Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The "Rules" of Expedition Rowing

Expedition rowing is not like "normal" rowing. Sure, you sit in a the same kind of boat, and do the same kind of stuff with the blades. That's not what I mean. Expedition rowing requires strict adherence to three key rules. Ignore them and not only will you suffer, but your crew mates will suffer too, and there's every chance that you won't make it to the end of your chosen expedition.

However, I'm not sure which order they belong in. Maybe they're equally important? 

1. Eat. 
You use a lot of fuel when rowing long distances. Fact. Your fuel tank is not large enough to do the whole thing in one go (think Formula 1 in the 1990s, say, and not like it is today). Fact.

This all seems perfectly reasonable and sensible as you read this in front of your computer or other online device. But you'd be surprised how often people get this wrong. Although there's a good reason why they do.

Which is, that when you haven't eaten enough, your decision making ability is impaired. And this leads to you making poor decisions about eating. Which only leaves you MORE "not having eaten enough": you can see the obvious spiral downwards.

So, here are some tips to remember about eating on expedition rows:
  1. Eat when you have the opportunity. Don't wait till you feel hungry. You may not have the opportunity to eat then.
  2. If you feel too tired to be able to make the effort to eat, use your last reserves of effort to eat. It will be worth it.
  3. If you feel so tired that you don't think even eating will help you, eat anyway. It WILL help.
To help with point 1b, make sure you have easily-digestible, easy-to-eat food close to hand. I am a big fan of having a Ziplok bag of Jelly Babies by my rowing seat. My crew mates are often fans of this too (offering round Jelly Babies makes you someone people want to row with).

My crew's hands after our first 160km race
round Lac Léman. Note the lack of blisters.
We wore gloves.
2. Look after your hands (and bum).
As far as I'm concerned, there is absolutely no need to finish up with raw hands and skinned bottom at the end of an expedition row. Or, worse, part way through one.

Injuries like that are almost certainly going to  doing to reduce your physical performance, but they will also get you down. And long-distance rowing is generally hard enough mentally, without you making it unnecessarily worse.

So here's the deal: wear gloves. No, I know that, with one exception I can think of in the last 15 years, no international rower wears gloves. Or even any good club rower going to do an outing or a race. But this is different. It's expedition rowing. You're not just nipping up and down the river for an hour and a half and then going home. You've got to keep rowing all day. And possibly the day after too. Maybe even for several after that. And "once it's gone, it's gone".

Gloves may also not be enough: use tape too, and take supplies with you.

And here's what happens if you don't: the double Olympic gold medallist and ocean rower James Cracknell famously went on to do a race to the South Pole, in which he got infected blisters. However, he admitted later that when he felt his boots starting to rub, he didn't call for his team to stop so that he could tape up the friction points, and when they did next pause for a scheduled break, he didn't grab that opportunity to do so either, as it was a lot of effort and he was exhausted (I'm sure he was).

And the point here is that, only a small part of the way in to his long trek, his feet were clearly not going to get any better by being ignored. It is NOT "manning up" to put up with the pain. Stop and tape up at the first sign of tenderness.

"Happy bum."
The same goes for your bottom. Fixed-seat skiffers face the greatest challenge here, with  condition known as "skiffers bum" being widespread, even from a 45 minute trip round up the river and back on a Sunday morning. 

Nevertheless, when I turned up for my first "meander" with a large piece of upholstery foam, there was a lot of laughter. Which had died down by half way through the first day. And when we assembled for my second, well, let's just say that "Square Sponge" had plenty of company (and the local branch of Fabric World couldn't understand its unusual spike in foam sales).

Things aren't quite so difficult in the gluteus maximus area for sliding seat rowers, but there's still no need for unnecessary suffering. "One seat pad good, two seat pads better" pretty much sums it up, as far as I'm concerned, and in a survey of people I've rowed round Lac Léman with, 100% agree.

3. Shut up and row.
Perhaps this should be rule Number 1 because, whilst the two rules above define WHAT you should do on an expedition row, this is the very epitome of HOW you approach the whole thing. 

It's also the basis of how you should choose your crew mates (never, ever embark on any row  further than about 15km with someone who can't do this, and don't even contemplate more than 5k with such a person if there is a sharp or heavy object in the boat, just in case you're tempted).

Incidentally, I was amused to read on the website of a French women's four called, of course "Rames Dames",  who rowed the Atlantic, that the concept has universal traction: their team slogan was "Tais-toi et rame".

