Pocock Classic Cedar Single Racing Shells
Lenville O'Donnell
The Demise of the Pocock Stroke



Lenville O'Donnell


This is an amazing, entertaining and informative thread. I am admittedly a know-nothing whippersnapper and genuflect deeply to the vastly superior trove of experience and knowledge of all of you. I am but a trifocal-wearing rowing historian struggling to make sense of it all. And a rower and a coach (or, at least, making an attempt at those, with varying degrees of success). The only thing I will flat out disagree with is Roger Seeman and his assertion that I was not born when he was plying the wood at Wisco. Not true! I was at least in second grade.

I did start rowing at the UW at the tail end of the wooden shell and oar era, so I have some feeling for the differences between the shells and how they evolved. Equipment does play a significant role in the evolution of the stroke, I don't think any of us would doubt that. My opinion is that the oars play more of a role than the shell. They are such heavier, the hands must thus be gripped much closer together than the lighter modern oars, an this has a significant effect on the body dynamics. With a wider grip, the shoulders can rotate farther outward, giving a longer stroke (if one is flexible enough to take advantage of it). I also believe that the heaviness of the wood oars contributed to fatigue in the arms. It just makes sense--manipulating a heavier weight takes more energy. The old oars were also harder to feather because of the weight and materials (leather on brass as opposed to plastic on plastic), and using the water to assist with the feather was a very useful technique in the "heavy oar" era.

The new composite oars do indeed bend when sufficient pressure is exerted. Rod Johnson would have bent a C2 blade every bit as much as a wooden one in his prime. It took a lot of power to bend a wood oar, and carbon fiber oars are no different. They have varying degrees of stiffness depending on the preference, age, technique and strength of the rower. My super blunt opinion is that if you have the arm strength to squeeze the handle to the chest with sufficient power at the end of the stroke additional help from the "spring" of an unwinding oar isn't really needed to get the blade out of the water. I don't think flexible shafts are a major factor. It's weight and the size and shape of the blade, as has been previously commented on in this string.

I've seen a lot of film of competitive rowing from the 1920's to the modern day, and the stroke has evolved in fits and spurts, most certainly not along a straight line. The Germans at Ratzeberg did not not invent the "windmill" stroke, and the flip catch was not used by any means universally prior to World War II or afterwards. Ulbrickson, who coached from 1927 to 1959 and was very heavily influenced by George Pocock, did not coach a "pure" Waterman's or Ferryman's stroke or a catch that used the water to feather the blade. I have extensive films of the 1936 UW crew and that is plainly visible.

I think everyone is completely correct in asserting that the (modified) Pocock Waterman's stroke was extremely effective at long distances at modest stroke rates. The Huskies in the Ulbrickson era commonly rowed a base pace of 30-32 strokes per minute and it was very efficient and effective over the 3-4 mile distances.

Yes, the game has changed, but it didn't change after 1950. Sprinting a 2 kilometer distance (or so) in the Olympics or at Henley has been the standard championship international measure of the sport since, what, 1900 or 1839 for the latter? American collegiate rowing throttled back from long to sprint distances for Spring racing in the 1968 (the IRA) with some exceptions, but...

Distance racing remains alive and well in the U.S. and all over the world. There is now a Fall Racing Season for long distance racing that is popular with every age, level, and boat class. The Head of the Charles is, by far, the largest single regatta in the world. And you do see, particularly in the scullers, many adherents to a stroke that does still closely resemble the Pocock Waterman's stroke in many ways. It is a beautiful style that is very efficient and enjoyable to row, and it can still be quite fast when performed by a highly conditioned athlete with a true mastery of the technique. It still has a place in the recreational and competitive rowing world, even though it is not longer considered standard or orthodox.

But let's face it, rowing - or any racing sport - is, at the top competitive levels, only about getting from point A to point B faster than everyone else. Equipment continually develops for the sole purpose of going faster, and conditioning, technique and style evolve to make the most of those changes and to take advantage of an ever-growing body of research, both scientific and athletic. Every coach, from Courtney to Conibear to Callow to Callahan (just to name the C's!) has tinkered with equipment, technique, training and conditioning in order to accomplish that one thing: win. The evolution continues, but it is crucial to know where we have been in order to find the best path forward. It would not surprise me one bit if some modern coach discovered something in an "older" technique that could add speed.

