Boat Race ‘bulk’

A quick look at some boat technology ahead of The Boat Race that adds weight to the event (and no, we are not talking about big gains in the weights room or eating too many pies).


Whilst trying to deliver something to a club at Putney today, I found my path ‘rudely’ blocked by some other club leaving their boats on trestles in the middle of the boat bays. After carefully squeezing past these important craft and bashing my shin on the rigger of a juniors boat (you’d think that after 30+ years in boathouses I’d be better at getting around without causing myself to bleed), I delivered my job and decided to have a bit of a closer look.

Custom Kit
The eights raced in The Boat Race are not standard boats. Not only are they often built to custom specifications, they are outfitted with many strange bits of equipment. The individual club boatmen have actually designed and sometimes also fabricated the more event-specific items.

Much of the special equipment is geared to performing well on the unique Tideway championship course. Some of the extra kit is geared to the whole ‘performance’ that is need to satisfy the huge media interest in the race.

This extra gear is loaded in on top of the standard weight of the boat. World Rowing rules provide for 96kg minimum race weight for eights. Most top end boats are built a little under the minimum, then have weights added.

Despite having very new and top of the range boats, the Oxford and Cambridge crews will line up with at least an extra 10kg of bulk in their boats, possibly more.

Wet and Wild
The Tideway can throw up some very exciting conditions. Crews have sunk more than a few times over the years whilst racing in this event. The general weather this year in the UK has been pretty poor and many regattas have been cancelled due to flooded rivers.

Huge wave cutters and wave breaks are needed. There are also large bolt on additions to the sides of the boats to help prevent water rolling in along the length of the hull. This hull is the Cambridge top boat which has an extra tall sax board (and custom made riggers to suit). It is also not sectioned as they were seeking to have the most stiff boat possible.

Not installed at the moment are the high powered battery powered pumps that are used to clear the footwells in the worst conditions. Each club’s boatman has their own secret ‘special sauce’ for how they set up the pumps to be light, efficient and to avoid things like air locks in the hoses.

Crew Performance
In addition to the weight of the standard CoxBox set up, this boat has a full Peach telemetry system installed. Sensors on every oarlock, data screens at every seat, lots of wiring. This is approaching 4-5kg of extra weight.

You might think the full telemetry kit in the boat on race day is not needed, but remember that this is no sprint event. These athletes need to be hitting just the right performance for over four miles, not flaming out over a short sprint.

Stroke seat with two screens (note size of saxboard extension)

Public Performance
Here is another big weight gain, luckily shared equally by both crews.

The huge interest in the race around the world means top quality media coverage. This means cameras in the boats and linked telemetry.

The tall mast contains the powerful broadcast equipment needed to reliably feed the sound and video to the land based studio from all the way along the course. I don’t know much about outside broadcast equipment, but this is a difficult event to cover and the equipment has to perform. Multiple antennae will be helping to send the images we see as well as provide the team with control over the many other functions.

When looking at the tangle of wires, crossed support struts, and big black boxes, it’s hard to imagine that this is any less than about 5-7kg of gear.

(Please see this article from last year for a more information about the broadcast team and equipment.)

Blown Away
The most interesting thing I learned today was that the cameras have a lens cleaning system.

I had wondered what the silver bottle was for when I first saw it. It clearly looked like a gas bottle but I couldn’t think what might be. Luckily the Cambridge cox came in and he explained that it was a compressed air reservoir that enabled water droplets to be blown clear off the camera lenses.

When you watch the race coverage see if you can spot when this system is activated. If the weather is wet and windy you will hopefully still see a clear picture!

Building a boat for the boys

Not much escapes the keen eagle-eyed of the world’s rowing social media elite.

The rumours of a film adaptation of “The Boys in the Boat” started to circulate in mid 2021, but by the December of that year it seemed certain to be happening and the name George Clooney was being attached to these stories. Then in January 2022 gossip began to tell of replica eights being built in London for the filming.

At about the same time as friends forwarded me an article from Hear The Boat Sing, I was tipped off by a local about the goings-on at the boat builder under Richmond Bridge. Boatbuilder Mark Edwards is perhaps best known in the UK for building the Queen’s Jubilee Barge, Gloriana, but he has built many types of boat and had done a few movie jobs over the years. Living nearby and knowing Mark, I quickly headed down to investigate.