When the going gets tough, just shut up and row.
(Note good observance of Rule 2 here.)
Just in case you're not quite clear why this is so important, perhaps because you are planning an expedition row but haven't yet experienced one, I'll try to explain. Much as all of us who get as far as our second expedition row love doing it, expedition rowing isn't the same as going to Disneyland. If it were, everyone would be doing it and you wouldn't get the sense of achievement. As my slightly baffled stepmother commented "You seem to spend a lot of time being cold, wet, tired and in pain". I pointed out that on some rows the weather was nice and warm and it didn't always rain, but she was right about the other two.

But when you're tired and in pain, you want to have faith in the rest of your crewmates. When you do, you can safely be determined not to be the weakest link and let the others down, which will help you push on. You don't want to know that they're struggling, and they don't want to know that you are (although on one recent row, my skiffing partner's back was hurting a lot and he actually found it reassuring when I admitted mine did too i.e. what he was feeling was 'normal'). The last thing they need to be thinking is "Is X going to make it?", "Is Y not pulling any more and am I going to have to work harder as a result?", and definitely not "Why doesn't she shut up?" And, frankly, if you don't talk about it, it isn't so bad.

Telling other people about your (rowing) problems (during an expedition row), is pure selfish indulgence. It's being an emotional drain on everyone else and they don't have resources to spare for that. It won't make the boat go faster or the finish come any sooner. Don't do it. 

Expedition rowing: great to do and
great when it ends too.
Most expedition rowers aren't daft, and we can all spot a bit of discreet back stretching whilst the cox is changing over. But the trick is to smile cheerfully at the person behind you as you try and get your spine to click, find something positive to say something like "The water's nice and flat here" or, of course "Fancy a Jelly Baby?", and gloss over the fact that you're wondering whether you'll need a crane to lift you out of the boat at the end.

And, above all, no one likes a whinger.

4. If it's valuable and would sink, tie it on. 
This one clearly isn't in the same league as the first three. But, having had one expedition row disappointingly turn into an unplanned swim, I can promise that it would have been even more frustrating to have lost my camera (waterproof), GPS, and torch, all of which had been tied on and were successfully recovered with the boat.

5. Know how to use your abdominals.
When you back hurts, and it almost certainly will, you can reduce the strain on your back by engaging your abdominals aka "sucking it all in". It's an effort, but nothing like as bad as rowing for another two hours wrapped in lower back agony.

If it helps, engage the services of a Posture Pixie to sit on your shoulder and whisper "Sit up" in your ear at regular intervals.


  1. 6. Row with friends and have fun (and personally I think that you are allowed to talk a bit to make the hours seem shorter; but well yes I know that I'm often the one that likes to talk in the boat).
    7. Take care of each other. If someone looks ill or tired ask how it is going and let them cox the boat a longer time if necessary and don’t blame them (allthough it is very disappointing when it is almost time for your turn coxing and eating and ‘relaxing’). They will remember when you are having a day off.
    8. Long days on the water – even when they are grey and wet or partly in the night – mean: wear sunscreen ( )!

  2. Martin, I agree entirely about having a little bit of chat in the boat - by "shut up and row", I mean, "don't whinge about the pain, don't talk about any doubts you might have about being able to cope, don't tell people about your injuries", and just get on with the rowing.

