Simple Guide to Sculling without Tears



This is meant to be a short introduction if you fancy sculling and want to know a bit more about it. By no means is it a complete, comprehensive or definitive guide to sculling. Nor does it promise that you'll gain perfect technique from following it, but I believe it is better than nothing. If you are an experienced sculler you may not find anything new from this page.

You probably have to be a bit maverick to fancy sculling as opposed to the ultimate team sport it is to row with sweep oars. Perhaps you belong to one of those underestimated talents who never got to stroke an eight and by mistake were placed in the three-seat by ignorant coaches, humiliating you with careless remarks, forever tainting your vanity by not acknowledging your talent. Now's the time to strike back, unleash your potential and prove them all wrong with a vengeance!

The topics covered here are:

Learning to scull is very much like learning how to ride a bike although it may take longer before you are content with the result. The process is the same, you teach your body/nerve system how to execute a certain pattern of motions. To facilitate that, your body establishes new connections between appropriate neurons, connections which only develops as you persistently let your body repeat the exact movements you demand of it. By the end of the day you will no longer think about how to recover from crab strokes, just as you don't think about how not to fall of your bike when you cycle. Not being a natural rower is not the end of the world. But you may find you have to be more stubborn and, first of all, patient than others. Some improvements do not come after one or two outings but take weeks to learn.
    When you take up sculling make up your mind about what it is you want to achieve. Doing 4, 5 or more outings per week together with a good training program can save you lots of time than if you only do the odd outing without a serious training program. If you want to improve fast, note that anything less than 4 outings per week is wasting a considerable amount of time because it always takes at least a day or two to get back to last weeks standard.
    Certain technical concepts are not always easy to convey and metaphors are frequently used in this text. By the end of the day if you want to become good at sculling you have to practise it, not read text books about it!

The first few outings

During your first 3 to 5 outings you must have a reasonably experienced supervisor with you. Choose a calm day. Your vessel should be a boat that is easy to sit, preferably a play boat, but a wide clinker will do. Make sure to get the blades out on the bank before you get the boat on the water. If possible get the blades in the gates before stepping into the boat.

Before you get into the boat a few things are worth mentioning. First of all as a novice there is a significant risk that your first outing is gonna end with the disgracing capsize drill. So what you don't want to do is to tie your shoe laces or your foot straps too tight in the boat. The reason being that in case you fall in, the last thing you want to deal with is working out how to untie your shoes whilst holding your breath under water!
The way to hold the oars is with the thumbs resting on the end of the handles and lightly curled fists, i.e. avoid tight clinching. When you get in the boat, avoid pulling any of your blades in as to avoid obstructions, otherwise you'll easily fall in. If you are about to hit something in a collision then fend of gently with your blade from the obstruction. Balance comes from being absolutely symmetric in any of the motions you execute. This means maintaining equal handheights throughout the stroke and during the recovery, but it also means that sudden movements like turning your head around disturbs the balance.

Steering and coping with various situations

When learning how to manoeuvre the vessel it is easiest to take a natural scientist's approach as to deduce how the boat will move when you apply a certain motion to one of your blade handles. It basically boils down to applying Newton's third law: Action equals reaction.
To sit in a dead safe position hold onto both blade handles with one hand only, with a stretched arm, oars perpendicular to the hull, blades feathered and resting on the water. This is a very stable position if you need to mess about with something in your boat.
When you spin make sure the water is not too choppy. If you do spin anyway in wavy conditions there's a significant risk of capsizing once the waves becomes parallel to your vessel. So if possible you should rather row a bit further until you find sheltered conditions where you can spin more safely.
Over the time when you scull you may experience that you inadvertently keep steering to bow side or to stroke side. If you initially rowed with sweep oars this may be the reason, that your left/right leg by default applies more power than the other leg. One way to rectify this is to pay attention to your handheights and ensuring you're not looming more with one oar than the other.
When you return to the river bank aim with an angle of about 15 degrees to the bank. If it is too obtuse you will bounce off. If it is too acute you will break your bow. Before the blade closest to the bank hits the bank grab hold of both blade handles in one hand, clear them from the water and lean slightly away from the bank as to avoid your blade hitting the bank.

