Oar Review – Concept2 Comp

When something new or shiny appears at my club or at a regatta, I’m one of the first to poke my nose in to have a closer look. The new pair of Concept2 Comp sculling blades that appeared were certainly no exception. After quickly discovering that these were a demonstration set, I got in touch with C2 UK to get permission to row them.

This isn’t going to be a scientific piece that you might find at Biorow.com so I should introduce myself a bit. As a master’s rower who has been on the water for over 35 years, I’m old enough to have learned on timber macons and young enough to have raced just about every oar style and brand there is. I was never an elite oarsman, but I’ve won enough medals and mugs over the years to fill many a shoebox. I’ve also coached for 30 years, many of those with a Rowing Australia L2 qualification and also as a presenter of the Australian courses.

The Comp blade

The only blade styles I have never sculled with are the Concept2 Fat and the teardrop Dreher styles (APEX-R, ER, ERX etc). Although I am an Australian have have had a little bit of a bias towards the Croker products, my current personal oars are the Dreher EA. After many years of using the sole lonely set of Dreher Apex sculls at my then club I was keen to buy a set of those, but it was suggested that the newer EA would suit my needs. When I’m out in the club quads we have sets of C2 Smoothie 2, C2 Vortex, and Crokers.

Having never experienced the C2 Fat blade, I was relying on the official ‘spiel’ of more load/lock at the front, and the Comp being an evolution of this. To be honest the Comp does look a bit like the Fat blade with the horizontal scale squished by 20 percent! To test this I was going to do a series of short sprint pieces that had varied rowing styles – from a very front heavy power curve, a fairly consistent one, and finally a finish heavy style. I was using my NK SpeedCoach GPS unit to measure the boat speed and metres per stroke. Sadly I do not have access to a Peach system or Empower oarlock (and let’s forget how much money I put into the Oar Inspired Kickstarter that I’m not likely to see again…). I did not try to test the blades in a bigger boat (2x, 4x) because it’s pretty difficult to gain any meaningful insight with all the ‘noise’ of the rest of the crew, although timed testing pieces with a bigger boat would be valid.

Comp vs Fat

The first row got off to a great start. To be honest I was very impressed even with the few initial strokes I took getting away from the dock and straightening up the boat. Many blades can wander a bit at a low pressure (rowing very lightly from a standstill or just after you’ve finished a hard/fast piece and ‘row light’) and seem to hunt a bit for their pitch or height. Experience overcomes this with other oars, but the Comp seemed to find it’s place right away and was confident in my hand. The warm up row was lovely and nothing obvious bothered me.

The first series of test pieces made it clear that the Comp blade really did lock on and load up well at the front end of the stroke. Even when I was trying to emphasise the back end of the stroke the front end still felt ‘on’ and I had to experiment a bit to ensure that I was actually doing the finish heavy power curve that I had intended.

Switching to my personal Dreher EA oars I repeated the same exercises. The EA is a confident blade to row when it has a bit of positive pressure on the face, but can search a bit for it’s height in the water when rowing light. When repeating the three different styles I could match boat speed with a consistent power application, was a bit slower with a finish weighted style, and although I could match the speed with a front loaded stroke I found that I totally blew up doing this. The first few strokes building up speed felt the same, but as I tried to maintain the pace for 20-30 strokes my legs and lungs were working much harder than with the Comp blade. I managed to replicate this on different days. I also did a couple of fun experiments like rowing with one oar from each set – something I’m surprised I’d never tried before!

The blade area comparison is also interesting. I don’t have the detailed C2 figures, but with the data on the Dreher website and a quick look at some photos you can quickly get a rough idea. My personal Dreher blades are listed at 816cm2 and my old favourite Dreher Apex is 818cm2. A quick guess would say that the C2 Smoothie would be about the same size. The Comp is almost identical looking as the Apex-R, which is listed on the Dreher website as being 740cm2. That is a reduction of about 60cm2 per blade, or approximately 10%, from a ‘normal’ cleaver blade. For another interesting comparison the old Dreher macon blade is listed at 747cm2, not too far off the Comp.

