A Remote-Controlled Coxswain

Way back in 2006, I was asked to coach at Craftsbury. Two adaptive scullers would be at the camp for a week and that was when I first met James and Linda Mumford.

They both were born with Usher’s syndrome, a condition characterized by partial or total hearing loss and vision loss that worsens over time. Linda is totally blind and James is partially blind and deaf, but they both have cochlear implants to give them limited hearing.

In 2006 I helped coached James and Linda in a double on Great Hosmer Pond. I would follow them in a launch for each session.

The following year in 2007 I received word that James and Linda would be returning for another week at Craftsbury, but this year they wanted to scull in singles. I worked together with Linda for the week. This year I ended up coaching from my single while wearing a mic and a transmitter so Linda would be able to hear me. At the end of the week Linda raced in her single in the Head of the Hosmer race. I stayed a few lengths ahead to provide steering advice, but Linda covered the course in the single.

This morning I was reading Row2k and came across this article: “Remote Coxswain leads to success for blind rowers in Sarasota“. James and Linda have been experimenting with sculling a double and a single with a remote controlled rudder system designed by Bob Berry. Take a moment to read the article to learn more.

I have the fondest memories of coaching Linda and James at Craftsbury. It comes as no surprise that they continue to be trail blazers in using technology to continue their adventures on the water!

Learning to Scull – The Basics

During the Summer of 2018 I enjoyed teaching a learn to row class at Sagamore Rowing in Oyster Bay, NY. I prepared a handout for each class with the lesson for the day. During the summer, the class ran for three weeks at a time and we met up each Tuesday and Thursday evening.

Below is an outline of what we worked on and each day links to a handout:

I hope this info can be helpful to anyone who is learning to row or scull. Sculling is a wonderful pursuit and is always an adventure!

Light Your Way

For safety in the Fall season, anyone on the water near or after sunset MUST have lights on their shell. Every shell needs both a red/green bow light and a white stern light.

My personal choice for lights are the RowKraft Beacon Lights. I have used the same set of RowKraft lights for over five years now. The lights are rechargeable and are very, very bright.

There a number of options for lights:

The Bright Eyes lights listed above should be able to be attached to the rigger on the shell.

Some rowers also like to wear a small LED hiking headlamp which could be used in place of a white stern light.

Note, I recommend taking the lights off the shell before washing the shell at the end of the row to avoid getting the lights wet.

Three Pause Drill

The Three Pause Drill is a drill that I learned from Jim Joy. The purpose of this drill is to break down the parts of the recovery and the entry to gain a better understanding of how to let the blades meet the water efficiently.

  1. Start by sitting at the release, blades square in the water.
  2. Release the blade from the water, then slide up the full slide and pause with the blades feathered on the water.
  3. Then square the blades into the water and again pause.
  4. Then take a full stroke to the release and release the blade onto the feather.
  5. Let the boat glide, then bring the boat to a stop and reset.
  6. Do the drill again.

The Fluid Release

The fluid release is a concept I first learned from coach Jim Joy. Below are many great points quoted from Jim Joy’s paper on “The Sculler’s Philosophy and The Whole Technique”. Jimmy refers to the release as a “critical section of the stroke cycle” that “parallels the follow through of the golf and tennis swings.” Ideas to focus on include:

  • “The hands and fingers have a light hold on the handles. The wrists are flat and exerting power through the handle.” 
  • “The trunk and legs finishing the drive phase of the stroke simultaneously form a nice 15 degree triangle beyond the perpendicular and serve as stabilizers for the arms in and out of bow.” 
  • “There is a nice flow from the elbows; the little anconeus muscle on the posterior side of the elbow joint is the activator for the release and smooth follow through actions.”

Back when I attended the Black Bear Sculling Camp, I had the pleasure of first learning the release sequence as taught by Jim Joy. Jimmy explains that there are five movements in total:

  1. “the slight drop of the hands,” 
  2. “the slight break in the wrists,” 
  3. “the arms extended,” 
  4. “the trunk moves forward through the perpendicular” 
  5. “and the seat start with the knees rising.”

“This whole movement is completed as a single quick and relaxed movement. As such it should be drilled as a whole, a quick and relaxed motion. It is highly athletic. Again, similar to the entry, it is without the ego. It has the quality of emptiness attached to it. Between these two movements, the entry and the release, completed with skill, accuracy and consistency lies our ability to develop Flow at every opportunity.“

I have found in my own sculling that the above mentioned release sequence has helped smooth out my release and in turn this allows the shell to glide more easily. Interestingly enough, the very first bullet point in this article, “The hands and fingers have a light hold on the handles”, definitely comes into play at the release.