I'm just waiting for some single sculler to discover Joe Burk and set out to do what he did in the 1930's and 1940's, racing 2K at 44 strokes per minute with a completely unique technique that, I believe, is to this day the fastest way to row. It's just too hard to accomplish. But he was unbeatable in his prime.

I've discussed this with Guy and others. I would very much like to have a little "film festival" and share some old reels that I've uncovered and am in the process of restoring and digitizing. Including film of the 1936 Olympic crew, the 1940 UW crew, the 1950 UW crew, the 1958 UW crew, the Melbourne Olympics (from George Pocock) and Pocock himself rowing on the Thames. Shall we set something up for May or June?


The Glue


See Lenny’s last paragraph in yellow and his offer for a mini film festival. Additionally, Lenny has some good thoughts that ought to mix well with active responses involving personal experiences and opinions from others.

Obviously, a gathering as suggested would be most interesting and no doubt highly productive.

Opening Day is May 6th, so how is your schedule for later in May or early June prior to school vacations?

Please advise and we will proceed accordingly after your response.



Duvall Hecht

Thanks, Lenny -

Great recap.

You left out one thing in the quest for greater speed - recruiting, aka hired hands.

Being conservative and old fashioned, I naturally deplore that innovation. It deprives many young men of a chance to compete for their school because some Croatian with quads like albacore tuna can whip the erg into 5:50 submission.

It smacks of "win-at-any-cost," inappropriate for rowing, also for any sport that claims amateur status. AAU needs a new moniker, NCAA beyond redemption.

I much prefer the American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) model ... administered by Student Affairs/Recreation Departments, they are run as Club or Varsity Club sports. Minimum support from the college or institution. Alumni foot many of the bills, but oarsmen actually pay for the privilege of representing their school ... typically $300-$500 a quarter. Greg Hartsuff was on to something when he established ACRA, as you can see from the participation. Guys who row under this model learn a lot about paying their own way ... teaches them more than just the flip catch.

Here's a sample: Here's a sampleAmerican Collegiate Rowing Association

Thanks for listening.


Duvall, that made me laugh out loud and is so far the quote of the year: "It deprives many young men of a chance to compete for their school because some Croatian with quads like albacore tuna can whip the erg into 5:50 submission. "


I think we've all been dismayed at the shift in Men's Division I Rowing to an international recruiting contest rather than an actual competition between regions, cities, and towns. And, yes you are exactly right that true amateur rowing still exists and is thriving in the ACRA and in other pockets in DII and DIII.

I believe one of the problems with USA Men's rowing is that the top 8 or so schools recruit accomplished rowers at Junior Worlds rather than great athletes in their own backyards. Look at Yale and Cal the last few years. Each had no more than two Americans in their Varsity eights. Freshman crew has now officially been abolished and does not now exist in DI. Why? When you recruit 22 year-old European "freshmen" who have been rowing for 10 years you do not need to teach them how to row. They go from their National Teams to the Varsity Boat. And local prospects are left in their wake, getting third rate coaching from young assistants rather than the head coach, whose job security is completely predicated on winning.

Women's rowing is perhaps a beacon. Women's collegiate rowing is thriving, attracting and producing world class athletes and rowers. I was really heartened by this last weekend's results of the "Pac-12 Challenge," a rolling dual meet format pitting #2 Ohio State, #3 Michigan and #7 Virginia against #1 Cal, #4 Washington and #5 Stanford against each other in two days of racing, east versus west. Guess who came out on top? Washington drubbed Ohio State, Michigan and Virginia and vaulted from #4 to #1 in the polls, but to me the best part about that is that 5 of the eight in the UW varsity boat are not just American but from the state of Washington. There are only two foreigners in the boat.

Consequently, the Women's USA national team, despite the organizational and funding challenges that have plagued USRowing for years, has dominated the eights for 15 years and produced Olympic and World champions and medalists outside of that boat class for years. They are doing some soul searching over there, but our model is more broken than our rowing technique. Yet there is this vein of success in on one side and a losing streak on the other.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next quadrennial.

Lenville P. O'Donnell

Thanks, Lenny -

Hope to see you guys this summer.

And you are correct about the pernicious effects of recruiting when on our Olympic performances in men's rowing when the hired hands depart for their home lands. Leaves us with a depleted pool of talent.

Drain the swamp!


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