From this limited personal testing I would say that the Comp does exactly what Concept2 claims. It is confident and efficient at the front of the stroke, then has a fast swing through towards the finish. It would be interesting to see how well this would perform in a quad scull which would likely benefit even more from this than a 1x.

The only negative feedback I have heard at my club from the few rowers who have trialed the Comp is about the extra depth of the blade. Two experienced Thames Tideway oarsman struggled with the bottom edge in rough waters, which mirrored the issues that they’d each experienced with the Fat blade and that one of them had experienced with a pair of Dreher Apex-R teardrop blades (which are very close in overall shape/area to the Comp). Since most people don’t row on the Tideway or want to train in poor conditions, this may not be a real issue for many rowers. Aside from this, the only issue I can anticipate with this new blade is simply gaining acceptance at clubs. Most clubs are quite conservative with equipment purchases and maintaining very uniform sets of oars is quite normal. Getting someone to take an initial risk to buy a few pairs of any new design is always difficult, but in this case I hope it happens.

As for me, I can say that if I was buying oars tomorrow I would get a pair of the Comp blades. Maybe I save up and get some next year…

Many thanks to Rob at Concept2 UK for permission to use the demonstration set.

If you are keen to do some further reading, please check out Dr Valery Kleshnev’s fantastic Biorow website which has two articles that examine the Comp blade.

Black Beauty

I have recently completed a very complicated repair on a boat that required a lot of new techniques and complex processes.

The boat in question was a dyed black Tulipwood Carl Douglas single scull, which had not only suffered severe damage to the fin box but also had a few other serious issues. Since the boat is used on a tidal river the fin had had a number of accidents and repairs over recent years, with this latest incident being ‘the final straw’.

The most obvious problem was with the fin which had been forced all the way into the boat, taking all the internal frame structure with it. The only way to repair that framing was from the inside of the boat; something that would require making a very big access hole in the hull or completely removing the canvas. The boat’s other major issue was a leak caused by substantial movement at the aft bulkhead whilst sculling – doubtless related to the other crash damage. 

Not supposed to look like this!
Note evidence of prior repairs

At this stage you might be thinking “it’s time to go to the original manufacturer” for such a significant repair. Normally I would agree with you, but for various reasons this was not an option. After some discussion and investigation, I was the only person willing to tackle this major repair job.

So that I could think through the key issues and consult with other experienced boatmen, I drew up an illustrated step-by-step repair plan which documented the damage, the stages of repair, as well as some slight modifications to try and mitigate repeat problems. The process of creating this plan and seeking advice helped all involved be more confident about the work to come.

Since I did not have access to a the original mould to make an entire replacement canvas, it was decided to do the repair from the underside by cutting a hole in the hull. Before that drastic step was taken, a mould was taken off the hull so that a replacement patch could be created for later fitting.

Once the hole was cut, the damaged structural framework was cleaned-up and repaired. The repairs did not duplicate the original design, but were ‘beefed-up’ to increase the structural strength. A deeper replacement keelson section was grafted in, long enough to reach the frames either side of the damaged section. The replacement frame itself was made from two layers of 1.6mm ply laminated together with a light fibreglass layer, which should be much stronger than the original plain 2mm ply structure. An additional frame was added to the stern end of the fin box area to increase strength in case of another heavy impact.

During this process I was also tackling the problems in the cockpit. The only way to see what was going on under the aft bulkhead was to remove it, which was done very carefully to ensure that the original framing was retained. The framing here is very minimal in its design and had come completely adrift from the keelson. Without this framing, the entire bottom of the hull was able to flex with every stroke (ie as the footplate is pushed by the leg drive). Using some extra timber sections and the same ply/glass lamination used for the hull framing, a triangular support was added to support the hull and replacement bulkhead.

