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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 18 March 2015

15 March 2015

Oh my! My last newsletter elicited quite a response!

First, let’s get some historical perspective:

Legendary IRA-winning University of Wisconsin Men’s Coach Randy Jablonic:

Dear Peter,

I'm curious as to which style of stroke you think might have been used by the ‘50s crews who rowed a mighty 29-30 stroke per minute as contrasted to the Karl Adam influence of awesome 38+++ strokes per minute?



Cornell Oarsman, later 1966 World Champion Men’s Single Sculler, Don Spero:


Truth be told, I’ve never heard of Schubschlag or Kernschlag. When Carl Ullrich and Stork Sanford taught us how to row back in the day, the idea of force curves didn’t exist (nor could they be measured effectively). The core feature of technique drilled into us at Cornell was to avoid checking the boat at the catch.

The two requirements we were taught relentlessly were to
a) catch without missing water (i.e. blades move ONLY vertically into the water before the drive begins), and
b) slide is fast out of bow, slows when feathering and is controlled to be at zero speed EXACTLY when the blade enters the water.
The mantra for all this is “the catch is the last part of the recovery, not the first part of the drive (which initiates after the blade is buried).” Like the other great coaches you mention, Carl and Stork left it to us to figure out the rest, which becomes obvious when the boat locks it in properly and swings.

This technique accelerates the boat through the drive and sends it powerfully into the release, and produced excellent results for the Big Red. So with the help of your clear summary, I am happy to declare myself of the Schubschlag camp. And it seemed to work pretty well for me in the single.



Many thanks to you both.

Don, here's an irony. Do you know who is responsible for history's first use of force curves in shaping force application in rowing? It was Charles "Pop" Courtney of Cornell University in the year 1900. Go Big Red!

Don has pretty much answer’s Jabo’s question. Starting with Pop Courtney of Cornell, the most successful IRA coach in history and mentor to the great University of Washington Coach, Hiram Conibear, and continuing through three generations of Conibear followers, including Ed Leader, Rusty Callow, Ky Ebright, Al Ulbrickson, Tom Bolles and Stork Sanford among many others, the emphasis was on approaching the full reach carefully, locking the oar into the water at the end of the recovery and then massively accelerating the oar through the water all the way to the finish. This was called The Conibear Stroke.

For all those coaches, preparing for the annual 4-mile IRA Championship involved endless multiple competitive pieces of 6 and 7 miles during practice with ratings capped at 18 or 20 strokes per minute, which naturally led to the rowers learning to pour all they could into each individual stroke. They rowed Schubschlag with a passion and a vengeance. During the 1950s, non-Washington grad coaches such as Joe Burk and Jim Rathschmidt carried on in a similar tradition. I know whereof I speak. I have rowed in the boat with Rathschmidt's 1956 Olympic Champion Yale Men's Eight and the 1960 Navy Olympic Eight, and they definitely rowed Schubschlag.

During the 1960s, Harvard coach Harry Parker changed everything. He took his inspiration from the Soviet Men’s Crews of the era, though most assumed he was following Karl Adam of Ratzeburger Ruderclub. The Soviets rowed Kernschlag, and using Harvard as an example, the rest of American coaches more or less began following in lock-step.

The ironic thing is that Karl Adam’s crews rowed the exact opposite of the Conibear Stroke, slow-fast on the recovery instead of fast-slow, 38 to 40 strokes per minute down the course as opposed to a base 30 for most Conibear crews. But I have tested some of those Ratzeburg oarsmen, and their force curves were symmetrical haystacks. They rowed their own unique version of the Schubschlag stroke. Nevertheless, the interpretation adopted by many American crews, including Jabo’s great Wisconsin crews of the 1970s, was absolutely Kernschlag. And there has been no dearth of followers of this approach in all the years since.

During the ‘60s, I rowed lightweight at the University of Pennsylvania, and we rowed Kernschlag, attempting to follow Harry Parker’s example.

My Penn teammate Bob Fountain: “I just remember hitting the catch HARD, mega-explosion of legs. Fred Leonard [our coach] had us pause at the finish to let the boat run out – remember?”

Another Philadelphia teammate of mine, Larry Wittig, remembers those days along Boathouse Row:

Pete –

When I was a sophomore at Drexel, we were taught by Joe Greipp to POUND the catch. What he failed to teach us was how to avoid checking the shit out of the boat by not entering the water at a critical moment. Ironically, he took us to Penn’s tanks and Ted Nash, whom I had never seen before, said to our group of hacks, “Who is your 7-man?” I put my hand up, and he sat me down and taught me how to anchor the blade before I POUNDED the catch. I didn’t know squat about rowing. I just did what the coach said.