  3. Hi Helena, just wondering if you have any thoughts on the following ? I was taking part in the 28 nautical mile "Eddystone Challenge" in a pilot gig crew a few years ago, from Plymouth Sound out to the Eddystone lighthouse and back. Conditions weren't ideal for an event like this, continuous strong South Westerlys for several weeks previously, and around a force five on the day. In fact the organisers sensibly decided to cancel and use the alternative inland route, up the Tamar and Lyner rivers.
    However, this decision was met by a near riot and shouts of derision, with several entries from other parts of the country (particularly Scotland as I recall) saying that they hadn't come all this way to row up a river.
    The organisers allowed themselves to be swayed and the original route was reinstated.
    Ironically, all the crews who had insisted on the coastal route, put their noses outside the breakwater, saw the sea state, thought better of it and returned to the slip. Only a handful of us actually rowed out to the lighthouse.
    Really hard going. Several rowers were rescued from their boats with exhaustion.
    Apart from me, the rest of our crew were quite young, last year's juniors, including a last minute replacement.
    As the row had been my idea I felt more than a little responsible for their well-being, and probably put in a good deal more effort than I would normally for this length of row.
    I took around six litres of water with me, and drank all of it during the five and a quarter hour row, (it wouldn't normally take that long, but due to conditions it did on this occasion)
    The weather was bright sunshine and strong winds, so due probably to dehydration from evaporation of sweat, I didn't feel the need to "use the duck thing" so to speak.
    I was in considerable discomfort for the final four or five miles, with truly agonising pains in my kidneys. This was excentuated by the mechanics of the gig-rowing stroke and seldom have I felt more relieved to finish an event.
    I've always been curious to know what caused this pain, having never experienced it before or since.
    I could find no reference to it on any rowing or sports medical websites, and I've always assumed it to have been something to do with a build up of uric acid in my kidneys, due to my not having peed during the row.
    Sorry to bring up such an unsavory subject on your site, but you've completed far longer rows, and I wondered if you've ever experienced, or come across anything similar ?
    Interestingly, I recall watching a TV programme some while ago about two crews, one Oxford, one Cambridge, rowing two viking longship from Scandinavia to Ireland.
    They were supposed to rotate crews, but one guy insisted that he was going to do the whole thing without a break.
    Predictably I suppose, he was evacuated to one of the support boats in a state of total collapse.
    The first thing the doctor asked him was, did he have any kidney pain, but it was never explained why.
    There are numerous very obvious lessons to be learned from the Eddystone row, but as somebody with very considerable experience, I wondered if you have any thoughts on the kidney pain ?

  4. Hi Matt
    I haven't ever experienced amy kidney pain - sounds horrible, and also worrying. Not being at all a medical type, I only recently heard that getting dehydrated isn't just unpleasant at the time, but it can and probably does, do permanent damage to your kidneys (a bit, at least). A nurse I row with confirms this. Although the actual effect does depend on the individual (she cites her mother who hasn't drunk a glass of water since about 1970, and is in good health).
    As a 54kg woman, I also need a lot less liquid than you do, so I really don't know how much you would need (heat and wind will obviously affect this too). But I firmly subscribe to the view that it is much better for your hydration to drink water with ANYTHING in it (even squash, but ideally isotonic powder) because this "sticks" better than pure water which just goes right through you, and I drank (desalinated) water with isotonic powder in all across the Atlantic and on all the 1-day rows I do.
    At the end of the last 160km row round Lake Geneva I did, my stomach really hurt in a half-wind, half just hurt kind of way (maybe for the last 2 hours or so, and for the rest of the evening, and to a lesser extent for the following 2 days). I put this down to eating too many sugary sweets (and drinks, of course) all day. I had a mishap with losing some power bars under the coxing seat, and so ate more Jelly Babies (almost pure sugar, though in the right quantities I find them fantastic) instead than I otherwise would have. But that's just my digestion, and it didn't surprise me, and other people might thrive on sugary stuff. In an ideal world, we get to know our own bodies by gradually increasing the level of challenge. Easier said than done, sometimes. But certainly pacing is essential in long distance rowing, and sometimes young men have a tendency to go off too hard (because they can) ;-)
    Did you go to your doctor after the event? Might have been a good idea so that you can work out what to do differently next time!

    1. I must admit that I didn't see a doctor after the event, as the effects were relatively short-lived. The kidney pain subsided within half an hour of the end of the race.
      I've done quite a few similar length rows subsequent to this, and the problem has never re-occured, which is why this has always intrigued me.
      In terms of effort, clearly a pilot gig is a heavy boat compared to a racing she'll, or even a touring sliding seat boat, so it's not straight forward making direct comparisons, obviously it will take considerably more energy to row a given distance.
      Also I was compensating for the "last minute replacement", who simply gave up rowing less than half way home. He was on my side, and as the strongest rower I was probably trying to take up some of the slack on bow side.
      I really don't think it was a matter of over exertion though.
      Despite being tired, I still had enough energy to finish, I was just in considerable pain.
      What surprised me was how much water I drank. I took far more than I thought I'd need, and in the end finished all of it.
      Given that fact, I was amazed that I didn't feel any need to pee, and have always ascribed the phenomenon to this in some way.
      Very interested to see your comments about taking something in my water, so to speak. I really think that you're probably right, although I have had lots of conflicting advice on the matter. The training staff at my local gym were adamant the water only was best.
      Thanks for the reply, I do like your blog. Rowing is a wonderful sport in all it's many manifestations, and there are so many interesting events to try.