On the side of the Thames, Mark’s team were busy finishing off the large training barge used in the film. Hidden away in the Richmond Bridge vaults directly beneath the road, another boat was taking shape. Under the guidance of Bill Colley, one of the few remaining timber racing boat builders, the frame of a timber eight was being readied for its plywood skin.

A love of timber

Many years ago I had the chance to meet Graham King (Australian boat builder who made his name making boats for Harvard) when I raced the Head of the Charles. He was kind enough to let me visit his workshop and provided a great many insights into not just timber boat building but also into boat design as a whole. He had allowed a few people to build racing sculls to his plans over the years, but these had all been done using the cedar strip method (very familiar to canoe and kayak makers). His reasoning for this was that working with a thin ply skin was very difficult to do, and almost impossible as a first time builder.

With Graham’s advice in mind, I asked Mark and Bill if I could come to assist when it was time to put the skins on the eight. The chance to get hands on experience with these traditional techniques was not one to be missed. Mark said it was up to Bill, and luckily Bill was happy for me to join his small team. Mark pointed out that “no one is ever going to do this again, so you’d better join in.”

Recreating a legend

The boat was being built as a complete replica of the Pocock built ‘Husky Clipper’ which was used by the winning 1936 crew featured in the book. The original boat still exists and hangs in the ceiling of the University of Washington boat house. To make matters easier, the WinTech company had scanned another Pocock eight from 1937 that has survived at a US school and a detailed set of hull lines were available for Bill’s team to follow. All the details of the framing and fittings were worked out from many photographs of the original boat.

The day arrived for the first skin to be fitted and a small team joined Bill and leading boat builder Luan Qeloposhi in the vault. It takes many hands to handle such a long piece of timber ply without damaging it, so the process was carefully explained so that everyone would be able to act together. The long skin had already been cut to an approximate shape using paper templates, so it was quite easy to move it across to the frame and locate the top edge of the skin (the bottom edge in the photos as the boat is hull up while being built) in a loose slot along the outside of the frame. Then carefully pushing and bending the skin down over the curves of the hull, the edge of the skin met up with the keelson. Long timber battens held down with a rope zig-zagging along the frames helped to gently hold things in place.

Once Bill was happy with the alignment the first few copper nails were hammered in, then the team went to work. The slow curing polyurethane glue was already in place, so it was just a matter of fixing the skin with copper nails at regular intervals. Working in pairs to ensure the skin was held smooth and still while the second man swung the hammer, the nails went in at a fairly steady pace. There were a few problems along the way as copper is very soft and the occasional nail would bend – a problem exacerbated by the fact that the only available nails we had to work with were too long. Extra care also had to be taken in areas such as the footwell where the keelson had no framing to support it against bouncing with each strike of the hammer. However, with some care and the occasional use of a heavy brass buck (along with the occasional use of some fruity language) the entire length of the hull section was soon done.

The next process was to tidy up the edge of the skin along the middle of the keelson and then to pull the skin taut before then fixing it to the inwhales along the length of the boat.

This was all to be repeated another seven times over the course of the next few weeks for not only was the boat being built as a sectional eight (the original was not sectioned) and thus requiring 4 long skins, but there were actually two whole eights being built. There was also an additional short straight section of hull made for ‘stunt’ work that would be required to recreate the moment when a press photographer in Berlin climbed under the boat to take a photo, and then stood up too quickly and split the hull (as mentioned in Chapter 16 of the book, but not in the final film).

“Hands on”

It wasn’t just Mark and Bill’s team that was busy. Whilst all this was going on, a great many details were being worked on by others. The filming would also require a lot more than two boats, so a batch of 11 boats was made by WinTech using a specially printed fabric with a woodgrain effect that was laid up in modern moulds, with the framing then done in timber. These boats would be perfect ‘extras’ in the big scenes alongside the starring boats of full traditional construction. The beautiful brass oarlocks had also been sent to be cast and machined by WinTech.

The many oars needed for production were provided by traditional oar and spar maker Collars in Oxford. Although it wasn’t just oars for these two reproduction boats that were needed. The ten-boat race in the story meant that 80 period-correct oars would be needed. The team at Collars worked hard to meet this, with the older style of copper tips and leather sleeves once more becoming a familiar scene in their workshop. At one point the film art department realised that the busy pace of filming might mean that the blades of the oars could not be repainted quickly enough to represent all the different teams in the various racing scenes. So another 80 oars were ordered. However the team at Collars no longer had the time – or indeed the suitable timber – needed to make another 80, so it was agreed that another 40 oars would do!

