orld rowing, except for Cornish Pilot Gigs (CPG) and CRA Flashboats and Skiffs, uses an overhand grip. The majority of these Cornish boats prefer a grip where the outside hand is ‘upside down’ or supinated. There are no reports or examples of any worldwide rowing that uses either a ‘both underhand’ grip, or the mixed-grip which seems unique to Cornish Fixed-Seat Rowing.
The question is, why?
Through this article we’ll examine the factors that may have contributed to this situation and what may happen in future as race crews seek to try squeeze every ounce of performance from their rowing.
Back in the 1800s, “racing” a gig to secure a pilotage job was usually at least an hour or (sometimes) a much longer row. The key then would have been efficiency and a slow steady stroke. Oars were therefore long, both inboard and outboard, but the distance the boat was moved between strokes was probably similar to today, I.E. a good reach forward and little lay-back but a very long oar.
As recreational racing took off, oar lengths outboard reduced in order to enable a higher stroke rate. With shorter races it is more efficient to rate higher, but obviously you tire quicker.
Influence from the fixed seat CRA fleet in the 1970s/80s probably introduced the “rowing the handle past the body” style, which required a shortening of the inboard oar lengths. The very lightweight “flashboats” and “skiffs” lack state room between each seat (as they are short boats), and this, in conjunction with them moving the rowing pin closer to the seat (as much as 4”!), in order to achieve a longer arc at the catch (not allowed in Cornish Pilot Gigs), clearly contributed to this style.
If the rowing pin is very close to the seat, then you can’t row much arc at the finish because the oar handle hits you in the ribs just after the 90° point of the oar. The obvious solution to this problem would have been to shorten the inboard lengths of the oars and to row the oar past the body instead of up to the body. If you row the handle past the body, then you naturally adapt the grip of the outside hand to an underhand grip at the finish so that you can roll it over to a “push” instead of a “pull”.
There is substantial lost history to Cornish Pilot Gig rowing, this being the years when the gig fleet declined and was later rebuilt during the renaissance of the 1970’s & 80’s. During those years a rowing style, which was very different to the original style, has been developed from scratch, and it was sensibly based on the technique used in the fixed-seat CRA boats together with anecdotes and legends.
Style continues to develop, and the explosion of gig rowing in recent years has already seen some modifications to the technique of the 1980’s & 90’s, and no doubt top crews will always be driven to experiment with their technique to try to gain further advantage.
Commonly held views.
Let’s start off with some commonly held views about the rowing grip.
1. Isn’t the “mixed grip” stronger because the outer arm bicep is used more? No, it just means the bicep is activated and bends the arm, which cannot hold straight against the superior power of the legs and back. Force is therefore absorbed through the arms and is not used for boat propulsion.
2. You’ll get “trapped” by the oar handle if you row overhand grip in rough water? Quite the reverse, it is the under-hand arm which is more likely to get trapped, and in rough conditions it is absolutely essential to get the blade out cleanly, which is harder to do with an under-hand grip. In actual racing, those currently rowing overhand haven’t reported any issues with “getting trapped” any more than when using a mixed grip.
3. “You’ll break your wrist” rowing overhand. We very much doubt it, and there are no reports from coastal sliding-seat rowers who race offshore in very rough conditions and use overhand grip. The same applies to all the transatlantic rowers as well, and it can’t get any rougher than that! We can’t think of any reports of wrists failing.
4. “It is CPG tradition to row with mixed grip”. Quite the reverse! There are no photographs of any CPG’s being rowed with a mixed grip prior to the 1960’s. In fact the traditional grip was over-hand for both hands.
5. “It’s a gig racing rule to row mixed grip”. No, how you hold your oar is not part of the CPGA Racing Rules!
6. You get a shorter “finish” with overhand grip? Whilst the “under-hand grip” for the outside hand does facilitate rowing the oar handle past the side of the body more easily, the question should be asked as to whether the extremely long finish arc currently used by the majority of CPG rowers is efficient or not? It is a fact that it is inefficient to row an angle of more than 37° past the 90°. Currently, many gig rowers try to row an over-long finish arc. If you row the inboard end of the oar handle to the mid-line of your ribs (sternum), your finish arc will be more efficient, regardless of grip. In this scenario, you can then use an oar which is longer inboard.
