Sculling at Craftsbury Outdoor Center
Step outside after the long drive to Craftsbury Outdoor Center, and you immediately find yourself in simpler times — small buildings sprawled across a grassy campus with no cell service and no stores for miles. But at camp, you don’t have time to admire the charm of the Vermont outdoors. The 10+ coaches and interns there have a mission to complete in 5 days: take a ragtag group of juniors and adults and make them into better scullers. Some of them have never rowed before. Some of them have sculled competitively for years. As you can imagine, it’s a big challenge.
Craftsbury has over 40 club singles available for the campers, ranging from very wide Maas Aeros to racing Peinert 26s and X25s. Everyone is assigned a set of oars (Concept2s, sometimes strangely paired with Croker grips) and a boat on day 1. After a basic flip test for all the new campers, the coaches take to the water in launches and other singles and assess our competence and comfort in a single. We start on the south end on the Great Hosmer Pond, which runs north-south for about 3000m in the shape of an hourglass. The “Narrows” in the middle of the lake can barely fit 3 boats across and both ends expand to about 100ft wide. (We managed to fit at least 20 boats across for a small race in the lower part of the lake.)
After a long afternoon on the water, campers experience perhaps the best part of the camp: the food. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner is prepared with fresh ingredients directly from Craftsbury itself and from a number of farms throughout Vermont. Delicacies include flank steak, cabbage pancakes, tempeh, garlic & herb spaghetti, polenta and much more. Meals also gives the campers a rare opportunity to rub elbows with the elite of the “GRP” — Green Racing Project — a group of athletes who train with top-level sculling coaching, currently with Dan Roock. Current celebrities at Craftsbury include a few of the Graves brothers, including John Graves of the US Mens 2x, who is training with his partner Ben Dann. The GRP also includes cross-country skiing and biathlon athletes in the winter.
The next three days followed the same routine:
- 6:30 AM — Light breakfast, followed by breaking up into small groups — one per coach. The group remains the same over the next few days since people of similar speeds and experience levels are grouped together.
- 7:00 AM — Each coach’s group launches and works on a specific part of the stroke. There is usually a bit of free rowing time towards the end of the session. Every day, coaches take video for athletes to review after breakfast.
- 9:00 AM — Breakfast
- 10:00 AM — Video review for athletes who received video. These are done in small groups in rooms/lounges around the campus so campers receive direct feedback and learn by watching other people.
- 11:10 AM — Dock talk. A coach gives some instruction on different parts of the stroke — front end, racing starts, etc. This was followed by a free row where each coach would be in a certain area and coach scullers as they came past in the traffic pattern.
- 1:00 PM — Lunch
- 2:00 PM — Sometimes an afternoon activity, like visiting the Concept2 oar factory.
- 4:00 PM — Launching for the third time for another free row. On Day 4 (Thursday), Craftsbury holds its Head of the Hosmer head race, a straight shot from the northernmost point of the lake back to the dock at the south end, about 2800m in total. The Green Racing Project and guest athletes race first — these include elite rowers training at the facility, coaches, and kids from the Hosmer Point camp up the road. Then the campers depart, one-by-one, seeded by their performance in 300–500m pieces earlier in the day.
- 7:00 PM — Dinner!
- 8:00 PM — Various talks or video review of big races (Olympics, Henley)
- 10:00 PM — Lights out
The last day included a final morning session at 7:00 AM, followed by breakfast and farewells.
This is all rowing all the time. Don’t expect to spend much time to yourself as the schedule is packed and there is so much to absorb from the coaching staff, both during the formal instruction periods and one-on-one in the dining hall. Don’t waste it!
Training the Nervous System
Scullers and coaches alike obsess over technique. And with good reason — improving your technique makes the boat go faster with the same amount of effort. But given that there are differing philosophies on what ultimately makes the boat go faster, what is a single sculler to do?