Finishing touches

Although not actively involved in the final fitting out and finishing of the boats, I paid regular visits to check on progress. All the brass and leather fittings for the foot stretchers were fabricated, as were the period correct seats, wheels, and slide rails. It was a lot of fun to watch it come together. The two tone effect of the Western Red Cedar of the hull (custom made ply instead of the solid timber of the originals) and the pale Alaskan Yellow Cedar used for the saxboards all began to shine just like the original boat (as described in Chapter 8).

Many of the Pocock techniques and materials mentioned in the book can still be seen in use today by Pocock Classic, who use the original Pocock jigs and tools to make new boats. These are more ‘continued production’ boats than replicas or recreations. I had visited the NW Maritime Center in Port Townsend a few years ago to see these magnificent new timber Pocock single sculls being made.
See www.pocockclassic.org for more details.

Testing times

When the time came to test the first boat on the water, it was hoped that a group of Master’s rowers from Twickenham Rowing Club (including myself of course) would come down to do this. However one of the film’s producers wanted to be present and a suitable time could not be arranged. In the end the boat was launched with a crew consisting of the younger boat builders and a few mates from the Cornish gig club located at Richmond Bridge. I’m told that despite having Olympian Vicky Thornley on hand to coach it was all a bit exciting and fraught with danger for the crew who were completely unaccustomed to racing boats. As one of the lads later said “the sliding seats make quite a difference!”

It wasn’t just the first ‘test’ crew of the boat that noticed the difference. Modern boats may look much the same in general layout to a 1930s vintage boat, but there are many differences in the rigging (length of rails, heights, work positions) that have changed over the years along with the techniques used to match this.


The story continues

My part in this tale ends here, but I have been lucky enough to chat with one of the actors in the film and he takes up the story:

Joel Phillimore, who plays Gordy Adam (3 seat) in the film.

First meeting with the Husky Clipper

We were excited on the first day we were introduced to our Husky Clipper. We’d been rowing well as a crew for a few weeks by this point, rowing well at all eight, putting pieces together and generally starting to enjoy the experience of shifting a shell. So we climbed into the wooden replica with a degree of confidence.

It didn’t take long to discover that this was a very different experience to rowing in a carbon fibre, modern shell. The angle of the riggers, the length of the track, the placement of the foot blocks were all completely different. I’m 6’6” and I couldn’t get my knees down despite hitting the back of the track at the finish. This combined with the much lower height of the rigger and gate meant that I couldn’t physically get my oar out at the finish, and needed to stay feathered until the final second at the catch. I caught so many crabs that I could’ve started a fishmongers. It took Terry O’Neil some late nights in the boathouse to make the necessary adjustments that allowed us all to translate what we’d learned in training to the new boat.

Enjoying the HC

Once we’d spent time with the Clipper, I think we all fell in love. It was a real privilege to row such a beautifully crafted shell. As we started to adjust our technique, figure out the sit and become more accustomed to her nuances we really started to enjoy each session on the water. The ‘hand-built’ qualities, the subtle details (like my ‘III’ on my stretcher), the sounds of the oars and the wooden wheels on the slide all contributed to make the experience truly unique – and for a history buff like me it was heaven.

Oars

We had a particular fondness for our individual oars. Each oar was numbered above the collar so we always had the same oar, but there were also ‘spares’ which would occasionally find their way onto the boat. We’d all know immediately if we’d been given a spare – the feel of the grain in the palm, the smoothness of the wood or the lack of months of accumulated grease and sweat. We wouldn’t have time to change the oar at these moments (when you’re needed on the water, in changeable conditions, you need to get there quickly) but as soon as we came in you’d see anyone with a spare jump out of the boat and switch it for the real deal. It sounds ridiculous, but with those wooden oars even a millimetres’ difference in diameter could be felt in the hand, or the absence of a grain that sat under the thumb could make the feather feel completely different. We were all gutted that we didn’t get to keep those oars – if anyone reading this knows where they are let me know please!


Thank you

Many thank to Mark Edwards and Bill Colley for letting me volunteer myself to help (that was pretty sporting of them!). Everyone on the team (Mark, Bill, Luan, John, Richard) taught me something new about timber boat building techniques that I will be able to use in my future boat repairs and my long planned personal new sculling boat build.

