Many sweep rowers are finding new ways to row this spring and summer in singles, the “original” social-distance sport. The single is a great challenge—you can only blame yourself when things go poorly. But when it's going well, you can take all the credit!
I transitioned to the single after finishing my high school and college rowing careers. I took many years off staying busy with triathlon and running; I returned to the single looking to get back on the water on my own schedule. Here are a few things I learned along the way.
1. Row safely.
Rowing safely means more things than usual these days, including physically distancing ourselves from others and cleaning and disinfecting shared surfaces. Please check with your local rowing club rules and updates from national governing bodies regarding safe practices. If you’re new to rowing in a single, review safety recommendations from USRowing.
If this is your first time rowing without a coach (or coxswain), give special consideration to where, when and how you plan to row. In the single, you’re responsible for making good decisions regarding cold water, weather, navigation, tides or water hazards and obstacles (to name just a few). You may want to consider wearing (or be required to wear) a personal flotation device and keeping within sight of a friend or family member on shore. Pontoons can help keep you upright if you're new to a skinny shell. Take into account extra safety measures if you don’t have a safety launch along with you.
2. It may not be the perfect boat, but you can make it work.
My first boat purchase was a recreational plastic rowing shell with a drop-in rigger. It wasn’t like the fancy carbon fiber boats I rowed in for high school or college, but it still allowed me to get out on the water and practice good technique. It was slow, but I also didn’t need to race anyone.
With limited access to boats right now, you may not be able to row your dream single. If you’re new to rowing a single, you may even benefit from a wider or more recreational boat. You can even make a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) into a single! These types of boats may be safer options, especially if you’re risking a workout without a coaching launch nearby.
Any boat provides you with opportunity, whether it is to improve your boat handling skills or a way to practice drills. It feels great to get out on the water no matter what small craft you’re in. Check with a coach or trusted athlete to advise on your best set-up given the equipment you can use to avoid injury. If you’re able to get outside and row safely, try it!
3. Ask for help.
Hopefully, a family member or friend can assist you with launching the first time. If you’re car topping, double-check your roof rack and tie downs. There are many ways to carry a single, from balancing it on the top of your head to resting it on the side of the shoulder. It helps to have extra hands assist with finding the balancing point and lifting carefully. Take extra precautions when getting in and out of a new boat for the first time. Be sure you are holding both oar handles when you step in.
4. Start slowly.
The traditional “pick drill” is always a great place to start. It will give you an opportunity to see how the boat feels and if you need to make any adjustments to your set up. Remember, singles vary widely on their construction, size, and feel. Some singles turn very easily or may be exceptionally tippy; others respond slower to your strokes. For a first row, stay close to the dock (or shore); this will allow you to return, as needed, to move footstretchers, change oarlock heights, etc. I also recommend using your blades as "training wheels" for a while: let them glide along the surface of the water between strokes to help keep you set up and balanced. As much as you may yearn for the boat to be set up like in a team boat, it may be an unrealistic expectation until your blade work improves.
5. Transfer your knowledge.
Sculling can be exhilarating but also frustrating. I found that I could rely well on my sweep skills to self-coach my sculling, but this didn’t always mean that I succeeded in finding my rhythm and technique. You may end up feeling like a novice again as one blade digs deep, one hand refuses to feather, or you struggle to find the timing of your catch. Rely on your boat sense and experience to help troubleshoot what’s going on. Try to be patient with yourself as your body adjusts to these new demands. Practice some of your favorite sweep rowing drills in the single to improve your stroke.
6. Power Tens.
Starting slowly doesn’t mean that you can’t push yourself a bit. A fun first goal is to try to string together ten great strokes. These can be with or without power. The goal is to row confidently. Add a bit more power as you feel comfortable. If you're looking at real-time data on the water, you likely won't see the same familiar splits that you're used to seeing on the RowErg or your team boat. Focus on finding improvements.
7. Stay aware.
You’re now your own coxswain (and maybe even your own coach!). Along with that freedom comes responsibility. Stay aware of your surroundings, such as obstacles—both natural and manmade (such as other boats). Try finding a point on land and rowing straight towards it. Experiment with your turning and steering. As a sculler, you have a lot more to think about than in a sweep boat: two oars, two hands, balance and your navigation.
Once you’re proficient at sculling, you’ll have many more ways to enjoy the sport, training and competition.