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.

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.

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.

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!

3 thoughts on “Henley Royal: behind the scenes technology chatter

  1. Great article! I am struggling to picture the “triangular gunwale edge” for the Empachers though. Are the three sides the hull, gunwale and then a third, diagonal face between the two?

    1. Basically you’ve guessed it. The triangle simply takes the regular overhanging flange for the wing rigger attachment and encloses it to form a triangle on the outside of the boat hull at the top. The only downside is that the rigger holes need to be countersunk all the way through to provide a flat area for the nut and washer.

      1. Got it, thank you very much. Again, interesting article, thanks for taking the time to share.

Comments are closed.