Further reading
———————
https://heartheboatsing.com/2022/01/15/english-boatbuilders-are-building-boats-for-the-boys-movie/
https://heartheboatsing.com/2022/02/16/the-wisdom-of-pocock/
https://heartheboatsing.com/2022/03/29/rowing-boeing/
https://heartheboatsing.com/2022/05/26/pocock-in-berlin-the-best-of-times-the-worst-of-times/
https://heartheboatsing.com/2023/12/20/by-george/

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/british-craftsman-boats-george-clooney-film-the-boys-in-the-boat-txpc9pl90

https://www.row2k.com/features/6204/building-boats-for–the-boys—-part-1/
https://www.row2k.com/features/6205/building-boats-for–the-boys–wintech-s-role-in–the-boys-in-the-boat—-part-2/

How much damage is too much?

I often get asked to repair oars in a wide variety of states. From minor scratches all the way to blades missing huge chunks. The common factor is a concerned rower or coach wondering how much damage is too much to contemplate doing a repair. From this people will also be wondering how much cost is actually worthwhile.

A new pair of sculls is £600-800, so repairing/renovating/restoring and older set can be great value.

If this was owned by a masters rower I might suggest buying a newer pair of second hand sculls (as well as a few tips on how to look after your kit) if any suitable ones were available. However, the answer for a club or school will be different.

For a club or school this badly damaged scull is part of a pair, which in turn is part of a set. That set is allocated to a particular skill or age level. In this case you can see that no one wanted to buy a new set for this very junior squad as the newest oars are not needed and would stand out amongst all the older ones. It’s also difficult to take a pair from the next level up, and so on, with any new oars going in at the ‘top’ of the fleet. Anything like this just messes things up along the way even if the cost of a new pair of oars isn’t a problem itself.

So in this circumstance you can see that one very sad looking old oar is actually worthy of doing some quite large repairs.

This school set had two badly damaged blades needing significant reconstruction that was well beyond the usual bottom corner repair. However, this set is now back in action in perfect working order (with new sleeves and grips) and once painted was in a perfect cosmetic state.

The repair was worth it when the bigger picture was seen.

Henley Royal: behind the scenes technology chatter

Whilst nothing much *seems* to change at the regatta, there are always things going on if you know where to look.

There was no drone overhead this year due to a small problem last year (it crashed and hurt someone). The media coverage was still excellent from the various camera angles available, but I do hope the drone can make a come back.

The Boat Tent was greatly improved this year after some teething problems last year with the all new tent structure. You probably didn’t even notice it, but the cross bracing was moved and there was not a single request to move a boat this year because riggers clashed with the bracing.

Spotted
There is always something new to see at HRR if you are boat tech spotting. General trends I noticed was the predominance of Empacher, Filippi, and Hudson boats among the qualified crews. A couple of others sneak in (a few Wintech/Kings, some Stampflis, a lonely Sykes), but you can see where the bulk of the money is being spent.

Money is also being spent on fancier rigger options (many more carbon riggers in general and more bow mount carbon sweep) and also on telemetry set ups. The number of clubs and schools who have embraced this is quite remarkable when you consider the sheer cost of the kit.

I noticed some interesting ‘off catalogue’ upgrades to a few new boats. The chunky triangular gunwale edge on a few Empachers caught my eye. The extra work to counter sink all the rigger holes must be hellish, but the boatman with that boat said the extra stiffness was well worth the extra cost.

Last year a handful of fast international level 4x had made the switch to the Concept2 Comp blade. This year there were many more crews at more levels adopting this new style.

Foiled
I had the pleasure of bumping into Ian Randall from Australia. Although he was at the regatta in a media capacity (doing interviews for Junior Rowing News), he is the inventor of the Randall Foil (https://www.randallfoils.com/) and is working on all sorts of interesting projects. One of the key questions Ian asked in his interviews was what technological innovations or changes competitors had made in the lead up to HRR.

Ian and I discussed a lot of topics, include blade design. He has been continuing his work developing and testing the foil designs. There is a lot more data available now to support the potential benefits of the foils.

He’s also now experimenting with some radical ideas for boat hulls to improve fore/aft stability and as a result minimise drag caused by the boat rising and falling during the stroke.

Revealed
Croker Oars are developing a smaller blade shape that is aiming to capture some of the same feel as the Concept2 Comp blade. The C2 Comp is quickly gaining ground as a popular choice so when a couple of well known athletes who were long time Croker users started to test out the Comp, Croker began to work with these rowers to develop a new blade design to meet their needs.

I was shown one of the new blades which was described as the ‘700’ due to its surface area in cm2. This was judged to match the Comp, but the rowers involved also wanted a bit more ‘oomph’ in the middle and later stages of the stroke (the Comp is a very ‘front loaded’ feel), so a larger 750cm2 design has been developed.

