Thursday 26 February 2009

Sculling legend Ned Hanlan

When new technology arrives in a sport, the first person to understand and exploit it properly will clean up. Ned Hanlan, the legendary Canadian sculler, was the first to understand and exploit the sliding seat, developing a technique that made him world champion from 1880 to 1884.
His sculling technique was so effective he won despite being, in rowing terms, a midget - just 5ft 9in (175cm) tall and weighing in at about 10 stone (64kg).
Born in Toronto in 1855, Hanlan grew up rowing around Toronto Bay, starting in a boat he built himself. At age 18 he was area champion, and in 1876 he won the enormously prestigious Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition regatta, effectively becoming champion of the USA. He rowed like "a small steam engine hissing through the water," according to the Toronto Globe.
In 1879 he came to England, beating champion sculler William Elliott on the Tyne before a crowd said to be ten thousand strong and betting heavily. The following year he beat the world champion, Australian Edward Trickett, on the Boat Race course on the Thames. Trickett was 6ft 4in (192cm) and 13 stone (82kg).
When Hanlan started his career, the sliding seat was very new. Scullers still pulled mainly with their arms. According to the Canadian Dictionary of National Biography: "Hanlan’s genius was a superbly efficient stroke – he was the father of the modern technique. He took full advantage of the sliding seat, not only to obtain greater reach but to drive with the large muscles of the legs in a coordinated, fluid motion so that the power of his whole body was marshalled into every stroke."
The powerful new technique gave Hanlan such a huge advantage he could indulge in stunts to humiliate opponents he disliked. In his race against Trickett, who he regarded as arrogant, he chatted to spectators, blew them kisses and rowed in zigzags before ostentatiously stopping and waiting for Trickett to catch up. He even pretended to collapse. According to historian Richard MacFarlane: "He had slumped forward, his oars drifting his boat slowing down under the burden of his weight and drag of the oars. Trickett turned to see his competitor and, filled with new hope, began to pull harder.... As Trickett pulled even with Hanlan, he cast a glance over to the motionless challenger. At that moment, Hanlan raised his head and flashed a smile at the champion. Trickett was shattered. Hanlan gave a wave to the crowd and pulled away once more...."
He won by three lengths. The crowd, needless to say, adored it, and the David against Goliath nature of the contest ran well in the press too.
He was idolised back in Toronto, helped by the fact that almost everyone "from judges to peanut vendors", according to the Globe, had backed him by telegraph bet and had won big.
It could not last, of course. In 1884 he was beaten by Australian William Beech, a huge and muscular blacksmith who had also cracked the correct way to use a sliding seat. Hanlan spent the rest of his life giving exhibition races, including displays of walking on water in large tin boots, which I would pay money to see.
The headland where he started his rowing career is now called Hanlan's Point and he is commemorated by a statue by Emanuel Otto Hahn, showing him standing proud and muscly, wearing just a pair of briefs and holding his blades.
(Thanks to Joe DesLauriers for the headsup)