And, some observations about where the gig rowing fleet is now.
Today, some crews are now using oars which are slightly longer inboard because they want to finish with the oar in the centre of the ribs, and not rowed past the body. In addition they are trying to row with more of their bodies behind the handle, and twisting their bodies in towards the centre of the boat. They are accelerating the handle through to the finish, rather than let the boat tow the blade out of the water. This is progress towards a better efficiency.
Conversely, oars with shorter inboards mean the rowers tend to favour pulling with the inside hand, and also favour the inside leg, as well as leaning away from their rowing pin at the finish.
Cornish Pilot Gigs are restricted in their available reach at the catch by the thole pins so, every millimetre of extra effective power at the catch is beneficial. Most crews miss sharpness at the catch through a sluggish placement of the blade.
Being able to reach forward and almost “lock pins” at the catch doesn’t mean we should also have almost “locked pins” at the finish. Around 37° at the finish is about the maximum. A “long” stroke is only effective if the blade is accelerating in relation to the boat speed. If the blade is in the water and not accelerating it is slowing the boat down because the boat is actually towing the blade through the water and out of the puddle. So, accelerate hard until you can accelerate no more then quickly get the blade out of the water and smoothly return for another stroke whilst the boat “flows” underneath you. Easy to write, hard to achieve!
So, why don’t more crews row overhand grip?
Superstition is a powerful barrier to change, and it will take a very confident and successful crew to “risk” making this change. They would first need to be convinced that it would be more efficient to do so. Plus it would take time and determination to change. That said, we’re all very used to rowing overhand on a rowing machine so it might be more familiar than you think.
Detailed analysis and rationale.
On to the more technical side of things…starting off by thinking about optimum arc angles at the finish, and how they relate to oar grip.
As has already been mentioned, the under-hand grip has been developed by CRA rowers to facilitate rowing past the body. When they moved their pins closer to the seat to achieve a longer arc at the catch, they found that the finish arc then became very short because the oar handle hit them in the ribs very early during the finish draw. By shortening the inboard oar length and changing to an under-hand grip, they found they could lengthen their finish arcs whilst maintaining the increased arc at the catch. CRA boats do not have fixed pins. They use a rowlock or a swivel which gives them unlimited arc angles at both ends of the stroke.
Cornish Pilot Gigs have :
- A rule which requires the use of fixed pins.
- A further rule which requires the rowing pin to be between 11” and 11.5” astern of the stern edge of the seats.
- Plus, a maximum distance of 5.125” (~130mm) between the centres of the rowing pin and the aft pin, and this also controls the maximum possible arc length of the stroke.
The possible arc in each gig seat varies at each seat because the gunwhales are not parallel to the keel, and therefore neither are each pair of pins. This means that in the stern (Stroke & No.5) the possible catch arc is less and the possible finish arc is more. In the middle two seats each pair of pins in virtually parallel to the keel, and in the bow and No.2 seats it is possible to achieve a slightly greater catch arc and a slightly smaller finish arc. Suffice to say that all these dimensions are fixed by the CPGA rules, so it is pointless to discuss the ideal arc angles at the catch.
However, during the renaissance of CPG rowing, when the style of the CRA rowers was copied, it was forgotten that the distance between the pins of a CPG offered a much longer finish arc than the CRA rowers had allowed themselves.
Those starting from scratch assumed that if you needed to row as long an arc as possible at the catch, then you should try to do the same at the finish. This is where everything started to diverge from the rest of world rowing!
Whilst, from bio-mechanical analysis, we know that ideally we want a catch angle in the region of 60°-65°, it simply can’t be achieved in a CPG. Equally, we know that we don’t want a finish angle of more than about 37°, otherwise the boat simply tows the blade out of the puddle making it act like a brake at the finish of each stroke. We must remember that as we extract the blade at the finish, the boat is running on quickly between strokes. This “braking” effect has been clearly demonstrated by every leading rowing nation in the world.
However, in a CPG, if you do row the handle past your body until you almost lock pins at the finish, it is possible to row up the 50°-60° at the finish, i.e., much longer than is efficient.