While paying attention to both my own sculling and also observing scullers on the water, if we are not mindful, it is too often the case that we will end up trying to turn the handle while on the drive. I have found the more I allow the handles to remain out in my fingers, I have enough purchase on the handles to exert power while I allow the release to then begin with a “the slight drop of the hands”. I have heard Jimmy describe “the hands move downward slightly with the blade a quarter out of the water.” So we are trying to see just the top quarter of the blade come out of the water vertically before we begin to feather the blades.

A few additional points from Jimmy on the blades include: 

  • “The blade is positioned at blade depth when the release begins.” 
  • “The hands move downward slightly with the blade a quarter out of the water.” 
  • “At this point the feathering of the blade begins and the blade is released from the water at a forty-five degree angle to the water’s surface.” 
  • “So it is an efficient, elliptical motion and not a squared action.”

So I hope the above description helps you with gaining a more detailed understanding of the release and developing a greater sense of flow to your sculling. As always, I view sculling as a life long pursuit, so the continuous refining of the sculling stroke is our goal.

An Exercise in Self-Rescue

As the saying goes “there are two types of scullers, those who have flipped and those who will”. Since flipping over in a sculling shell will eventually happen to everyone, practicing how to get back into the shell is an important skill every sculler needs to learn. Borrowing from Troy Howell at Craftsbury, let’s think of this as “an exercise in self-rescue“.

The steps listed below are borrowed from an excellent article by Marlene Royle:

  1. Hold onto the boat once you are in the water. Never leave your boat and try to swim. The boat and oars will float you. Come up near the rigger.
  2. Stay relaxed and catch your breath.
  3. Make sure that the boat is righted with the seat up. If you rolled the boat so it is upside down, press down on the rigger nearest you to begin to roll the boat, then reach across and pull the other rigger down towards you so the boat will be right.
  4. The oar closest to you should be all the way into the oarlock and the blade flat on the water so it can support you. Hold this handle down in the boat with your hand nearest the foot stretchers.
  5. Next, you need to get the other oar handle so you can hold both handles in the bottom of the boat. You may need to jump up or reach to get the other handle but you must get both handles together in one hand before you can continue.
  6. Push your seat towards the bow.
  7. Hold both handles in your hand closest to the foot stretchers, and with your other hand reach across to the gunnel. You will need to keep pressing on the handles.
  8. Kick and jump into the boat as if you are getting out of a swimming pool onto the deck of the pool. You need to be focused on getting the weight of your hips over the boat and into the seat deck. Avoid trying to pull yourself into the boat.
  9. Once your hips are in the boat, you are stomach-down, kick again, turn and sit, letting your legs dangle over the side of the boat still. Don’t let go of your oar handles here.
  10. Raise your oar handles up to right the boat.
  11. Make sure both blades are flat on the water and you are stable.
  12. Swing your legs in the boat.
  13. Put one foot back and scoot yourself back on the seat.
  14. Put your feet back in the shoes.
  15. Practice it again!

Below are two videos that illustrated the above steps. I recommend watching the videos several times to familiarize yourself with the steps.


Our focus should be on understanding the steps to getting back into the shell. It’s a step-by-step process that both videos illustrate this very well.

Be prepared. Take time to practice this skill and the day that you flip, you will be well prepared to self-rescue yourself.

 

Summer of 1998

What is the value in learning something new?

Looking back at the summer of 1998, that was the year I began learning more about this sport of sculling. After several years of sculling and learning mostly on my own, I traveled up north to two sculling camps, Craftsbury Sculling Center in Vermont, and later in the summer, to the NorthEast Rowing Center in Maine.

At Craftsbury I learned the value of how a properly rigged shell can truly fit the athlete in an entirely different way. I also learned that sculling is more than just a series of goals, drills, and measured distances. Relaxing and simply enjoying the movement in the shell over the water changed the way I experienced sculling. My time at Craftsbury in 1998 was so enjoyable that I have returned nearly every summer ever since.

At the NorthEast Rowing Center I had the opportunity to learn from two coaches, Brad Alan Lewis and Jimmy Joy. The difference here is that the group of scullers I was in was lead by the same coach for two and half days and then switched to work with the other coach for another two and half days. This format really allowed each coach to guide their athletes in their way of teaching the sport over an extended period. What stands out most in my memory was just how much different the style of each coach was in how they taught and described sculling.

Since at the time there wasn’t much opportunity to be coached in sculling at home, traveling to camps, clinics and conferences became a regular part of my learning process over many years.

As I look back, the value I found in learning from so many terrific coaches over the years is in understanding that there are just so many different ways to view the sport of sculling. Learning, much like sculling, is a lifelong pursuit. And in turn, sharing what I have learned with other athletes continues to be very rewarding.

Who knew the long drives up north in the summer of 1998 would begin this journey of learning that continues through today.

