The individualisation game – building boats for women
After decades of training and racing in equipment built for male athletes, female rowers now sit in boats designed uniquely for them. The trend towards greater individualisation in equipment design has been happening across all sports, and now many in the boat-building business are taking a high tech approach to addressing some of the fundamental differences between women and men.
Dr Conny Draper, biomechanics expert and member of FISA's Equipment and Technology Commission, has studied the differences.
“Anatomically [women and men] have different height and weight ranges,” says Draper. “Women in general have wider hips, shorter limbs and smaller hands.” These factors all play a role in how an athlete interacts with the equipment and rowing in equipment designed for someone with a completely different size and shape can make things difficult, if not painful.
“The difference in build means that women row shorter arcs – slightly shorter, but shorter,” says Draper. “Women also produce slightly less force than men and with it, less power.” These power differences show up in athletes’ force profiles and are especially apparent in newer rowers.
“In general,” says Draper, “women should be rigged lighter and be in smaller boats. If the athletes are lighter, it will be much harder for them to move a bigger hull. Also, in a boat that is too big, you could be sitting too high above the water, which makes it technically more difficult.”
“The problem with a lot of boat designs in the past,” says Dr Dan Bechard, associate researcher for Hudson Boat Works in London, Canada, “is that equipment was developed and built for absolutely everyone, but for no one in particular. If you take one of our newer boats, the hull is not the same for [each weight or gender class] because we know that athlete input forces will vary and that the hull will be travelling at a different speed.”
Hudson’s research team includes a nautical engineer in order to, as Bechard says, “Be the most technically knowledgeable boat builder in the world.” The development of better boats for women and the drive towards technological innovation is something no international boat builder (or oar manufacturer for that matter) can afford to ignore and everyone from Swift to Wintech to Empacher or Croker and Concept2 plays the innovation game.
American boat builder, Pocock Racing Shells in Seattle, Washington, noticed the need for better women’s equipment back in the 1990s when women’s university rowing was expanding rapidly across the United States. “In 1998 we built the first of what we call our women’s eight,” says Bill Tytus, company president. “It was designed from the outset to be a boat suitable to the emerging high performance women’s college programmes around the country. We developed a hull shape that we thought most appropriate for the speed these very good women’s crews were going. We adjusted the boat to account for the difference in centre of gravity between men and women, thus ensuring the boat would row properly.”
Engineers at Italy’s Filippi Boats also took up the challenge, producing their first female-specific hull design in 2003. “Since then our attention has been focused on women,” says company manager, Mauro Zuccalà. Filippi have since partnered with several universities, commissioning studies on everything from fluid dynamics to boat simulators to improve their boats’ performance for different types of athletes.
“We have been able to confirm some obvious, but until now not formally codified, considerations,” says Zuccalà. “The inertia action of female athletes on the boat is considerably different compared to that of male athletes.”
Besides hull shape, major changes in equipment design for women has taken place at the three points of contact between rower and boat: foot stretcher, oar handle and seat. Building a better seat has been a top priority for most of the big equipment makers and is something Bechard uses as an example for the move towards what he calls “objectively informed” design.
“The different seat shapes that have started to come out make it a bit easier for women to sit comfortably in the boat,” says Draper. “Their hip bones now fit better into the holes of the seat.”
This is far from a simple matter of comfort and can have an effect on the rowing stroke says Draper. ‘’First you limit your ability and movement because it could become uncomfortable. Then you might go into an adjusted sitting position so that it doesn’t hurt. Finally, your muscles may become fatigued because of the stress of an unnatural movement pattern.”
Similarly, there are different ways you can push off the foot stretcher and changes such as widening the stance to line up better with the hips can make a difference.
Draper sees these changes in context of a trend towards greater individualisation. “With the new technology and the demands of a modern sport, people want to have a more individualised seat and foot stretcher so they can optimise their training and racing. This same issue faced by women and lightweights (to use more personalised equipment) is also now challenging para-rowing boat builders.”
And the future? “I think that future holds far more learning to transfer more of what we think we know into hard fact,” says Bechard. “A lot of what we are doing right now is based on objective science and fact, but we will continue to find out more about the sport than we have imagined we could know.”
“Not all innovations will last,” predicts Draper. "Some will remain improvements for an individual athlete, whilst others will become quite popular across an entire category.”