The work on the hull patch continued separately, with a male mould created from the female one that had been taken directly from the hull. Using wax sheet to compensate for the hull thickness, the male mould was soon ready for laminating the new section of hull. This was done in the same manner as the original boat construction, i.e. a kevlar and core timber laminated in one process, then a second kevlar layer and the Tulipwood veneer in another process.

With the bulkhead repair done, the replacement hull and fin box framing complete, it was finally time to tackle the difficult task of carefully scarfing in the patch over the access hole in the hull. This was the one part of the job that I had been dreading because I had never done this before and it is very unforgiving if you are aiming for a neat finish. Unlike any modern ‘white plastic’ boat, you can’t just use a bit of filler and paint to cover up any untidy edges – you’ve got to get it right first time.

I was lucky to have a boatman, with experience of similar repairs, come out of retirement to assist me. As you can see in the images, there was a lot of careful measuring, scarfing, trimming and trial fitting required. This job took a long time as the fit was more difficult to get right than anticipated.

Once the hull patch was complete, a new jig was used to cut the trench for the moulded fibreglass fin slot (in the exact-same manner as the original construction), with the incorporation of a new feature designed to allow the fin to knock free in the event of any further heavy knocks.

However, there was still further work required in order to completely finish off the boat: It was agreed at the outset that it made sense to respray the entire boat. Therefore a full rub back was required and along the way I found a few hidden problems from previous repairs which made for a lot of extra work. 

Eventually everything came together and the boat was finally completed. The bulkhead repair looks excellent with the extra framing adding just 60g to the weight of the boat. The hull patch edges are barely visible, but the area of the repair (caused by the difficult patch shape) can be seen in the light as you look along the hull. The beefed-up keelson and structural frames in the hull and fin box added about 200g. The boat owner is happy to have his boat back in working – possibly even improved – order, and I suspect that the insurance company is pleased to have not had to pay out on a complete write off!

Repair by correspondence

No matter what sort of river, lake, or other waterway it is located on, every rowing club has the special thing that every rower or crew crashes into. It could be a black buoy, the arch of a bridge, a pile in the middle of nowhere, or even an overhanging tree – but hitting it is almost a ‘rite of passage’ for rowers on that course. You know it’s there. Your coach has reminded you. You’ve heard the stories from other club members. But you hit it anyway. The stories I could tell you about the Moomba Masters waterski jump on the Yarra River…

In Hong Kong the thing that everyone seems to hit (aside from bridges) is the seasonal dragon boat race starting pontoon. It’s there every year. There’s plenty of room to row around it. The course is straight. And my friend rowed his Carl Douglas 1x right into it and fell backwards, flattening the wash boards (‘V-piece’ ).

I eagerly agreed to repair the boat as long as I didn’t have to pay to fly to Hong Kong to do it. Since my friend has a bazillion frequent flyer points this part was going to be easy. My plan was to enjoy a fully paid for holiday to catch up with friends and do a bit of boat repair on the side.

Then the pandemic hit and every plan went right out the window.

After putting up with a wet backside for over a year, my friend finally cracked and decided that he had to get it fixed immediately. (The area of bare timber was sealed and the boat was perfectly rowable in fine conditions).

I agreed to provided detailed and illustrated instructions so that a local carpenter could do the job. Since both halves of the wash boards had broken free fairly neatly and were recovered, it should have been a fairly simple patch up. The boat was duly transported to the club’s marine boatyard (the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club isn’t your average ‘rowing club’…).

Then another disaster struck. The wash board pieces were misplaced!

Luckily I had a set of new ‘blank’ wash boards – in the correct timber – that I had prepared earlier for another job. I say ‘luckily’ as cutting, preparing and laminating 5 layers of timber veneer in a -I-I- orientation is a very big job. With a bit of a lengthy re-write of the instructions and many more pictures attached, I sent everything off to Hong Kong.

