since the port hand is lower, it makes sense to pull this hand closer to your body so that any disturbance of balance can be remedied easily. Books about rowing technique include the instruction: “Row left over right, and right closer to the body.” This method helps teach sculling and brings individual rowers together in crew boats.

 In reality, about half of scullers row left over right, and left closer to the body. This technique presents three problems:

First, it’s more difficult to react to a roll of the boat to starboard because the left hand must be lowered but the right hand or arm is in the way. Those who row this way tend to  accept a roll of the boat to port but despise a roll to starboard. 

Second, it’s more difficult to match rowers with different hand positions because the small differences in oar angles described above are opposite for these rowers and cannot be compensated for fully by the longitudinal position of the footstretchers. Hence, the rowing angles of rowers with different hand patterns always look a little off.

Third, carrying the left hand over the right and closer to the body results often in right-wrist flexion that a coach doesn’t want to see, especially in the middle of the drive when the pull forces transmitted are highest.

Despite these challenges, this hand position is used widely and overlooked often during the learning process. Once a rower becomes accustomed to this technique, it’s extremely difficult to change. Rowers with different hand positions can row very well together and achieve the highest standards of performance, which is why you can find examples at every regatta, including the Olympics. 

Still, to avoid problems, it makes sense to teach proper hand position. It’s a mystery why this isn’t done regularly. Is it because it’s considered unimportant or not recognized readily? I’m a rower whose technique is not 100-percent correct, and I’ve never had it pointed out to me by a coach, even though I’ve been rowing for a very, very long time.

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