[ FISA L3 coaching manual - PAC ]
So, if it is accepted that :
- The over-long finish used in CRA and CPG rowing is actually not efficient.
- Having a slightly longer inboard oar length, in conjunction with rowing the end of the handle to the centre of the ribs, will give you an optimum arc at the finish.
Then, there is actually no need to use an under-hand grip for the outside hand, because there is no need to row the handle past the body.
We should repeat that there is absolutely no rationale for an under-hand grip of the outside hand, unless you want to row your handle past your body.
So, “Over-hand” or “Under-hand” – that is The Question.
First we need to understand how the body works to propel the boat…
From the catch we drive off the legs first, because taking the catch with the back gives a diagonally upwards angle to the applied force, and because the leg muscles are 2 ½ times stronger than the back, and also much more explosive. We therefore need to drive the boat forward faster than it is already going, by an explosive leg drive.
Whilst this is happening, it is essential that the back and arms are purely connecting rods between the leg drive off the foot-stretcher and the acceleration of the oar handle. If the back “gives” or the arms bend, they will simply absorb some of the explosive leg drive through the body, and what power is absorbed will not be transferred directly to accelerating the oar handle which is the object of the rowing stroke.
Next we add the back to the leg drive, by which time the opening of the back will be more horizontal towards the bow, and not diagonally upwards. This addition of the back adds acceleration through the middle of the stroke.
Once the legs and back have neared the finish of their range, i.e., the back will be at about 40°, it is time to add the arms. The arms should be added whilst the back is still accelerating towards the bow, so that the arm draw is added to the forward thrust of the back, and not substituted for the back.
Follow through – It should be remembered here, that whilst the back will go well past 45°, this is simply a “follow-through”. The back doesn’t simply stop when it is past its propulsive phase. It is rather like a golf swing – the golfer doesn’t stop the club immediately after he hits the ball, but follows through the movement. So, yes, the body will go back more than 45°, but past this angle the back is no longer contributing to accelerating the boat.
Arms … The arms are the smallest and weakest muscles in the co-ordinated sequence of muscles which accelerate the oar handle. The arm phase contributes the least, regardless of which grip we use, but we now need to understand how the arm muscles work when the forearms are pronated (over-hand grip) or supinated (under-hand grip).
The biceps muscles are designed to work mainly when we have bent arms, and when our palms are facing upwards. From the evolutionary point of view they are designed to enable us to carry things.
If we do a pull up to a bar in the gym, we will be able to do more repetitions with an under-hand grip than with an over-hand grip. This is true, but it is quite misleading to suggest that this relates to rowing. It is extremely difficult to straighten the arm under resistance with an under-hand grip because the biceps muscles are designed to work best with a bent elbow.
Conversely, when the arms are pronated (over-hand grip), it is much easier to hold the arms straight, and muscles which work best with a straight pronated arm, such as brachialis and coraco-brachialis, ensure that under load the arms can be maintained straight.
As far as the propulsive phase of the stroke is concerned, the arms operate most of the time as connecting rods to transmit the combined explosive power of the legs and back to the oar handle It is fact that they can best do this only if the forearms are pronated, i.e., overhand grip.
“To know the rower you must watch the rower…”
If you watch most mixed-grip rowers you will see that they favour the inside arm at the catch and through the middle of the stroke. This is because the inside arm does use an over-hand grip. You will also see that the outside arm bends first, and this should not be the case, since the outside arm is furthest from the fulcrum (rowing pin).
Finally, with an over-hand grip for the outside arm the forward thrust of the outside shoulder (a much larger muscle group) can be maintained more powerfully and for longer than with an under-hand grip.
Fixed seat and sliding-seat comparisons.
Because in fixed-seat rowing more of the back is used than in sliding-seat rowing, there is actually a much stronger case for the use of over-hand grip for both hands/arms, than there is for sliding seat, yet in CPG and CRA rowing we currently seem to have the reverse…
When the arms are finally bent (flexed) to draw the finish, it is whilst the back is still accelerating towards the bow, and this gives the muscles used in a pronated hand/arm a head start for the beginning of flexion. Thus, the best use of both arms in boat propulsion is with an over-hand grip.