 

Summer Solstice 2018

This evening was the summer solstice and I had the good fortune of it also being both high tide and fairly calm water. I ventured out onto the bay in my single. At first the power boat traffic had stirred up the water, but I soon found a study rhythm.

Since it was high tide it dawned on me that I could row all the way to the dam in Mill Neck creek and back, an 11K round trip. I was rewarded with some near perfect sculling conditions at the back of the creek and on the row home, the sky looked like the photo above. (Note, the photo I borrowed from @elisasantorowitzenburg.)

During the row I pondered many of the points mentioned in Jim Joy’s latest article, The Modern Trunk Swing. The concept as I understand it is for the sculler to have a near continuous trunk swing through out the drive and the recovery. When I do this well, the shell runs near level and the boat has an entirely light feel to it, with one stroke blending into the next.

On the way back, even in the rough patches of water on the bay, the shell still felt light and the strokes felt continuous. I hope you take a few minutes to read Jimmy’s article and ponder the points that are discussed.

In Unison

So one goal I have had for a while, several years now, is to switch back to sculling more in the mornings. This morning my alarm clock went off at 5 a.m. and around 5:45 a.m. I was pulling up outside the boathouse. The sunrise colors were amazing and the water was one calm layer of glass.

This is why I love sculling in the mornings. The feel is entirely different. The bay is quieter, the water is calmer (sometimes) and it’s just such a joyous way to start off my day.

This morning I had the added motivation of teaching a private lesson. We continued to work on the Joy Stroke with today’s focus on the ideas of rhythm, swing from the hips, when to look ahead, and the overall movement.

Borrowing heavily from the Joy Stroke as taught by Jim Joy, the discussion included a variety of ideas noted below.

The first idea was on rhythm. This included ideas for the both the recovery and the drive. On the recovery, the thoughts included: “allowing the shell to slide under the body as the recovery is done”; the “body is in a state of recovery and relaxation”; and how the “shell will [ideally] run level and continuous”.

Then on the drive, this morning’s thoughts included: “using an integrated drive from the entry to the release”; the “arms, trunk and legs are a whole application throughout the entire the drive”; and “the blade at blade depth and maintained throughout the drive”.

Our next focal point was on the swing from the hips. The “body sits lightly on the seat”. Feel your weight shift fore and aft on the seat through the stroke. Stretch, not strain. The swing from the hips throughout both the recovery and the drive has been a focus in my own sculling this past year through today. The swing from the hips controls the recovery, so it is no longer an idea of drawing the shell under me by pulling on my toes, and it is instead a great sense of float as the hip angle changes throughout the stroke. No set body angles early in the recovery. This is a more athletic approach and it is also a considerable departure from what I learned many years ago.

Since it was low tide, the shore line undulates in and out at low tide, so we also gave thought on when to look ahead (while sculling). I still prefer to teach the idea of the best time to look while sculling is just after the blades enter the water. The motion of looking ahead should have a rhythm to it. The overall idea is to be able to look ahead at the entry, but try to have finish looking before the release.

A few year’s back I switched over to using a small mirror on my eye glasses to look ahead. Since I wear prescription eye glasses, using a mirror has made steering much easier, but the last steering point discussed this morning was the importance of looking ahead every 5 to 10 strokes. We need to stay aware of our surroundings and not simply row and hope … hope that we do not run into anything.

Finally we gave thought to the overall movement with the focus being on an “athletic continuous flowing movement” with “everything is in a state of flux or change”. This includes “everything, legs, trunk, arms work together in unison”. “A well-timed drive in sculling will result in the legs body and arms finishing at the same time”. “Pull no more than feels easy and good and fluid”. “Less words, analysis and description and more whole stroke doing”.

I have benefitted so much from learning the Joy Stroke from Jim Joy over the years and this morning I continued to enjoy the effort to share this experience with a fellow sculler. I continue to look at sculling as a life-long pursuit. A continued effort to move towards an more seamless stroke while staying in tune with the surroundings. Feeling when a stroke is in unison with all is truly a beautiful moment in time.

Free Floating Out on the Bay

The first row each year always has a special feel to it. Here in the Northeast of the United States, we are often off the water for the entire Winter due to ice and cold weather. So come each Spring, as the bay thaws, I truly look forward to that first row on the bay.

Last night I finally got back out in a single on Oyster Bay. I just enjoy the whole process. Chatting with the other scullers at the boathouse. Carrying the shell down to the beach to wet launch. Wearing boots to keep my feet dry in the early Spring. But what I enjoy most are those first few strokes after launching.

The shell glides away from the beach and I begin to refamiliarize myself with the feel of the oars, the blades in the water, and the wonderful glide of the shell. Early Spring rows are often so quiet with little to no boat traffic on the water. Last night was one of those magical first rows where the shell felt great, the water was calm, and it just felt terrific to be free floating out on the bay.