Land training.

Ideally anaerobic work should be exercised only on the water as it is important to learn how to maintain the technique whilst coping with exhaustion. However, there are number of useful exercises to do on dry land. Stretching should always be incorporated into the training program not just before exercise but especially after. Muscles become physically longer during a couple of weeks when regularly stretched. This eventually makes your hamstrings facilitate doing a proper "un-hunched" body swing from the hips which is important in terms of avoiding injuries.
Running twice a week is good for more reasons. Rowing is quite a static exercise ( i.e. lots of muscle work applied but only moderate movement around the joints) and during intensive training in the days up to an important race one can easily become stiff not just in the muscles but as well in the spine and rib cage. Running helps loosening up. Another common rowing injury is the developement of  too strong outer-thigh muscles. This occurs because at backstops position in the boat the legs are hardly stretched completely. However, the inner-thigh muscles are used for stretching the legs the last ten degrees while everything before that (i.e. from frontstops to backstops) is done mostly with the outer-thigh muscles. As a result the unequal strength of the thigh muscles pulls the knee cap unevenly to one side which can lead to athritis. This insiduous injury is often first discovered when one starts to run after not having done so for some months. Regular running maintains the strength of the inner thigh muscle and prevents this injury.

Hand heights

All else being equal maintaining even hand heights in any boat is rewarded with the boat being balanced. Depending on how stiff or forgiving your single scull is hand heights may or may not be that important. A worn out or soft vessel will be more tolerant of random hand heights without penalising the sculler with the boat becoming imbalanced than a stiff new vessel. Depending on the level of skill the former may be desireable for the first few outings.

Assuming your boat is rigged with left hand above right one way to implement better hand heights during every stroke is to brush the wrist of your right hand with the knuckles of your left hand as you move the hands away off backstops: At backstops your hands are at the finish position in front of the left side and the right side of your rib cage. As you start the next stroke by extending your arms your hands will eventually cross each other. This is where you brush the top facing right hand wrist with the bottom facing left hand knuckles. The side effect of this action is that your left and right hand heights will now become more even when you scull. This in turn improves the overall balance of the boat.

Body position

Good body position in single sculling is slightly but distinctively different from good body position in sweep oar rowing. In a single scull there is more emphasis on separation of hands and body movement off backstops position than there is in sweep oar rowing. This gives the single sculler more time to "watch the hands float away" before swinging the body over and then sliding up to frontstops. In sweep oar rowing the separation of the hands movement and the body swing is slightly merged as the body swing is begun earlier during the recovery phase than in sculling. In fact the single sculler does not swing his body forward as much as does the sweep oar rower. This applies even more for double scullers and quadruble scullers where there is hardly any time to swing the body forward; the emphasis is simply "legs, legs, legs". A common mistake for novice scullers who are experienced sweep oar rowers is to swing the body forward too much and to early. Without the separation between hands away and body swing in a single scull the balance of the boat gets upset and the ratio of the strokes deteriorates.

Weight on the toes

This is obviously a metaphor but one way to picture "weight on the toes" or "pointing the toes"  is to imagine you're a tightrope walker or a cat and have to balance your body/boat on your toes! You have to be relaxed and coordinated in all your motions. During the recovery don't abuse the slide by falling or slumping into frontstops but rather be delicate and decelerate the slide almost after you've started sliding. The reason for the metaphor is that the body is most sensitive to balance on the toes where there are far more nerves than say on the heels. So maintaining good contact with the footplate through the toes during the recovery is important for balanacing the boat. Achieving "weight on the toes" must be prepared during the work phase towards the end of the stroke where you recruit your lower abdominal muscles as to brace your spine when approaching the finish of the stroke. This will prevent you from collapsing at the finish and help towards a clean blade extraction. As the finish of the stroke is executed you release the contact of the heels from the foot plate so that you'll be "standing" on your toes on the footplate. This has to be maintained throughout the recovery until the catch where the heels comes in contact with the foot plate again.


