Don’t Panic — Part I

A series of beginners’ notes

by Frank Cunningham

There are a number of occasions in rowing when being caught unprepared can have
embarrassing results. Normally, the worst thing that can happen is that we take a
wetting, but sometimes the results are scarier. In any case, knowing what to do is better than succumbing to fear and making a tricky situation worse. What follows are some
suggestions that may go a little way toward eliminating the panic reaction to a number of
commonplace emergencies.

Catching A Crab

It is not often the case that rowers practice catching crabs – too bad – so most people
are taken by surprise by their first one. It can come as a nasty shock. In a race it
can effectively take a crew out of the competition; however, like many of life’s
setbacks, it can be dealt with effectively and safely. To begin with, don’t resist it. Don’t fight the handle. Let it pass over your shoulder. To resist is to risk being taken out of the
boat and at the least, to slow the boat. Left to itself, the oar will come to rest
parallel to the boat, trailing in the water. The boat loses very little speed. To recover the oar requires only the cooperation of the rower behind the crabber, who must allow the
crabbing rower to reach out for his handle, lie down and pass it over his body. The crabbing
rower must roll the handle as he drops it down, lifting the blade out of the water and
rolling it on the feather. The blade will be facing away from the boat so it is
impossible to recover the oar just by pulling the handle back aboard. It was Ky Ebright who persuaded George Pocock to design a rigger without the forestay to the top of the
post to make recovery of the oar easier. Before that time the forestay kept the handle
up, making it very difficult to get the blade out of the water.

Although a good sculler can catch a crab without losing his balance, most people will go over
the side. The coaming of a racing single, particularly a wooden one, is very vulnerable to
the impact of a falling body, so the smart sculler, having lost his balance goes limp and
slides out of his boat like an otter, to deal with the next order of business as philosophically as possible.

The way to avoid a crab is use a light, firm hold on the oar or scull. Second, use very little wrist to take the blade out of the water.

Strike the handle sharply away with a firm wrist, just slightly flexed. Most crabs occur
when the oar is turned too far, too soon, because the rower grips the handle in his fist and
cranks down with his wrist. Properly, the feathering of the oar follows the extraction of the
blade, when the rower opens his hand and lets the oar fall onto the feather and rest on the
sill of the lock. Holding the wrist under the handle as it passes over the thighs virtually
guarantees that the handle will hit the rower hard. With the hand riding the top of the handle, the wrist slightly flexed, the handle will pass under the hand, over the shoulder, harmlessly on its way out-board.

Emergency Stops

Scullers, and rowers in all blind boats, probably take the keenest interest in stopping the boat quickly. The essence of it, as they quickly learn, is to apply resistance equally on both sides of the boat. One marginally effective way to do this is to push upward on the handles, forcing the backs of the blades hard against the water. A better way is to lay the feathered blade against the water, shift the hands slightly over the handle, and then tip the leading edge just enough to allow it to enter the water. With a very firm grip, play the oar until the loom is covered perhaps two feet and hold until it is possible to roll the face of the blade against the water. A little practice will show how this can be done confidently and safely. Well-executed, this method will stop the boat very quickly; as it comes to a stop, the rower is in good position to take an immediate backing stroke – often a necessity. Sad to say, one doesn’t see many crews doing this now. In the long history of rowing it was, however, the standard method. It is much better adapted to maintaining a constant rigger height, therefore, a stable boat, and direction. It depends less on hope and more on good management of the oar.

Frank Cunningham is the author of “The Sculler at Ease” and was among the founders and a longtime coach at the
Lake Washington Rowing Club in Seattle, WA.