Zen and the Art of Rowing

The Search for Perfection
The Attainment of Perfection

Have you ever looked at the logo for World Rowing?

It is the symbol of the Enzo Open Circle from Japanese Zen Buddhism, a symbol for enlightenment and the search for perfection. There are two forms of the Enzo Circle, one open and one closed.

World Rowing has rightly chosen the Open Enzo for their logo as the goal of any rower is the search for perfection, with the open mindset of seeking always to improve our rowing stroke. With that comes the improvement of our athletic bodies, our equipment but also our technique.

The Randall Foil is the next step in the search for perfecting our equipment and the pursuit of speed however the foil has become a complementary tool to seeking perfection of the rowing stroke.

In the Zen tradition, the Archer is able to draw their bow and find synchronicity with the bow, arrow and the target, even in the dark finding their mark. [click here] How many of us are able to complete a rowing stroke with our eyes closed without ending up in the water. Yet having a deep subconscious feeling, rhythm and understanding of the rowing stroke is something that we should all strive.

Many have acknowledged that the Sinkovik brothers have been able to reach a level of perfection few have ever achieved. [click here] They have an understanding of the fluid motions of water, they are able to feel for the water, place their blades precisely, and draw their oars with graceful motion and harmony.

1. The Catch and the Randall Foil

How to Improve Your Rowing Technique - Rowing & Fitness

The Catch is the start of the rowing stroke and happens in the finest fractions of a second and is difficult to see without slow-motion HD Camera. But it is that moment which creates the foundations for the entire stroke. The perfect catch is the combination of three factors. 1.The changing direction of the oar 2. the start of athletic force 3. the moment the blade touches the surface of the water. It is when the athlete can bring together these three elements with precise split-second timing.

Yet timing is impossible without an understanding of when the blade actually touches the water. Modern lightweight materials and skinny blades make feeling the catch almost impossible. What you commonly see is the miss-timing of catches and the rower can only feel the water after they have plunged it deep below the surface. Looking at the Sinkovic brothers, they have worked hard to overcome this and their timing and a horizontal draw is right at the surface of the water, and not down in the depths below. https://youtu.be/m09ksLaZyws?t=9

Using Randall Foils allows the rower to develop a greater understanding, feeling and physical motion in the search for the perfect catch. The rower still needs to put all their training, technique and skill into each and every stroke however the Randall Foil gives every rower the best opportunity to set the foundations for a great stroke with a perfected catch.

What a Randall Foil enables the perfecting of the catch in three ways. 1. The foil enables the rower to immediately feel the surface of the water. The foil actually hits the surface and stops any further downward motion. The foil’s resistance is something that the athlete can feel and needs to respond do by not contributing any further force or movement. 2. When the foil hits the water the rower can also hear a light ‘slap’ on the surface of the water giving not only physical resistance but also an audio indication, like a metronome for a musician, when the catch has occurred. 3. The foil has positioned the oar precisely in the water for the athlete to begin a horizontal drive and can know that the blade is perfectly positioned.

There are many factors which contribute to an effective stroke and the Randall Foil can give you the best start to every stroke.

2. The Drive and the Randall Foil: Force

Let us consider what is occurring in the water during the drive phase of the rowing stroke. Any blade needs to build up a wall of water or resistance to be able to work as an oar. There has been many blade designs seeking the optimal size and shape to hold onto the most amount of water… generally, this has been a brute force approach – bigger the better. But the bigger the oar, the harder it is to actually row with.

In the first part of the drive, the rower is trying to get a hold of the water, with the sensation that the oar is slipping away until enough resistance is created. Modern oarlock measures this as ‘catch slip.’  The feeling the rower has during mid-drive is full athletic force is only able to be exerted and as the oar approaches perpendicular, the boat responds to this force by surging ahead. At the end of the drive, the athlete is now trying to keep up with the accelerating boat, pulling hard with their arms until it’s time tap down, feather and release the oar from the water.

During the drive, the rower has limited opportunity to effectively contribute to boat speed and it is imperative to apply force at the right moment and in the right way. Modern rowing science attempts to measure this using force curves however a slipping oar and an accelerating boat render this practically meaningless to help us improve or understand the drive. You cannot overcome the physical reality and the performance characteristics of standard oars with minuscule data analysis.


However, the Drive with a Randall Foil is completely different. In the first part of the drive with a foil, the rower now has immediate force connection with the water as the foil creates an instant hydrodynamic welling of water behind the blade. It’s a simple design change, but the oar now has an immediate hold on the water and the rower can exert their full athletic force right at the catch. The Randall foil enables the full rowing stroke to contribute to the full acceleration of the boat. No more slipping away making your stroke and scientific data more meaningful.

3. The Drive and the Randall Foil: Direction

After the Catch the standard oar is still on its same downward trajectory, down below the surface. With an oar buried down into the water, there is a feeling of greater resistance, however, this is only from the added weight from the shaft now being dragged through. If you’ve ever dragged a pole through the water you will know how much resistance it produces. As the buried oar shaft now is moving through the water, streams of water start forming around and splashing off the shaft. This is known as ‘braking splash’ and has been shown to have a large effect on boat speed. With any downward movement under the water, the oar has to return back to the surface at the end of the drive, the deeper the dive the more oar shaft has been in contact with the water and the more resistance has been overcome. Some elite rowers use the ‘deep dive’ to build up resistance, but this has only been effective in overcoming a fundamental design fault of the standard oar, which I discussed previously, slip.