The Craftsbury coaches recognize this and devote some sessions to helping athletes increase their understanding of what their body while moving from position to position. On land, we experience this through yoga and Feldenkrais exercises, and on the water we develop this through a popular lesson among Craftsbury graduates named “Comfort in the Boat.” Improving this awareness gives you increased understanding of what you can do to change your technique and how the boat feels when you make those changes. Of course you can measure splits and take video when attempting change, but nothing gives you faster feedback than knowing the right feeling when you scull, a feeling which results in minimal check and preserves the run of the boat.
Attempting to describe these lessons is futile, as it depends so much on understanding what you feel and the connection between what you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing. The Comfort in the Boat lesson focuses on improving your stability with increasingly more difficult drills where you should still feel completely set in the boat. But its popularity comes from some of the crazier stunts you end up learning. Here’s one of the instructors who has made a name for himself being almost too comfortable…
While there’s a wealth of experience at Craftsbury from all over the country, it’s important to take coaching input as suggestions, not gospel, especially given the piece above about training the nervous system. That said, there were a few pieces of advice I personally want to incorporate into my stroke.
- Staggering the hands on the recovery and the drive instead of stacking one of top of the other. Left (starboard) hand is always aft of the right (port) hand, not stacked. Helps with maintaining set, blade depth, and avoiding dropping the right hand too low on the release, leading to the boat falling to port.
- Avoiding the temptation to move the head down to look at a SpeedCoach or stare at the stern for stability. Use the eyes only as it can affect the set and sternward bounce (how far down the stern dips on the recovery).
- Finishing the stroke with the legs, back, and arms all at the same time vs. finishing the legs first and trying to continue the acceleration with the back and/or arms. A part of this is pushing with the hips too early in the drive, before the blades are fully buried. An observation was that most of my leg drive is expended by the time the oars are perpendicular to the boat, and my suspension above the seat is not
- Allowing the oar handle to be pushed by the water into the heel of the hand before you change direction and start your drive. This is a good way to feel that you are catching sharply before your seat changes direction right after the catch.
- Rigging: there were many schools of thought from the coaches on where to set foot stretchers. Some started with a finding a proper release angle: 40 degrees between the oar shaft and the boat, then adjusting measurements like span and heel drop so the catch angle can be 30 degrees (about 72cm between oar handles at catch). Some coaches cared about matching hips with the pin at the catch. And finally, some just cared about having a fist in between the oar handles at the finish. This just goes to show how much of this is figuring out for yourself what makes the boat go faster.
- Push and Pause Drill. For opening up the chest and feeling the reach necessary with the arms to take a proper catch. Sit at the release with blades buried. Push the blades toward the stern with the arms, then the back, then the legs, as if you are on the recovery with your blades buried. This should back the boat. Once you arrive at the catch, pause, and feel the water push the blades back even more, opening up your chest and forcing you to reach out over the gunwales.
- Legs Only Drill. For blade depth. Row legs only and ensure you don’t tip from side to side. Bring the pressure and rate up and continue to avoid tipping. If you have good core strength and body awareness in the boat already, as you bring the pressure and rate up there will be a tendency to go deeper, which rolls the boat from one side to another. Eliminate the roll.
- Relaxing the face and unclenching the jaw helps the body relax. You should also be able to relax your grip on the recovery so that your hands are flat (not a clenched fist) on top of your oar handles. Bonus points if you are able to take the catch and let go of one oar completely (as a drill, not during an actual stroke).
- Avoiding too much layback at the release: think about releasing “under the nose.”
In addition to the technical work, some talks were about racing and race preparation. Biggest takeaway was that even at the elite level, people often feel the best about their races when they convince (or trick?) themselves that the race is not a big deal. The quote I remember is “Don’t take away from yourself.” Erg tests are also great practice for this.
Is Craftsbury for you? My description imparts only a sliver of the real experience you can gain here, and since different coaches rotate in and out throughout the year, your experience will definitely differ from mine. If you are interested in upping your sculling game, regardless of your experience level, you’ll certainly get your money’s worth.