So how does one relax when you get hit by the waves from from other big crafts or if you're rowing in the wash from an eight? Practise and more practise is probably the best way, i.e. go out in adverse conditions and learn to cope well with them. A few points can however be mentioned. One useful thing to remember is to always get the weight on the toes and to retain clean finishes. Anticipate the correct motions of the stroke before you've executed them, i.e. at backstops anticipate hands flowing smoothly away, when hands flows away anticipate swinging body weight onto the toes and so on. Thereby you'll be much more smooth in your motions.
When you begin to take the pressure up it is important that you remember to relax in those muscle groups that are idle, i.e. during the first part of the stroke (leg drive) make sure to have loose shoulders and arms, during the recovery relax in your chest and shoulders and unclinch your fists around the handles. This increases the bloodflow through those muscles.

Square blades

Square blades is an important exercise for many reasons. You get a better feel for the water. You learn how to recover from crab strokes. You enforce balance control and confidence to square early. Start off with tapping-down exercises. That is sit at backstops, extend your arms fully with the blades feathered on the water. Now square your blades in the water and make sure the spoons are fully covered by the water. Now, unclich your fists and alost let go of the handles, just let them float in the water due to their own weight. This not easy but is a good confidence drill.
Start then to tap down both blade handles as to get the spoons clear off the water and drop the spoons back again. The point is to retain the balance. You'll find that it is easier to do if you have a high rating, but by the end of the day you want to master it at a fairly low rating compatible with normal rowing. Make sure you maintain proper backstops position with your back. This is a good exercise for learning how to balance the vessel.

When you are proficient in tapping down you want to do backstops paddling with square blades. You can make the transition from tapping down to backstops paddling simply by squeezing the blade handles before you extract them from the water. Make no attempt to move the blade handles the full length of your arms as this will just screw things up. A third or a half of your arm length is just fine as this is not an exercise in applying brute force. Attempt to make a little squeeze at the finish as to get a clean extraction of the spoons from the water. As you improve over the weeks/months you'll begin to hear a certain "plop" from your puddles at each finish and you can sense the smoothness by which your hands flows away during the recovery. The plop sound is a result of the spoon's clean extration from the water because of the constant pressure applied to the spoon by you.

At that stage you want to do backstops paddling with lean. The smoothness you gained from pure backstops paddling should be retained when implementing the body swing. The key thing to remember is hands go away first then body swings over. Make sure to do a proper swing from the hips and not a nasty hunch from your lower back. The proper swing from the hips feels slightly uncomfortable because your buttocks muscles are forced to readjust themselves on the seat when you swing forwards with a straight back. On the other hand you may not even notice doing a hunch from the lower back until the morning were you hardly can get your trousers or socks on because of a slipped disc in your back. So how much forward should you swing? You should only swing as much forward as your hamstrings allow you to. Depending on how flexible your hamstrings are this will probably not be more than some 15 degrees away from vertical. It's easy to fake a swing of some 20 to 30 degrees by hunching your back. If you feel you don't get enough forward reach from the body swing, you must improve your flexibility and stretch your hamstrings during landtraining. Concentrate on getting the weight on the toes as you have swung over. Now as you drop the blades in the water, arms fully extended, you lean back, arms and shoulders completely relaxed. When you've almost reached backstops then you finish off the stroke as in backstops paddling square blades. Also here it suffices to be content when you begin to hear the "plop" at each finish.

The final step is to do full slide square blades. The key points to remember is to not start the slide on the recovery before you get the weight on the toes and don't rip with your arms throughout the stroke. Think: back and legs.

