By Colleen Saville

Bringing the River Home

Ask any rower about their relationship with the erg and they will tell you it’s complex. On the one hand, the erg is a machine that makes you faster, stronger, mentally tougher, and—importantly—allows you to understand your individual speed relative to your teammates, and the world. On the other hand (and most often on your worst days) the erg is a reminder that you are slower than you thought, less fit than you would like—and yes— that you are rowing alone inside instead of with your teammates on the water.

CREW by True Rowing is ready to change that narrative.

True Rowing, a Boston-based company nestled along the Charles River in Harvard Square, has created a new indoor rowing machine from the ground up that allows athletes to access both live stream and on-demand workouts from their home, boathouse, or gym. Today, the application known as CREW streams through an iPad connected via Bluetooth to Concept2 rowing machines that are equipped with a Performance Monitor (PM5). However, in 2019 True Rowing is scheduled to release a kind of rowing machine that syncs seamlessly with its own high-definition 22-inch screen, so that athletes can follow on-water workouts led by rowing instructors from rivers across the country, including, of course, the iconic Charles River.

True Rowing’s founder and chief executive officer, Bruce Smith, describes the ways in which CREW is shaking up the indoor rowing space. “It took me a long time to wrap my mind around the idea, but I really believe that rowing is one of the most powerful tools to create connection and empathy between people,” Smith says. “People who row become part of a tribe. I don’t think rowers are fully aware of why that happens, but when you do something synchronically with another human being thousands of times, you develop a level of trust with that person that you simply don’t develop in other ways.”

The company, Smith explains, is rooted in this interconnectedness. “You feel it in your hips, you feel it in your core, and that sort of preconscious connection allows for the development of empathy and care for other people that I think marks rowers as uniquely effective members of society. You see it in business; people like to hire rowers because they work very well on teams and they work very hard. They always show up because they know what it means when they don’t.”

Rowing, for good reason, is often referred to as “the ultimate team sport.” The truth is, there aren’t very many other human activities in which people synchronize their motions to the degree in which we do when rowing. Part of what makes winter training and the erg so challenging is that this level of connectedness and understanding that the collective goal is bigger than the individual, is incredibly easy to lose sight of.

Smith continues, “We started watching people as they rowed using our workout videos, and the synchronicity was happening even across a screen. For me, starting True Rowing and launching CREW was a very natural step after running Community Rowing, Inc. (CRI) and working on spreading rowing around the country. I went from building a big rowing club to thinking, ‘How do we really take this to scale?  How can we reach not just tens of thousands of people, but millions of people?’ And now with the technology that’s available, we can actually stream workouts live from the Charles River and from rivers around the country and the world to a beautiful machine. We are finding a way to leverage the technology that we have to bring people closer together. “

When asked to describe CREW’s main functionalities, Smith breaks it down into three primary focuses: the design, the software package, and the content, the last of which is uniquely positioned to connect athletes with elite rowers in a way they never have been connected before.

The rowing machine design is stunning. Its smooth edges, silent strokes, and neatly fastened 22-inch screen give it a modern look and feel that is still rooted in the functional foundation of every rowing machine that came before it. “It is a very beautiful rowing machine that a woman named Julianna Miller, principal designer at Essential Design in South Boston, designed. It is whisper quiet and its shape looks a little bit like a boat,” Smith explains.

From a functionality standpoint, one of the features is the machine’s versatility with the force curve. For the first time, athletes will be able to adjust the resistance in order to simulate the feeling of being on the water, regardless of boat class. While previous ergs have allowed rowers to adjust the amplitude of the resistance, today they cannot adjust the force curve itself, which, for example, could allow for a lighter or heavier catch. “It has an elegant curve to it, and it doesn’t make any noise,” Smith notes. “The force curve for the resistance is generated by electromagnets, so you can adjust that force curve to match any force curve. This means we can match to existing rowing machines, we can match the feeling of a single, of an eight, or even a weight stack. It’s very adjustable, allowing users to change the resistance 100 times per second.” The structural elements of the machine, including the electrical engineering and form factor, were designed by Chris Evans, former rower and lead engineer at technology development and engineering firm Cooper Perkins in Lexington, Mass. Smith says that Evans and Miller worked closely throughout the process to unite the best parts of function and design.

Smith continues, describing the software package that comes bundled with the rowing machine, and he says will be available as a downloadable app for iPads and tablets beginning January 2019. “The CREW software package gives you all of your data while delivering live and on-demand video, providing, too, tons of interesting and fun competition framework thinking. Within the app there’s a leaderboard which gives you the opportunity to row and compete with your friends, to interact with them. It really makes your workout time fly by.”