I think you will all agree that ‘Si Fu’ the local master craftsman (師傅) did a fantastic job, especially considering he’d never worked on a rowing boat before let alone a CDRS, and had to do it all with the aid of translated instructions and a bunch of photos.

I’ve told my friend to pay more attention to his course and to NOT DO IT AGAIN!.

Murphy’s Law

Even during these strange days of Covid related lockdowns and pandemic pandemonium, even Murphy’s Law can rise up above it all to bite you on the backside.

It all started in the middle of last year when I quoted to do a renovation on a rather battered old boat. The old varnish tells the story…

Half the boat was white with moisture damaged varnish.

However, it wasn’t all bad news. Overall the boat was actually in good structural condition. The damaged varnish might have looked a fright, but it didn’t compromise the strength of the boat. And the hole in the hull was actually quite small.

Nothing a bit of new veneer couldn’t fix!

The boat also needed a few new parts including an entire replacement footplate. This was laminated with three thicknesses of 200gsm carbon twill either side and between two pieces of 4mm plywood, all with a veneer added to the top. I chose to put a stripe in the veneer to match the decks.

But getting back to Mr Murphy…

Not only did the poor state of the hull take much more time to strip back than anticipated, I managed to contract Chicken Pox from my young daughter at the same time. This knocked me out for a couple of weeks and as a result I was late getting the boat ready for my spray painter friend.

When I did finally get the boat ready to go the spray painter, he had bad news. He’d taken on some other work and I’d missed my spot and would have to wait two weeks.

Once the two weeks was up, I delivered the boat. Then the spray painter called with more bad news. His compressor had ‘died’ and was waiting on parts.

After another two weeks I called again. He had good news and bad news. The bad news was that his compressor had died again (the next part down from the first failed one) and he was waiting for a replacement to be delivered, but the good news was that he’d done this boat before it happened!

So I was finally able to deliver the boat to the client!

Or I wasn’t.

The client was now unavailable due to Covid reasons.

14 days later…the boat was delivered!

It’s still a bit ‘cosmetically challenged’ due to the damage to the old varnish, but she’s water tight, shiny, and fully rigged!

Progress in a time of pandemic

Things have been getting done, despite the odd state of the world.

I’ve managed to catch up on the oar jobs and complete a couple of minor boat repairs for clients, which has meant more time to get on with the in house jobs.

The CNC router is almost ready to go. The mechanical and electrical work is done, and all I need to do is find a convenient time to drag my computer down to the workshop to get the firmware upgrades and other start up items done.

One of the project boats is now completed and up for sale. A lovely 40 year old Carl Douglas 1x. Look at www.rowingadverts.co.uk to see.

The list of repairs and modifications include:
– loose frames re bonded.
– replacement of bow canvas ridge (using recycled timber from old oars!).
– three holes in the hull patched (including removing old bodge filler. repairs).
– repairing the ovalized rigger bolt holes.
– fixing the damaged tip of the bow.
– adding a fibreglass reinforcement strip to the bow as per newer CDRS boats.
– fitting an enlarged breasthook with a veneered cap to allow a much neater fitting of the bow number holder.
– making a new veneered footplate.
– new soft deck material.
– new running gear (rails, wheels, oarlocks, shoes.

Quite an undertaking and very educational.

Living in lockdown

The world as we knew it changed a little while ago, but I’m still making some progress even if it is at a greatly reduced pace.

With only a handful of working hours available to me (I’m the primary parent in the household) I’m limited in what I can achieve.

A number of oar jobs have been completed, with a few more progressing well.

I’ve managed to assemble a new CNC routing machine, although it is not yet running due to a lack of a spare computer for the workshop. Hopefully I’ll have it up and working soon creating parts and moulds for jobs.

Oar Repairs

I have been rather busy lately doing oar renovations for a number of clubs and individuals. While doing this I have had a few conversations with people who are not happy with their current oars, yet do not see the value in paying money to change this.

We all know that everyone wants new shiny equipment, but new shiny parts will often do exactly the same job for a fraction of the cost!