Front stops paddling

When you've become fully confident doing full slide square blades you want to go a step further. The catch is a weak point for scullers. It's difficult to balance the vessel at front stops and by whacking the spoon in the water you risk catching a crab so it's tempting just to row the blade in when you're paddling along. This however, results in a waste of leg drive, a check on the boat and possibly bum shoving as the load on your blade abruptly increases during the work phase. Front stops paddling is a way to rectify lacking confidence at the catch. Position yourself at front stops, arms stretched out blades feathered on the water. Square the blades. This is quite difficult the first few times you do it and it is important to remain calm and maintain equal handheigths. Now, take the first two inches of the stroke. This should be with the legs only, that is, with your toes pressing on the foot plate driving the slide two inches backwards. Front stops paddling is nothing but square blades paddling at the first two inches of the strokes. Make sure your shoulders and arms move only because of your leg drive, that is do not open up your back or pull with your arms. Your back should remain firm during the leg drive and the angle between your back and the slide must not change. Your arms should not pull at all but be completely stretched out and relaxed as were they nothing but hooks connecting your back to the blade handles. When relaxed you can feel the pull in your shoulders as you drive with your legs. If you are sufficiently relaxed in arms and shoulders the ligaments will be the only constraint holding your shoulder together and you can actually feel your shoulder joints loosening up (see shoulder dislocation). You may get soar muscles in parts of your body the first few times you do this exercise, which indicates that you need to relax these muscles. The reward is that you gain much more control and a better feel for the water. As you get more experienced you can try frontstops paddling with your hands somewhat down the loom of your blades. This is even more difficult and brings the focus onto balancing the boat with your toes. Once you can do front stops paddling at ease that is when you have arrived as a decent sculler.

The catch

There are more schools of thought of what is the perfect way to take the catch. This is the way I have been taught.
The idea is not to whack the blade into the water, but be delicate and swift. Try front stops paddling again. Now rather than rowing the spoons in try to drop them in under their own weight as you travel towards front stops during the recovery. This leads to back splash which doesn't increase the speed of the boat. But for a start you just want to experience that it's possible to put the blades in on the way forwards without difficulty. The aim now is to minimise the time it takes to drop the blade into the water. If they go in too slowly the result will be considerable backsplash and the handle will push you backwards which leads to a loss of coordination and weight on the toes. Ideally you want to float towards frontstop while your hands keep rising and just before reaching frontstop your blade enters the water so fast that there isn't any significant back splash. This will create a slight wall of water behind the blade and a hole in front of the blade at which point you should have reached frontstop and be still for the fraction of a second it takes before you go into the work phase. Beginning the leg drive the water will readjust itself and you will sense a  "clonk" as the blades locks on to the water. Executing swift catches feels different from rowing the blades in. The work load may not change but the speed of the boat does.

The recovery

The recovery is your chance to recover and relax from the effort you just put into your stroke. Concentrate on relaxing in your chest, shoulders and fists. At the finish make sure that you back is still straight and not hunched even at backstops. Tap down with your hands at backstops. The hands go away in a swift motion but without flicking. As your hands are almost stretched you continue the handles journey to the catch point by using the body swing. It is important to obtain separation of hands-body-slide as you otherwise will be troubled trying to balance your vessel. When the bodyweight has been swung onto the toes you start sliding towards the catch point. During the recovery you may find that one spoon keeps clipping the water, usually the left hand if the vessel is rigged with left handle over the right. One way to correct this is to move left hand slightly in front of the right one. Alternatively it may be because you're not moving both hands with the same speed. It depends alot upon how the boat is rigged.