The third facet of CREW is its ability to generate unique content, made available through the app. Here, the spirit of interconnectedness is felt, as instructors, many of whom are recognizable U.S. elite rowers, bring the best of outdoor rowing inside. Smith explains, “It’s a special opportunity to be able to deliver the experience of being out on the water to people who have never had the chance to do so. On the machine, you’re actually immersed in an environment that is outside and has unexpected events. We are able to transmit the rhythm of being in a single, quad, eight, or any other boat class, directly to your rowing machine. And you just follow in rhythm with the instructor. We play great music, making it possible to complete your workout while having a good time.”

While the CREW app is still in beta mode, it is currently available to demo before its official release in January, 2019. Beginning January, 2019, the app will be available for subscription.

The on-the-water technology, like the rowing machine itself, is new and customized to produce the next best thing to rowing outdoors. When asked if the instructors rely primarily on GoPro cameras, Smith notes that while GoPros are an important part of the technology, alone they do not effectively communicate the experience of being on the water. “It takes a lot of skill and art to actually be able to communicate really strongly and well with the people at home,” Smith explains. “We’ve put together an unbelievably talented team that includes a very experienced director and producer, and have developed technology of our own that is proprietary, while leveraging the latest cameras and stabilization, filtering, auto-focus, and streaming technology, that together create a unique platform, able to deliver the complete experience of being out on the water directly to a machine at home.”

As for True Rowing’s selection process for instructors, Smith explains that the vision is to unite the rowing world with best-in-class rowers who have a passion for the sport and a commitment to excellence in all things wellness, which includes a deep understanding of injury prevention in rowing, effective ways to fuel your body pre- and post-workout, and more. “So far, all of our instructors are training for the national team or have been to the Olympics,” Smith says. “The instructors are not just rowers who are conveying their passion for the sport and making the workout fun. They certainly are doing this, but on a deeper level they are also delivering the highest quality information so that your workout is maximized.

“This means you’re taking care of your core and learning about fueling and overall body composition, learning the things that you need to know to be a completely healthy person. It’s so fun being able to support rowers doing what they love. Their story is a big part of our story and that arc that happens as they train and try out for the national team is really exciting and interesting. Allowing people a way to get to know these rowers, we believe, is a big part of the value for the overall program.”

One aspect of being an instructor for True Rowing is the level of support that comes with it. Smith explains that each instructor has access to a strength coach and a functional movement coach, and are completely outfitted with a Hudson single, a set of oars, a stroke coach, and workout gear.

“It’s an amplified experience. We’ve built a platform that is really designed not just as a flat, one-dimensional experience of the water, but a multi-camera, multi-microphone experience, one that delivers the feeling of being out on the water to a screen. It’s like shooting a little movie three times a day from the Charles River or Miami, or wherever else we’re shooting.”

True Rowing is on the lookout for talented instructors, having just concluded their first-ever recruitment campaign “Rowing Superstars,” which helped source the right instructors for this unique role. Attendees of this year’s IRA and ACRA regattas, two that True Rowing officially sponsored, may remember the video ad that played on the jumbotron between races featuring Dani Hansen, True Rowing instructor and University of Washington alumnae. You can access Hansen’s sample video application on True Rowing’s YouTube channel.

“Rowing Superstars is really to let people know that being an instructor and sharing your love and passion for rowing is possible as a full-time job,” Smith says. “We wanted to recruit the most engaging and charismatic people in the rowing world to share their experiences with those at home, and we are very fortunate to have received a phenomenal response.” Though the #RowingSuperstar campaign concluded in late June, Smith says that True Rowing is always on the lookout for good talent.

While True Rowing is a young company, CEO Bruce Smith is certainly no stranger to launching and growing successful businesses and boathouses across the United States. Smith is, among many things, the former executive director of Community Rowing, Inc., He is also a former Dartmouth and Riverside Boat Club coach. At Riverside, Smith coached the men’s high-performance lightweight group to several strong finishes at various world championships in the men’s lightweight eight. After Riverside, in 2008, Smith joined Community Rowing, Inc., at a time when the then-new boathouse was about half finished. He quickly brought the organization to financial stability post-build.

Smith explains that being an entrepreneur in the rowing world is challenging, but rewarding. “There are enormous opportunities in our sport to put it back as the center of American and world culture,” Smith notes. “If you want to be an entrepreneur in the rowing community, I think it’s a path that can be even more challenging than entrepreneurship in other areas, but also more rewarding because it has such a profound impact on people’s lives. If you can reach people, it is amazing, and we saw that over and over again at CRI. By blowing up how things were done we were able to make rowing more accessible and more fun. Seeing the impact that it had on people’s lives is so satisfying to watch. True Rowing is taking that idea to the next level, and it’s incredibly exciting.”

True Rowing plans to begin delivering rowing machines to customers in early 2019. Pre-orders begin later this summer, with the option to bundle the machine and CREW software into one monthly payment plan.