BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY IGOR BELAKOVSKIY
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Rigging is an area of knowledgethat coaches should have in their tool kits. It’s a standard topic at coaching conferences, and since it’s one of my favorites, I often give talks about it. The subject never seems to get old, and at the end of every presentation, there are always lots of questions. Such as: “How should I rig a boat to adapt to a rower’s size?” And: “How should I rig a boat for a race on a windy day?”
Modern equipment makes it possible to rig boats and oars for rowers individually to optimize their performance, as well as that of the crew. Most coaches know generally how to solve such challenges but struggle often with the specifics. It’s easy to understand the need to lighten the load in a headwind and that shortening the inboard and span might help a smaller athlete rowing with a larger crewmate. The questions are: “How much?” and “Are there other options?”
Rowers have learned to adjust constantly to different situations. Stroke rate and power output vary considerably during training or a race, and even on a day with light breezes, wind speed can change suddenly with small gusts. Rowers are used to adapting to such changes, even though they can’t shift gears like bicyclists. Rowers who differ in size and fitness learn to work together as a crew by developing their technical abilities under the guidance of their coach while using the same rigging measurements. If you study the hand positions of rowers on their oar handles, you’ll see that they vary from athlete to athlete and that rowers move their hands slightly all the time, even during a race.
Rowers are capable of adjusting to small differences in rigging without diminishing performance. Usually, small rigging modifications result in only small effects. When adjusting for body-size differences, for example, changing the span and inboard by one centimeter each in the same direction changes the catch angle by only tenths of a degree. Calculations show that you need to change inboard and span by two centimeters to gain a single degree more of stroke length at the catch—a variation barely noticeable with the naked eye.
Of course, all measurements and adjustments are subject to error. At a rigging clinic once, we coaches compared tape measures and found that some varied by as much as several millimeters in just one meter. Besides inaccurate tools, there’s the human factor—people make mistakes routinely when taking and reading measurements.
Adjustments to rigging should be made with a clear purpose in a precise and logical way. Such changes should be tried and verified first in training. Figuring out the best alignment of stroke length or time of the blade in the water for athletes of different sizes can require extensive measurement changes. As mentioned previously, realistic adjustments in stroke length can be achieved only by changing inboard and span by at least two centimeters, which in turn necessitates an additional change in the outboard by four centimeters.
A coach pondering altering the inboard length when wind conditions change at a regatta would be wise to try such a variation first during training to ascertain how the different path of the handle affects the crew’s overall technique. If the path of the handle is kept the same, the span also must be changed with the inboard variation. Such an intervention can be laborious, especially during the stress of competition, and should be undertaken carefully. It makes more sense to adjust only the outboard when planning a load adjustment; an outboard variation of less than a centimeter will have an effect that’s merely psychological.
Rigging measurements must meet the anticipated speed of the crew. Obviously, Emma Twigg sculls with rigging that’s very different from that of a middle-school girl, since their size, conditioning, and skill differ vastly. Half a centimeter in scull length will not cut it. I encourage coaches to alter oar lengths bluntly for rowers of different performance levels, a process that can be conducted best through objective tests during training.
The challenge of rigging is that there are many possible interventions, and combining them yields an even larger array of options. It helps to know where best to start, based on published research or practical experience. Also essential is equipment that allows us to vary rigging measurements in a meaningful manner. Finally, there’s the crucial element of time—time to try different rigging arrangements and assess what’s best for our particular crews.