125 years of FISA: Advances in technology
As the World Rowing Federation (FISA) continues to celebrate the 125th anniversary of its founding in 1892, we look back this month on a few of the many technological innovations that have created the modern sport of rowing.
To a casual observer of the sport, rowing appears to have changed remarkably little since Victorian times. Indeed, by the time of FISA’s founding, many of rowing’s greatest evolutionary leaps had already taken place.
As the 1800s came to a close, super-thin racing shells had been the norm for almost half a century since Harry Clasper of Newcastle-on-Tyne in Great Britain had normalised outrigger construction in the 1840s. By the 1870s, rowers traditional thick trousers and greased thwarts (seats) had proven no match for wheeled seats that greatly lengthened the effective stroke. Swivel oarlocks, various blade shapes, bow balls for safety, foot stretcher steering, indoor rowing machines and many more of the developments of the rowing equipment we have today can be traced in large part to that period.
While that era in hindsight seems to have been a golden age of rowing invention and innovation, developments in the sport continued through the next century. Here are two more recently perfected innovations that have had a big impact on rowing.
The advent of an electronic voice amplification system for coxswains is one innovation that is often overlooked when considering the great advances in rowing. Forced to rely on the strength of their lungs and vocal cords to project commands amidst the clamour of clunking oarlocks, churning waters, and grunting rowers, it seemed that coxswains had few options when it came to better communication.
One ‘helpful’ device was a simple cone megaphone strapped to the coxswain’s head, leaving hands free for steering and holding a stop watch. Another innovation that rowers may still be able to find on old wooden shells is a section of reinforced gunwale at the coxswain seat where they could bang out the rhythm for the crew to hear and feel with wooden blocks attached to the rudder cord.
The revolution for coxswains didn’t happen until the late 1970s, when Americans Richard Kellerman and Paul Nielsen (founders of Nielsen-Kellerman) created the CoxBox. For the first time, coxswains no longer needed to struggle to be heard and could count on a reliable timing device and stroke meter, allowing them to focus on steering and strategy like never before.
This simple innovation empowered coxswains to live up to their reputation that the very best enjoy as trusted coaches inside the boat. It also laid the groundwork for the advances in real-time data tracking and feedback, both at the forefront of innovation in rowing today.
Lighter, faster, stiffer
The search for stiffer, lighter materials for boat building is as old as the sport itself. While the move in elite shells from thick overlapping planks of wood to thin sheets of veneer was complete by FISA’s founding in 1892, many other materials were experimented with over the years until today’s carbon fibre build became the standard for strength and speed.
One surprising step in the evolution of modern boat building techniques was the development of super-lightweight shells constructed out of laminated paper. Although they lacked the durability and longevity of their wooden counterparts (the major cause of their fall from popularity), brand new paper boats were some of the fastest and lightest boats to be had during the height of the rowing craze in 1870s America.
While other unique materials were experimented with and found unsuitable for shell construction (such as celluloid in the 1880s), the advent of modern plastics in the 20th century set off a race between boat builders that continues to present time, to produce the fastest shells.
By the 1950s fiberglass construction was becoming more widespread and made its first appearance in rowing shell construction where composite hulls were experimented with at Oxford’s Magdalen College in the UK and by boat manufacturer Stan Pocock in the US. The German boat builder Empacher also rose to the challenge with research in composite construction with carbon fibre that transformed the international field.
The Munich 1972 Olympic Games are notable as the first time Olympic gold went to a crew in a boat not made of wood. By the close of the 20th century that transition from wood to synthetic materials in elite shell construction was complete.
The pace of change
The rise of international competition for amateur rowers, as seen with FISA’s establishment of the European Rowing Championships in 1893 (effectively the de facto World Rowing Championships for the next half century), saw changes in equipment slow down. Standardisation within the sport took centre stage. Rowing’s place as a founding sport within the modern Olympic movement gave additional cause for consolidation of all the advancements that had taken place in the preceding century.
While the pace of change did moderate, innovation did not stop. Boat builders, coaches and rowers have all had a hand in pushing the sport forward. FISA’s definition of what rowing is has been refined over the years to embrace all disciplines of the sport whether it is done on flat-water, the open ocean or on dry land.