It was a blazing-hot Florida day. I was busy, elbow-deep in boat work.
I had to leave a boat outside in slings—in the sun.
That boat, named after the President of our University, “Jerome P. Keuper” was a single-skin fiberglass eight. It was older but still in decent shape.
Around mid-day, with the sun at full strength, the fiberglass of the Keuper’s hull gave way. The heat and years of sunlight caused the fiberglass in the boat to give up its strength and turn-to-mush.
The part of the shell sitting on the slings caved in and the boat crashed to the ground. The Keuper was a total loss. The best part of my day was informing my boss and the President of the school that I’d destroyed his boat. That was fun.
Since then I’ve always visualized a shell as a living thing with the thought that if I care for it, feed it, love it, then it will take care of me. Sure…it’s hippy-thinking, but I’ve worked with hundreds-and-hundreds of shells over the years and that thinking has always served me well.
How do I get my rowing shell ready to row?
Imagine you’ve been on vacation for an extended period…when it’s time to go back to work it is a significant shift. You’ve got to get ready for a new routine. New workflows. New actions.
The same for a shell.
As Dickie Pereli, owner of Inriver Tank and Boat told me, “The time and effort you put into caring for your shell BEFORE the season is like taking care of your car before a long trip. No one wants to be stranded on the side of the road, missing out on the vacation you’ve planned for years. The same with rowing—investing now into shell maintenance will help you get where you want to go.“
A shell that has been dormant for a few weeks (or longer) needs to be prepared to get back to work. And to help you get yours ready to get back to work I’d like to give you a roadmap.
Why use a roadmap?
A roadmap helps you get where you need to go. You pick the destination, the map guides you.
Following is a roadmap I use before each season to get shells ready to row. I found it increased the chance that a shell will be ready. Additionally, there were a few side-benefits such as:
- Increasing the life of the shell
- Reducing injuries
- Saving money
- Having more productive practices
- Missing less water time
That’s a lot of benefits! Following is the roadmap, and it starts with dividing a shell up into areas that I call Zones.
Five specific Zones to help you fine tune your rowing shell preparation
To make things easier to get things done I divide a shell into five Zones. I put my focus on each Zone and try to work only in that Zone until it’s done, and then I’ll move onto the next Zone. This helps me focus and conserve time and resources. Each Zone has several actions to take.
To be clear, these actions are NOT about making rigging adjustments and fine tuning for speed. Instead, they ARE about getting the equipment READY for those adjustments. The work BEFORE the work, if you will. The assignments before the exam.
Off we go to greatness…
Zone 1: The Hull (inside & outside)
Of all the equipment we have in rowing there’s one piece you cannot ignore—the shell’s hull.
It’s big. It’s important. And it needs love and attention.
And it will eventually get all it needs…when it leaks, or breaks. But why wait until something bad like that occurs? Let’s head those issues off-at-the-pass.
Action 1: Clean the hull. Start by cleaning the outside of the hull. Cleaning it by hand can give you a feel of dings, dents or worse.
I typically wash it with soap and water unless I need to keep it dry for a repair. In that case I will just wipe the dust and dirt away with a dry cloth. (It is amazing how dusty a shell gets sitting in the racks.)
Action 2: Fix dents and holes. When cleaning, did you find dings/dents/holes? This is the best time to fix them. Putting SMALL repairs off often means that they won’t get done until they turn into BIG repairs.
Action 3: Check and repair any superstructure issues. Turn the boat seats-up and check the insides. There you will find the superstructure, which gives the boat its strength and rigidity.
This is done by different methods depending on the manufacturer. For example, some shells are made with supporting braces throughout the boat, while others may use a horizontal deck called a monocoque-decking system.
Regardless of the method used the superstructure takes a lot of wear and tear. In fact, every time a stroke is taken there are forces that work against the structure. Therefore it’s critical that the boat’s structure is maintained. If it isn’t then the boat will lose its rigidity and become inefficient.
So, look for structural parts that are broken or loose. For small issues, make a note to keep a watchful eye on them, and for bigger concerns get it repaired pronto.
Action 4: Bowball and bow number holder. This is a perfect time to make sure the bowball is safe (meaning it is in good shape and attached securely) and the clip for the bow number is also securely attached. More than one rower has missed a race due to no bowball, just as more than one race result has been contested after the fact due to a bow number that didn’t make it to the finish line.
Now let’s move onto the seats…
Zone 2: The Seats
Seats are critical for function AND for comfort. Don’t cut corners with seats. Nothing will distract a rower quicker than a squealing seat (like fingernails being dragged down a blackboard) or an uncomfortable seat-top.
Action 5: Clean and in right place. Remove each seat and give each a cleaning. Then make sure that the right seat is put in the right place (boat and position). Double check for magnets for the electronic sensors.