The workphase

The idea is that the stroke is gentle at the catch but half way through builds up with a spring from your toes as to finish off with a defined "send" at backstops. This differs from big boats where emphasis is put more on applying power as early as possible during the work phase. Avoid pulling with your arms but think of them as tools for extracting the blades from the water. Let the spoons flow in the water at their natural depth due to gravity and remain relaxed in your shoulders as to achieve this. In principle, this all applies to rowing in big crew boats as well. The key difference as you'll find is that there is a greater emphasis on the 2nd half of the stroke in sculling than in big boats because a small boat slows down much quicker than a big boat. You'll find that if you apply work at the catch in the same manner as in a big boat when you row in a single scull things will become erratic because the boat speed is too slow for taking advantage of hard work at frontstops. Moreover, blade extraction will become difficult if you're as loose and relaxed in your arms at the finish as in a big boat. This certainly doesn't mean you should go for slow rowed-in catches and wrenched out finishes when single sculling. You should still apply the same quick catches everyone teaches, but you may preferably delay the pick up a fraction of a second before applying the muscle drive. Shifting the powerphase more towards the end of the stroke will assist easy blade extraction without having to wrench out your finishes. As the spoons are in the water during the workphase balance and stability of the boat is less of a problem. But it is to be maintained by keeping the heels in contact with the footplate as soon as the legdrive begins. This also permits more forceful execution of power in the boat.

The finish

At the finish your blades should pop out of the water in natural manner without you having to rip or tear the blade out of the water. The latter happens if you didn't apply enough pressure on the blades in the middle of the stroke for some reason. The blades are then likely to get "stuck" in the water which causes the dirty finishes. Instead you want to maintain the pressure on the blades by "pulling with your back". A wall of water will then build up in front of the blades and a hole will appear behind. This facilitates extracting the blades cleanly out of the water and you will hear the aforementioned "plop" which is really cool! You probably won't notice this if racing in a multilane regatta event.

Adverse conditions

Depending on the weather it may be more or less enjoyable to go out sculling. As the maverick you are, always step in your boat aiming to scull well, even in rough weather or at the very least, to try and defy it.
    If rowing into a tailwind the wind will force you up the slide quicker than usual and you'll have to pay attention to your slide speed. Generally it feels like you're working in a lower gear. As a result you may apply the drive at the catch slightly earlier than usual in order to capitalise on this situation. Finishes can probably be made with slightly less emphasis on the arms as the relatively faster speed of the boat should make the extraction easier.
    If you are rowing into a headwind on the other hand it will feel like everything is geared rather high. Let the rating settle down to a natural level rather than attempting to row at the same rating you would if no wind was present. Rowing into a head wind always ensure dropping the blades down to the water when approaching frontstops since the wind will blow the blades up in the air as soon as you start squaring your blades. Because of the higher gearing in a head wind you should really make sure the blades have properly locked on to the water at the catch before driving with your legs. Also, because the boat slowing down will take place much more during the recovery it is important to emphasise the second part of the stroke more than you would in calm weather. Use your back for doing this, not just your arms on their own.
    If you scull and it gets quite choppy the keyword is to relax. Attempt to clear the blades welll from the water during the recovery rather than letting waves hit them and consequently knocking off your balance. Should a wave hit your blade anyway ensure to be sufficiently relaxed in your arms so that the impact won't be transferred to your upper body thereby completely knocking you off balance.

Feet out

When you are quite confident with the balance and in control of your boat another exercise for improving coordination is to row with feet out. The objective is manifold. You learn not to pull yourself up the slide. You enforce coordination in your movements. It is important that you maintain gentle catches and a spring from the toes in the middle of the stroke. Doing it the other way round results in capsizing. Only do this excercise when you really are confident and feel very sharp.


On the way forwards relax your arms. You almost want to let go of your blade handles as you raise them up to the catch point. Do this by unclinching your fists around the handles on the recovery. Then with a slight pressure from your thumbs at the end of the blade handle roll the blades square under your palms as you approach frontstops and you're then ready to take the catch. By squaring like this you apply minimum strain on your wrists and prevent injuries and soreness of your arms. 

10 April 2001
Revised 24 August 2013