A Rowing Story, from Bill Rafter

February 17, 2009 |

 Here is a funny rowing story with a market lesson. This is how the story was told to me; most assuredly some of it had been embellished. I take responsibility for the market-related comments:

In the sport of rowing there are eight different boats that are raced, five of which the rowers have one oar each. That’s called sweep rowing, as opposed to sculling, in which the rowers have two oars each. In the case of sweep rowing, the rowers are traditionally stacked alternatively on opposite sides: port, starboard, port, etc. In fact, prior to the early 1960s that was always the case. Here is a stylized diagram.

In Europe there are many rowing clubs, some of which are affiliated with companies. Just as an American company may sponsor a softball team, some European companies sponsor rowing teams. Such was the case with Moto Guzzi, a renowned maker of motorcycles and scooters located near Lake Como in northern Italy. In the early 60s the rowing club affiliated with Moto Guzzi had the Italian champion “straight four”, also known as a “four-without-coxswain” or “4-”. Each type of boat has a crew that could be typecast to fit it perfectly. A straight four is a beautiful boat that combines grace, speed and power, whereas some boats are best populated by refrigerators. (Aside: how do they steer without a coxswain? One of the rowers’ shoes is attached to a rudder.) These guys were good – very good. And they were soon to compete in the European Championships (the de-facto world championships) in Luzern.

After having traveled to a regional regatta, the crew was supposed to take the boat off the trailer and attach the riggers prior to the coach showing up and a practice. The riggers are the extensions outside the boat that hold the oarlocks – the boats themselves being very narrow for speed (lower resistance). Just horsing around the guys rigged the boat “wrong”. That is, instead of it being starboard, port, starboard, port, they rigged it port, starboard, starboard, port. Well, the coach was not amused, and said something like, “Okay you clowns; now you are going to have to row it that way. And we are doing a time trial, and if I don’t like your time, you’ll do it over until I do.” That’s what coaches typically say.

Well, they row the boat and had no difficulty with the different rig. During the time trial, they clock their best time ever. What happened? The coach knew he was out of his league, so he went down to see the mechanical engineers at Moto Guzzi and explained his problem. They immediately identified the effect as the “sum of the moments”, which I will illustrate below. But let’s first get back to the story.

The crew goes to Luzern, takes the boat off the trailer and starts rigging it “wrong”. Everyone who sees it howls. You can just hear the competitor comments now, “Hey, those crazy Italians don’t even know how to rig a boat. No sense worrying about them.” Well, you know what happens – the guys win the European Championships to everyone’s surprise. That style of rigging is subsequently referred to as “Italian Rigging” and has begotten all sorts of new rigs.

The thing to consider is that rowing has been around as a sport for a long time. For instance, the oldest intercollegiate athletic event in the U.S. is the Harvard-Yale boat race. But no one ever thought to try rigging a boat differently. An accidental event changes everything. Worse is that this watershed event occurred over 40 years ago, and still there are coaches in the sport who have no idea as to why someone would rig a boat differently. The worst are the typical coaches of college freshman, where most rowers get their introduction. You constantly hear expressions like, "Riggin, schmiggin, we just row."

Investment analysis is the same way. Too many people are stuck in ways that are unproductive. The analysts refuse to learn or to consider anything different. They don't read, experiment or learn. And the legal system is there to punish any experimental attempts that might underperform, albeit temporary. Anything learned becomes dogma no matter how bogus. Forgive me, but this reminds me of Markowitz, CAPM, etc.

Here’s why the rigging works: When you pull an oar (particularly a sweep), you not only move the boat ahead, but you pull the boat around to the opposite side (“pinch” the boat). The port rowers pull the boat to starboard, and vice-versa. So now think of a teeter-totter or see-saw, where the farther away one is from the fulcrum the more effect a given unit of power exerts. Where’s the fulcrum in a boat? The only thing under a boat’s hull is its fin to keep it from side slipping. That fin in most boats is about one person-length aft of the guy in the stern, and it is the fulcrum, albeit a weak one. So the guy in the stern is 1 unit away, the next guy 2 units, etc. If you add up the units you will find that the sides are equal in Italian rig, and are unequal otherwise. If everyone pulls with equal speed and force (highly unlikely), then the traditionally rigged boat will veer to one side, and the Italian rigged boat will not. The more course corrections that have to be made, the more drag exerted by the rudder. Hence the Italian rigged boat wins.

Rigging is one of those things that can make a big difference at the higher levels of the sport. However at lower levels of the sport the reason most crews lose is not rigging, so most coaches ignore it, and worse, do not bother to learn about it. I venture to say 95 percent of the boats never get their riggers adjusted after they are put on the boat initially. Yet not only can riggers be moved from seat to seat, but are fully adjustable in most other ways: height off the water, pitch, spread from the keel, etc. With choppy water, a little extra height off the water helps.

The style of rigging where two seats are on the same side is also called “in buckets.” Not sure why. But it is also possible to rig an 8-oared boat with 3 buckets, which is also balanced according to the sum of the moments, but has a distinct advantage for teaching novices. One problem with novices is that they “crab” or get the oar caught in the water, which plants their oar handle in the back of the person in front of them. Ouch. The pain could be lessened if eights were rigged in full buckets (P, S, S, P, P, S, S, P – for Port and Starboard) because of where the oar handle hits. Why novice coaches do not do this baffles me. I believe coaches think that rowing in buckets is more challenging that rowing a standard-rigged boat. Trust me, it takes about 30 seconds for a rower to adjust to it.

Oars used to be symmetric (tulip shaped). Now they have been improved (asymmetric and hatchet shaped) to really lock on to the water. The asymmetry also self-corrects for putting it in the water undersquared (crabbing). Note that the oars are not supposed to move thru the water – the boat moves thru the water. But with the old tulip (Macon) blades there was a certain amount of slippage. Now there is less. This has been the cause of an increase in lower back injuries. Something has to “give”, since there is less slippage when the oar is planted, that now becomes the lower back. The solution is to buy oars that have more spring to them, but you will find that only the oldtimers do that. The kids use stiff oars and have back injuries. Old rich guys cannot afford back injuries.

If you are coaching a crew and have the luxury of lots of boats, get them out of eights and into small boats. “People who know how to row, row small boats.” Also, the number one determinant of racing speed is stroke rate (strokes per minute). But your crew has to be in shape and skilled to row at high rates.

Dr. Rafter is President of Mathematical Investment Decisions, a quantitative research consultancy


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