No one seems to be surprised that cars often need new tyres, and drivers with any experience know that new rubber makes a lot of difference to the safety and performance of a car. Why does that concept often fail to transfer to rowing equipment?

The sleeves, collars, and handles of oars are all ‘wear’ items. They all are worn down by use until the oar is left uncomfortable or difficult to use. Worn sleeves lead to pitch and feathering problems. Collars can slip and even get caught on the oarlock. Handles beyond their use by date can cause blisters or just be uncomfortable to use.

All can be replaced cheaply and simply. You don’t need specialist tools and a reasonably competent person with ‘DIY’ skills can do it. The leading oar makers even provide detailed step-by-step manuals and demonstration videos.

With a new sleeve and collar, an old oar will lock on and then square or feather like a new one.

The oar makers themselves are often surprised by how few people actually do renovation work to their oars.

Strangely, I have noticed that it is often the better resourced clubs (those who can afford experienced coaches and boatmen) who take the most advantage of the savings to be made by renovating oars. The less well off clubs who most need it often lack the knowledge to even consider it.

If you are a club who has a tight budget, please do not forget to consider the economy of oar renovations. Very few rowers can tell a new oar shaft from an old one when rowing, but they can tell you if it doesn’t feather properly or tears up their hands.

Busy with boats

I’ve been rather busy the past few weeks with some boat renovations.

Two older Carl Douglas boats that were in good condition overall considering their age (both from the early 1990s) have now received a new lease on life.

Both needed repairs to the washboards (a common issue) but otherwise were largely in need of a rub back, minor touch ups, the a new coat of shiny and protective clear coat.

Please, for my own sanity if nothing else: If you own a CDRS boat, don’t cover things up with tape and mean to get to it later. It needs attention now – even if only a temporary repair – so that it doesn’t get worse! Once exposed, timber does degrade quickly.

The growth of the boat renovation side of things means that I’ll need to reorganise the workshop to give me more room. A good thing, even if it means a few days of hard work and complete disarray!

Boat Race boats

With the Boat Races taking place today, you may have wondered how the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race crews try to stay dry, there are a number of ways.

I was working down on the Putney embankment and had a quick look at the CUBC boats. This is what I saw…

Special splash boards:
Bolted to the underside of the gunwale flange are some custom made wide boards. Made from sheets of a carbon-foam-carbon laminate and cut in sections to neatly match the shape of the boat.

The extra 10cm or so width helps to keep the water out, but it looks like they would be a time consuming pain to fit and remove, and carrying the boat would be much more difficult.

Taller gunwale edge:
These boats also have a larger freeboard height with about 40mm added to the height of the gunwales. This would be easy enough to build as it would only require some extra sections to be added to the standard production mould in the factory.

To ensure clearance for the hands, one of the rigger mounts is now inside the boat (instead of on the other gunwale flange) on a special carbon section. See the twin sets of mounts on each side of the hull.

Enlargement of image showing extra rigger mounts.

The riggers are custom made to allow for this difference in height. Easy with alloy wing riggers (as per the Goldie boat), but the carbon riggers on the Blue boat must have required some special work. I can only presume that a whole new set of moulds were needed – not cheap!

Other ‘tricks’:
The boats for both universities have used electrically powered pumps for some time. The coxswain’s seat has a switch to activate these. The technology has improved steadily over the years and the current designs are very light and powerful. Lithium Ion battery packs are a welcome improvement over the old heavy lead-acid motorcycle batteries of years gone by.

I wasn’t able to see the details of the pumps, but each boatman has their own special tricks and ideas about the best way to set these up. Differences between the clubs would include number of pumps (one per seat, one per two seats), location of piping, types of valves used (to prevent air-locks in the pipes for eg) and so on.

Webshop about to open

After a lot of work behind the scenes we hope to soon be managing our own webshop. This will make sales much easier to coordinate.

There are also a couple of new products that we hope will be a great help to many of you!