Sunday 22 February 2009

Rowing the Clovelly Scull

Paul Zink brought the prototype Clovelly Scull to the Hamble river today to show what it can do. And what it can do is impressive: it is fast, stable and reassuringly buoyant. An ideal boat for offshore rowing, in fact, though the conditions were not challenging as you can see from the pictures. Glassy smooth, in fact.
The wide, mussel-shell shape and tall vertical stem combine to create a hull of real character. The broad beam creates a lot of initial stability, so there is none of that uneasy wobbly feeling you get in a racing shell, but the double ended shape creates very little wake and she is easy to push along at five or six knots.
But the feature that intrigues all scullers is the sliding rigger. The seat is fixed and the rigger slides in channels at the bottom of the boat, so instead of sliding your whole body up and down, you simply move your feet.
This has several big advantages, the main one being that your weight stays at the centre of gravity of the boat and the pitching movement of sliding seat boats is eliminated. I can watch the stern of my Sprite shifting up and down markedly as I row, but the Clovelly Scull's canoe stern moves hardly at all.
The rigger itself is very high tech, a carbon fibre wing that is stiff and light. The rigger can be easily removed and carried in the boot of the car, making the boat considerably lighter and much handier for lifting onto the roof rack.
Another novel feature of the boat is a bipod mast for a front-view mirror and a GPS. I have always been a bit sceptical about mirrors. People recommend them all the time, but until today I had never seen anybody actually using one.
The mirror on the Clovelly Scull is slightly concave to give a wider field of view, and the mast positions in right in your line of sight. It is strangely addictive - at one point I suddenly realised that for the last few minutes I had been looking in the mirror all the time, not just giving it an occasional glance. It is really useful for spotting upcoming posts that would otherwise pose a signficant on-your-back-with-legs-waving-in-the-air risk, but it is difficult to judge distances so you still need to look round.
It is also dead interesting to watch the speed on the GPS, even if it is just telling you how idle you have been.
The hull creaked slightly as power was applied, possibly due to flexing of the GRP hull against the GRP deck. Not a problem really. The boat has a skeg that can be retracted by pulling a cord. It did not seem to make all that much difference to tracking but it might be more effective in choppier seas.
Ruth Wake of Langstone Cutters, an experienced sculler, took the boat out and came back enthusing about its speed and stability ("I nearly caught a crab and was surprised how easy it was to recover" she said) and muttering something about wanting a pink version.
Max Taylor, who has only rowed fixed seat boats, also took it out and took to it like a natural. He also came back with glowing reports.
The first boats are under construction at Rossiter Yachts in Christchurch, who make most of the boats that are being rowed across various oceans right now and also produce a coastal four. Prices have yet to be fixed.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Is Spring on the way?

This picture was taken on my mobile phone last Sunday when I went out with the Langstone Cutters in Mabel. Note the woolly hats, gloves and morose posture.
I took the picture below today, also on my mobile, looking towards Chichester Marina. It was rather earlier in the morning but the sun is shining and it is so hot I only had one sweater on. The sky was clear, the geese were honking, and a seal followed me back from Itchenor. Has Spring sprung?

Friday 20 February 2009

Clovelly Scull on the Hamble

Paul Zink is coming to demonstrate his new Clovelly Scull on the River Hamble on Sunday. The meeting is at Swanwick hard, Swanwick Shore Road at high tide, 10am. Anyone interested in rowing is welcome. Bring wellies if you want to try the boat (me first!).

Monday 16 February 2009

Langstone Cutters

I went from Emsworth to Langstone and back on Saturday and Langstone Cutters' Clayton skiff Millie passed. On Sunday, I was in the No3 seat myself when we went out coxless in an interesting experimental configuration with the bow and no2 oars out one side and the no3 and stroke oars out the other. Steve in the bow reported that he could easily steer by easing up a bit himself, or instructing us at the back to ease off.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Barnegat Bay Boats

Jake Millar is a guy who builds the boats he likes to use. Here he is, hot, exhausted but happy after a seven mile race on one of the rivers or inlets close to his home in Brick, New Jersey. And here's a picture of him approaching the finishing line with bow wave foaming, and of him cooling off.
A professional boatbuilder with his own company, Beaver Dam Creek Boat Company, Jake builds the Barnegat Bay Skiff, a highly-regarded boat for open water rowing. He writes:
"Several years ago I saw the molds for the Barnegat Bay Skiff come up for sale in an ad in Messing About In Boats - I saw an opportunity and took the plunge. I bought the molds, one unfinished hull and the rights to build and went into building boats on a very small scale.
I currently build just a few boats each year and only show at local boat shows and environmental festivals. I get sales through boat show contacts and word of mouth from other Barnegat Bay Skiff owners.
I've been rowing my own Barnegat Light Skiff (the open version) now for about 5-6 years and have been having a blast out in our area creeks, rivers, and bay. I've even had her up to the Catskill Mountains lakes and down to Chesapeake Bay creeks.
The Barnegat Bay Skiff is 15ft 2in long and 32in beam. The fibreglass hull is hand laid up and finished either with lots of lovely mahogany and stainless steel or low-maintenance polyvinyl and aluminium, according to taste.
The skiff comes in two varieties, the original decked version and a lighter open type. The outriggers made of laminated ply have now been replaced with drop-in sliding seat units by Piantedosi. The light version can also be rowed by two on fixed seats.
Jake can be reached by email here.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