Apart from the rationale just given, is the whole of the rest of the rowing world wrong?
Quick and efficient placement of the blade at the catch.
Next, let’s look at the use of the hands to place the blade in the water at the catch and extract it at the finish.
A simple exercise next time you row :
A little test in the boat is actually a much better way of providing the answers regarding grip in this respect, so…
- Begin to row square bladed (no feathering on the return) with the mixed grip.
- Remove your inside hand from the handle and rest it on the inside thigh.
- Continue rowing square blade (no feather) with the outside arm only for 30 strokes.
Then, replace the inside arm and row normally with mixed grip.
- Now, change the grip of the outside hand to over-hand grip and repeat the exercise.
- i.e., row outside arm only with over-hand grip, with the inside hand resting on the inside thigh. Even if you have never rowed before with your outside hand on the top (over-hand grip), you will find that you can continue rowing outside arm only for a much longer time and with considerably more ease.
The explanation for this in respect of the blade extraction is that when you row over-hand grip with the outside hand, the whole weight of your hand and arm is resting on the top of the handle and providing much more counter-balance to the outboard weight of the oar. Currently with a mixed grip it is the inside hand that is doing much of the work that the outside hand should be doing which is why the inside arm often seizes up in a race.
In addition when you extract the blade it is much easier to “tap” the handle down with the outside hand before feathering with the inside hand. This ensures that the blade is extracted square, and is not feathered under water which is what happens when using the under-hand grip. Indeed, feathering under water acts as yet another brake to boat speed and cannot be avoided using an under-hand grip.
With an over-hand grip it is much easier to accelerate right through to the finish to accelerate the boat, with a strong outside shoulder as well, and then to tap out squared, clean, and quick, without all the back-wash and blade-drag created by an over-long finish arc combined with feathering underwater.
It should also be emphasised here that each hand has a different task at the extraction. The outside hand is responsible for the pathway of the blade throughout its cycle – How deep in the water, how high on the feather, the placement at the catch and the extraction at the finish. All this is essentially the task of the outside hand/arm. For the actual extraction it is the outside hand that taps the handle down square, and then it is the inside hand which feathers the blade by rotating the wrist.
The extraction and feather happens in this order: tap out square with the outside hand, then feather with the inside hand.
These two movements , led by the outside hand, gradually become one movement – the extraction. However, the tap down with the outside hand is far more efficient with an over-hand grip. You wouldn’t hold a hammer with under-hand grip to tap a nail into a piece of wood.
Finally, let us look at the placement of the blade into the water at the catch.
Remembering that each hand has a separate role…
- The inside hand works first to square the blade as you approach the catch.
- The outside hand controls the height above the water and the accuracy of the actual placement in to the water.
This is done much more efficiently by the raising of the oar handle with an over-hand grip, than by the “snatching” of the catch with a bent-armed underhand grip. It is clear that placement accuracy, just like writing neatly, is best done with an over-hand grip.
An under-hand grip also encourages the blade to be placed by opening the back, rather than by raising the arm/hand and handle. This is why so much of the catch is often missed because if it is placed with the back – the back opens diagonally upwards which makes the blade travel diagonally downwards and sternwards thus missing the first “catch” sector of the stroke.
Like the extraction, the catch also comprises two movements. First you place the blade in to the water and this has to be done with the hands and arms – (raising the arms from the arm-pit). If you try to place the blade with the body the movement will be too slow and diagonal. If you place with the hands it will be quick and light and accurate, and you won’t miss the front-end completely.
The second part of the catch is actually connecting the propulsive power of the legs and back to accelerate the handle. The placement is the most difficult, but once this is done, it is simply a question of driving with the explosive legs and keeping the arms and back connected so that all the power is transmitted directly to the oar handle.
The arms act mainly as connection rods and the arm muscles are designed to best act as connection rods when the hands are pronated (over-hand grip).
The extraction of the blade is controlled by the outside hand and is much more efficient with the weight of the outside hand and forearm on the top of the handle (Try the exercise!).
The placement of the blade at the catch is also initiated by the outside hand/arm and this is also much more accurate and precise when the hand is pronated – like for writing and using a knife and fork.
Situations where “mixed” grip may be seen.