I hope to get my hands on pair at some stage to test them out.

Winging it
The Hudson team are always out in force with many staff coming in from overseas to be at the regatta. I had a great discussion about carbon wing rigger construction methods with the guys.

Getting the wings stiff enough is always a challenge when you also need to create a light and durable rigger. We went over the pros and cons of a number of methods and material choices needed to achieve the desired outcome. One key challenge is how to arrange the internal elements (ribs etc) and also ensure that these can be effectively manufactured when the internal air bladder is inflated inside the mould during the curing process. Geek level stuff. I love it.

Historical Tech
Interesting technology doesn’t need to be new.

When chatting all things rowing and a bit of rowing history with William O’Chee we discovered a remarkable thing. I mentioned that I had helped to build the replica Pocock timber eights for the filming of “The Boys in the Boat” (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1856080/) and that the venerable boat builder Bill Colley had made some cutting remarks about the design of the diagonal bracing in the boats compared to much later designs. The boats had been built to be near identical copies of the original boat that raced in 1936 and is now preserved in the UW boathouse.

William recalled a story from his recent history book on the Brasenose College Boat Club (The Pinnacle of Fame – A Complete BNCBC History https://heartheboatsing.com/2023/01/12/200-years-of-brasenose-college-rowing/) which told of one rower competing in the 1936 Olympics (for Australia), then returning to the college with a requirement for the next new boat to include diagonal bracing. It seems that diagonal bracing was not used by British boat builders at the time, but the boat hired by the Australian crew while in Germany had diagonal bracing and despite not being new it was much stiffer than anything currently in use in Britain. The new Brasenose boat was then ordered with this important feature. It is interesting to see how a technical idea can spring up in two places (Washington state and Germany) and be years ahead of an established rowing power (Great Britain).

I also learned some interesting things about the development of the sliding seat. Until now I had thought that the technological leap from greased up leather trousers on fixed decks to a rolling seat on rails was a fairly quick jump. William’s book covers a wealth of wonderful technologies that plug that gap. Some of the earliest sliding seats were exactly that – sliding and not rolling. Seats were developed with skids rather like a sleigh, which then ran along grooved channels. The variety of materials used is remarkable. The skids used ivory and later a hardwood timber. The ‘rails’ even included a design that used glass (presumably for its smooth low friction surface) but this material was a bit prone to breakage! The brass and bakelite wheels were a much longer time coming!

Tipping Etiquette

Whilst working on the refurbishment of a pair of sculls I began to wonder about the ‘tips up’ or ‘tips down’ habits of most rowers when they leave or come in to the dock.

The oars I was repairing were so worn on the stroke side blade that the edge was razor sharp and the overall length of the blade was about 20-25mm shorter.

I put the question out to my Twitter followers: which way do you do it, and why? I did have my own ideas, but what’s the point of having a big brains trust if you can’t use it?

There were a few people who did it one way or another because that is what they’d had ‘beaten in to them’ by a coach or boatman back in the day. There were also a few people who had firm reasons for their method.

One key reason was to improve boat movement at the dock. Tips down made it easier to put the end of the blade into the surface of the dock (many have raised timber slats or some form of edge) and enable the boat to be pushed off more effectively than using the bottom corner of a squared blade. One rower followed the rule of ‘tips down’ to leave the dock, but ‘tips up’ to return to the dock.

The other key reason was to avoid damage. Back in the day timber oars had copper tips, and then later they had a timber strip at right angles. Both of these are easily replaced when needed. Not so easy to replace was the thickness of wood worn from the back of a spoon. This is much less of an issue with modern oars as epoxy and glass fabric is simple to apply. The tips of modern oars, however, can be a pain to fix.

So it seems that the ‘tips down’ habit is mostly a dated one that harks back to the time of timber oars. However, ease of pushing off the dock is still one area that the tip is useful.

There is one exception to the rule (isn’t there always?) and that is the Vortex edge. Whatever the marginal gains this technology brings to your performance, many rowers look upon it as a mere protective device and are willing to go ‘tips down’ with confidence (note that Croker have purely protective corners available).

Whatever method you use, be sure to understand why and what the downsides may be. Tips and corners can be repaired, but it’s always best to avoid damage in the first place.

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.
http://biorow.com/index.php?route=information/news/news&news_id=67
http://biorow.com/index.php?route=information/news/news&news_id=80

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.