More thole pin rhythm

The utterly perfect illustration for the poem Thole Pin Rhythm is this picture of a Maine fisherman checking his lobster pots from a peapod.
The picture is by marine illustrator Sam Manning, who rows his own dory out of Camden, Maine. And yes, the boat has thole pins. He and his wife Susan row every day, which this time of year involves breaking the ice around the boat with poles before setting out with that thole pin rhythm.
Sam is well known for his illustrations for The Dory Book by John Gardner, and his regular drawings for Wooden Boat magazine. His work is renowned for its accuracy and clear detail, but I particularly like the clear lines, reminiscent of the great woodblock engravers like Gibbings or Ravilious. There is a great selection of Sam's illustrations here, courtesy of Maine Boats magazine.
(Thanks to Joe Deslauriers for sending the photo and a copy of Maine Boats with a great article about Sam)

Monday 9 February 2009

Rowing practice in 1902 points today to a fabulous bit of film from the British Film Institute showing Kingston Rowing Club practicing in 1902.
There is no indication as to the standard of the crews on film, but some are clearly novices judging by the number of clashes and even a lost oar. A sculler does a spectacular roll into the water after catching a crab.
Scullers seem to have their handles overlapping by a huge amount. One guy, right at the end of the film, is glimpsed casually sculling cross-handed with a pipe in his mouth, something you don't see today. Another big difference: back in 1902 there are no women in the boats.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Windermere Char Boat on eBay

The 18ft skiff on eBay that featured in a recent post is now revealed as a Windermere char boat, used for generations of fishermen to search for the prized Arctic char found in its depths. Arctic char are normally found much further north, as its name suggests, but a population was apparently stranded in Windermere when the ice retreated and have flourished there ever since.
Note the characteristic side benches and back rests at the stern, where fishermen could recline as they were rowed out.
David Winspear has restored one of these attractive boats, which you can see here.


I went out on an early tide today for a short and gentle paddle round the harbour at Bosham. Once again, the tide was pushing slush against the foreshore and I froze.
These days the ends of my fingers lose all sensation very quickly, especially in my right hand for some reason. A symptom of advancing age dagnabit. I have never worn gloves while rowing because you only have to take them off again after a few minutes' exercise.
Has anybody discovered a good method of keeping one's fingers warm without either overheating or losing contact with what is going on at the end of the oar?

And here's a message for Joe Deslauriers - I've had a total email wipeout and have lost your address, Joe. Could you drop me a line?

Monday 2 February 2009

Ply torture in Sussex

A very interesting rowing boat is taking shape on the banks of the River Arun in Sussex. It is possibly the most boat you can get out of two sheets of plywood, and, unlike some two-sheet boats, is shaping up to be rather lovely. And she splits into two for easy transportation.
Chris Waite's new sculling boat starts as two sheets of 8x4 ply, only 4mm thick but three good, thick plies, not a thick middle of rubbish with thin, weedy layers on the outside like a British Rail egg sandwich. He was lucky enough to get the stuff at £10 a sheet from B&Q.
The sheets were cut in half lengthwise at an angle, as in the photos here (sorry - if you're not a member already you have to join the uk-hbbr Yahoo! group first). The lines started straight, but were curved afterwards to remove the excessive rocker that would have made it difficult to keep in a straight line. The eight pieces are all identical, which is amazing when you look at the difference between the bow and stern sections.
The differences are largely at the ends. The bow and stern sections are angled differently, but the main difference is that the stern is forced into a wineglass shape over a former cut out of chipboard. The ply was pressed into shape between the two halves of the former. The transom itself is made of mahogany and inserted afterwards.
The parts were stitched together and opened up to be tacked with epoxy in the usual way, except that the two ends were kept separate.
Chris then built a pair of middle frames that will slot together to align the two halves for bolting together. They rise high above the waterline so no water should be shipped, although there will be a seal as well.
When the halves were brought together, the line of the sheer was kept by attaching a temporary gunwale along the top (it is a roofing batten split in half).Chris hopes to have the boat finished for the UK Home Built Boat Rally trip down the Thames from Lechlade to the Beale Park boat show in June. See you there!