Action 6: Condition of wheels. Are the wheels in good shape? Like the tires on your car, seat wheels wear and need replacing. If yours show signs of wear, such as cracks, breaks or reduced size, replace with new ones.
And check to see if the wheels are securely attached (some times the fasteners on the end of the axle will come lose).
Action 7: Condition of tracks. Now turn your attention to the tracks. Good shape? Or pitted, aged, bumpy? Tracks, like seat wheels, wear and need replacement, and new tracks often improve the feeling of rowing. I’ve found it best to replace both tracks in a position at the same time, but if your budget is tight replacing one at a time will probably work.
Action 8: Condition of seat top. This is a critical comfort area for every rower. The top needs to be clean, smooth and without issue. If it is not in a condition which YOU would want to sit on for hours at a time then fix or replace.
Next are the foot stretchers…
Zone 3: The Foot stretchers
The foot stretchers form a platform for rowing. Like seats, the foot stretchers are critical to function and comfort. Each of the following action applies to both standard foot stretchers or quick-release foot stretchers.
Action 9: Correct sizes. Are the sizes of the shoes correct (or even in the ball park) for the rowers? The closer the size to the rower’s foot the better the rowing. And YES I know…many of you are in situations where different people will be cycling through the seats, and that makes sneaker sizing a crazy time. But do the best you can to get the right size for the rower. Adjust as needed (both sneaker and rower)
Action 10: Condition of sneakers. Sneakers rip, they tear, they disintegrate into dust. A new set of sneakers, like the tracks we just discussed, can do wonders to improve rowing. Best to do this now instead of 5 minutes before launching for a race!
Action 11: Condition of fasteners. Check all fasteners for the sneakers and the foot stretcher. Tighten loose ones and replace bad ones.
Action 12: Heel ties/attachments. Heel ties will come loose, disintegrate, disappear. Your mission is to make them rock solid. This step is not just about keeping referees happy at the racing launch dock. This is about keeping your rowers safe.
Having been in more than one capsized boat I can tell you that being able to get your feet OUT of the sneakers is something you want to work every time. 100%. Without failure.
Next up, the riggers…
Zone 4: The Riggers
A rigger supports the oar, giving it a connection to the boat so that the power put into the oar propels the boat. This means a rigger endures a lot of stress and strain. Mix that in with the terrors of travel a rigger goes through and it’s surprising that more riggers don’t call in sick.
Action 13: In right place? It’s uncanny, riggers have a knack for being in the wrong place usually at the wrong time—and it doesn’t matter how well they are marked. So a simple question, do you know that each of your riggers are attached to the correct position in your boat? Are you a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y certain?
Action 14: Condition of rigger frame. Check the rigger’s frame for issues such as cracks (especially at welds), bent stays, missing or broken fasteners. Repair and replace as needed.
Action 15: Correctly tight. After confirming riggers are placed correctly and are in good shape, tighten them correctly. Here’s a suggestion.
Action 16: Clean the oarlock. Turn your attention to the oarlocks. They get yucky…unbelievable so. (I actually found someone’s gum stuck on an oarlock. Why?). Clean the entire thing, especially where the oar rests. While cleaning, check for wear, replacing oarlocks with excessive wear and keeping a watchful eye on those that are potential candidates for future replacement.
Zone 5: The Steering
Without good steering there is no telling where the boat will end up. So, is your steering working?
That’s a loaded question because a human steers the boat and only a few of them actually do it well. Make it easier by focusing on the steering mechanism and if it is in good condition.
Action 17: How are the cables? Steering cables will wear, even stainless steel ones. Look at the cables, especially near any friction areas. Need replacing? If so, would you rather do it now or the night before the big race (or on the launch dock of the big race)?
Action 18: Correct fin? With some makes of boats you can have different rudders for different seasons. If yours is adjustable, do you have the correct one on the boat?
Action 19: Coxswain seat. The coxswain seat usually only gets attention from the coxswain. They work hard—do them a solid and make sure where they sit and work is comfortable, safe, and functional.
For example, most coxswains have some variation of electronics they are dealing with. Are the holders for said electronics conveniently placed and solidly attached? A coxswain holding a SpeedCoach in one hand only has one hand to steer with.
Action 20: Toe good? If the boat is toe-steered, how are the connections and cables?
Action 21: Fin straight, rudder solid? Some steering issues are not due to human error but actually to misaligned fins or broken rudders. Are they both in good working order? If the fin is bent can you gently straighten it? If the rudder is broken can you fix it? If in doubt or either needs replacement, reach out to the manufacturer for suggestions or parts as needed.
There are 21 Actions you can take. Some quick-and-easy, some not, but all designed to help you get your shell ready for the season. However you do it, be religious with your shell care. As Pereli noted, “You want turn the necessity of maintenance into the habit/routine of maintenance.“
After you complete these actions and have confidence your shell is ready it will be time to start rigging—making the adjustments for performance and speed.Here and here are a few resource to help you get there.