RANDALLfoil: Research

However, after the Catch the Randall Foil halts the downward direction of the blade and allows an immediate change of direction. It is this change that enables a fully horizontal movement throughout the Drive. The blade stays at the surface and with the correct pitch (Zero) the oar will operate at full efficiency right at the surface of the water. No longer any deep diving, braking splash, or dragging of the shaft through the water. The Randall Foil is the only way to ensure a fully horizontal and resistant free drive.

4. The Drive and the Randall Foil: Conditions

New Zealand rowers win opening heats in Rio amid rough conditions ...

Adverse conditions can have an extreme effect on rowing performance and boat speed. We all know the effort it takes to row into a headwind or the joy of racing with a strong tailwind behind you. As rowers, we are all very aware of the wind conditions and the effect it has on our boats. However, what we fail to see that it is the conditions of the water which is having the greatest impact on our speed. The wind creates waves and the wave energy works against the energy we exert to move the boat ahead. It is important to remember that water is nearly 1000x denser than air! In poor conditions, wave energy impacts on our oars as we take a stroke. The choppier the conditions the more wave energy we have to fight against. With a conventional oar, we bury the oar into the water but we encounter waves hitting the oar shaft during the stroke, making it even harder to pull. The stronger the waves the harder it is to work against them.

However, with a Randall Foil, the oar is not buried deep in the water and less wave energy is working against the oar. Although more shaft and the extra surface area of the foil is exposed to the wind, more importantly, less shaft is affected by the energy of the waves.

It has been found that in turbulent swell or rogue wave events that rowing with a Randall Foil enable the rower to keep in control of their oars as they are stabilised relative to the surface of the water. With a conventional oar, it is impossible to maintain a relative position to a changing water surface, and waves can swamp an oar during the stroke. Yet with a Foil, the oar always remains at the surface and the rower knows exactly where their oar is in relation to the surface. It is for this reason that Foils are now used on Atlantic sea races.

5. The Recovery and the Randall Foil

When the blade is released from the water with both a tap down of the hands and feathering of the oar, water sheds off the blade. A conventional oar, when drawn up from the depths, will have a large wetted area and water trailing off the shaft and blade. Yet with a foil, water spirals off the blade alone and the shaft shows little to no evidence of contact with the water. In the era of ultra-light materials, the slight added weight of the foil is initially noticed and some wind resistance is felt. When rowing in a tailwind, the blades are traveling in the same direction as the waves, some extra blade height (lower hands in the boat) is required to keep the foils from contacting the waves. This assists in minimising the slowing effect of oar/water contact on the recovery. After a time of rowing with foils, any rower becomes accustomed to the feel and will be able to adjust to varied conditions, just as they would need to with ordinary blades. The performance characteristics both during the drive and on the recovery vary from conventional oars and foils so becoming accustomed to new equipment does take a time investment.

6. Balance and the Randall Foil

With a high centre of gravity, the tight-rope-walker edges their way over the ravine, each step tempting fate. Likewise, the rower clutches their oars to prevent capsizing. Without the oars, there is simply no way for a rower to maintain the balance of a rowing shell, regardless of the level of mastery. However, when the boat is still, when oars are feathered and flat on the water a confident balance is maintained. A moving boat, swaying rowers with swivelling oars is another matter as there is little stability and the boat is precariously balanced. The rower needs to find harmony between pulling with maximum effort at the same time as balancing the boat with their body position and oar heights. The more focused the rower is on balance, the less effort they can apply. Years of training is required to confidently balance and exert full force on the oar. To offer some stability to the rower during the stroke, oars are slightly angled or pitched so when pulled some downward force is created. However, this oar pitch comes at a cost, as this downward energy does not contribute to the forward momentum of the boat. The more advanced crews pitch their oars to a lesser degree, but it is a degree and an energy cost which they must pay to ensure stability. There are few crews that have the confidence and skill to row with no oar pitch.

When a rower pulls against an oar with a Randall foil, the hydrodynamics of the foil creates upward lift, instant stability and removes the need for any oar pitch. This results in athletes having the balance, stability and confidence to row with full power. The removal of oar pitch means that all force is transferred into forward momentum. There are now implications for boat builders who can push the limits with hull sizes. When a crew is using foils they can row a much narrower and more “unstable” boat, leading to even greater speeds.

7. Racing and the Randall foil

Elite crews can row fast. They apply years of training, precise technique and state of the art equipment to peak racing speeds. But it is not the crew with the top recorded speed who wins the race but the crew who slows down the least over the duration of the distance. It is rare that the crew leading after 250m is the first to cross the line at 2000m and the crew who takes the less bad strokes wind. The Randall foil aids crews to be more efficient and make each stroke count ensuring that they can perform at the peak for each stroke.

May the Randall Foil help you on your own rowing journey.

Ian Randall

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