Rowing machine – CONCEPT 2
A mixed or underhand grip is usually the preserve of those unaware of proper rowing machine technique, or where trying to achieve a very specific training goal. Rowers spend large amounts of time using rowing machines and will no doubt use an “overhand” grip only. If a mixed or underhand grip produced better rowing machine performances then they would be commonly in use.
Weightlifting – DEADLIFT
A “deadlift” with both hands “over” or both hands “under” will mean that there is a rotational load placed through the fingers by the moment of the heavy bar trying to open the curled fingers. A mixed-grip may help counter this and enable the weight lifter to deadlift a larger weight since each hand grip works to counter the effect of the bar wanting to open the hand grip.
However, when compared to rowing, there is little rotational force on the hands during the rowing stroke power phase as the blade is anchored in the water.
Windsurfing – FRONT HAND (luff end)
This is commonly seen; an under-hand gripped front hand of a windsurfer. The trouble is that there is a temptation to engage the biceps too much and not rely on and light and mobile “hooking on” to the boom as well as a downward pressure through the hand. This results in the biceps of the front arm pulling the mast too close to the sailor and quickly fatiguing the bicep muscles.
Windsurfing – BACK HAND (clew end)
This is rarely seen. Here an under-hand grip simply does not allow the sailor to achieve a locked-in connection of the shoulders, back and legs to direct the power of the sail into the underwater fin of the windsurfer. The back hand in windsurfing should always be over-hand and hooked onto the boom with a downwards connection of the fingers. The fingers don’t encircle the boom unless maximum control is needed.
Again, as with rowing, there are no rotational forces between hand and boom that a mixed grip may be able to counter.
World rowing – fixed and sliding seat
- “Flat” water sliding-seat racing shells all use over-hand grip.
- Coastal sliding-seat boats all use over-hand grip.
- Surfboats use over-hand grip (arguably in the roughest of all rowing conditions).
- Fixed-seat Traineros (Spain / Portugal) use over-hand grip.
- Fixed-seat Welsh Long Boats use over-hand grip.
- Fixed-seat Irish Curraghs use over-hand grip.
- In fact all the boats in the Great River Race (for fixed-seat boats only) use over-hand grip except CPG and CRA rowers.
- If Olympic sweep rowing thought a mixed-grip was advantageous, it would be in use now.
That’s all very well…
Ultimately this article falls squarely in the technique section below. In this article an important aspect of technique (oar grip) has been addressed as it is a key differential which separates Cornish Pilot Gig rowing from the rest of world rowing.
However, technique is not the highest priority in producing boat speed, and the criteria are listed below in priority order.
- Physique, physiology and genetics – (choose the right people to go in the boat before you even begin).
- Training – (this is now an in-depth science and not simply hard work).
- The Boat – hull preparation, overall weight, oars suitable for boat and crew, and rigging where you can control it – (leave no stone unturned).
- Overall technical efficiency and cohesion.
- Crew technique (sometimes involves compromises).
- Individual technique.
- Psychology – Motivation – Killer Instinct – Will to Win – (this should be ranked much higher, but its importance relative to the other criteria varies considerably, dependent on the competitive level and basic commitment).
Where from here?
Perhaps 4 years ago the majority of crews had a “row past the body” style. Many crews have already adopted a position much more behind the handle and finish into the body. Stretcher angles are also now much more commonly found to be at 90 degrees to the keel rather than being diagonally positioned (closer to the angle of the oar at the catch).
Additionally, some crews have changed their stroke style to produce a shorter arc and higher rate stroke with a defined sharp finish. This sharper finish has nearly eliminated the “row past the body” effect and a natural progression is to use the overhand grip for both hands to further speed up catch placement control and connection to the blade when the legs take the catch.
Some rowers already row overhand in CPGs. Others have created a hybrid where the outside hand rotates and rolls over the end of the handle at the extraction to become overhand and tap the blade sharply out with the “base” of the thumb.
Naturally crews want to try to improve, and racing against each other provides the acid test. Advantages are quickly seized upon and watching stroke styles develop over the past few seasons, many changes have already taken place. The next seasons are shaping up to be just as interesting as the past few!
[ P Chuter & J Stonehouse 2012 ]