This little lesson sparked my quest to know what the hell made boats go fast and, more importantly, made them stop.

So in all my coaching years since, I have worked feverishly on making the catch part of the recovery, and not worrying about pulling until the blade was buried. Now this is no easy task considering that the boat is moving quite fast. I would emphasize technique at the front end and getting the blade into the water first (without missing water) and then proceeding with the stroke exactly as you have described. My analogy was to pretend that your foot stretchers were a bathroom scale and imagine it reading -0- until your blade was in the water.

Anyway, I enjoyed your response. God, Pete, your passion goes on forever.


One additional irony. Harry Parker crews rowing Kernschlag started having a huge impact on American rowing in 1965 . . . but within a couple of years they had totally converted to Schubschlag. Seriously! I know from my own personal experience. I rowed in the 1968 Harvard Olympic Eight just a few years ago.

The trouble is back then nobody noticed. Like lemmings, everybody kept on pounding the catch in imitation of the way they thought Harvard rowed. Harry never corrected them.

All this is interesting enough and complicated enough that you could write a whole book about it. Oh, yeah. I already did. The Sport of Rowing in four volumes.


Now to a couple of thoughtful questions from Jim Buckley of Pocock Classic Cedar Single Racing Shells:

Peter –

I agree with your comments on Schubschlag vs Kernschlag – mostly. I think the Pocock/Cunningham Sculler’s Stroke is Schubschlag. Would you agree?

The one comment you make with which I disagree is "... the back and arms HAVE to finish absolutely simultaneously at the release." My understanding is that the legs and back HAVE to finish before the arms which are used to "round the corner," simultaneously finishing the stroke and pulling the rower up, heading aft and more quickly ready for the next stroke. Otherwise you dump your weight in the bow and check the boat as you rush to the next catch behind anyone who finishes correctly at a high stroke rate. This finish, attributed to Fairbairn, Pocock and Cunningham and so clearly demonstrated by Cunningham and Tony Johnson, is the way we all rowed in the 1960s and why we practiced with our feet out of the stretchers – Can't do that if you don't pull yourself up with your arms at the finish.

Warm regards,

Jim Buckley

First, for the benefit of some of our other readers, “Pocock/Cunningham” refers to George and his son Stan Pocock, legendary Seattle boat builders and rowing philosophers, and to Frank Cunningham, one of the most eloquent and influential of the many followers of George Pocock. During my research for The Sport of Rowing, I had the privilege of interviewing Stan and Frank together for several hours at the Pocock Rowing Center. I counted both among my good friends. Sadly, both have now passed away.

Yes, the Pocock/Cunningham Sculler’s Stroke is most definitely Schubschlag, as I have documented at great length in my book. Incidentally, George called it the Ernest Barry Stroke after an English professional sculler who was his childhood model.

And yes, there are two ways to complete a Schubschlag pullthrough. In my last newsletter for the sake of brevity, I chose only to describe the purer form of Schubschlag. Rather than accelerating the boat all the way to the very moment of release, one can reach the chosen layback angle with the hands still a few inches away from the chest. This is a technique that dates back before the birth of rowing as recreation and sport in the 1790s, all the way back to the artisan professional rowers of the Middle Ages. For more than a century this technique has been known as the ferryman’s finish, and it has always been controversial in some circles. Nineteenth Century British gentry considered it inelegant and identified it with the working class rowers they shared the Thames with. In his youth, George Pocock was one of those British working class rowers, and he brought the ferryman’s finish with him to America.

The ferryman’s finish entails using that last few inches of the pullthrough after the legs and backs have fully completed their motions to basically chin one’s self back toward the handle in order to 1) reverse the momentum of the upper body and get a head start on the next recovery, and 2) move the weight of the upper body out of the bow as quickly as possible in order to avoid having the bow plow down into the water at the finish. This was a special concern of George Pocock, and he wrote about it often. You describe it well in your email to me.

The ferryman’s finish involves tradeoffs, which I discuss at length in my book. Does it work? Yes, it does. There are plenty of examples of international crews finding success using the ferryman’s finish. For a good example of the two styles of the Schubschlag finish, one can look at the two great men’s pairs of the 1990s and 2000s, Great Britain’s Redgrave and Pinsent using the pure, concurrent finish, and Australia’s Ginn and Tomkins using the ferryman’s finish. Both crews won Olympic Gold. (I was there in Atlanta to see Steve and Matthew win theirs.)

One last thing, Jim. You state that Steve Fairbairn was an advocate of the ferryman’s finish. He was most definitely not: “The muscles down the back were not used to carry the stroke home and keep the weight hanging on. Most of the [crew] could get a splendid catch but no sustained draw. It was a pitiful sight. They could row 45 a minute, and the boat barely moved.”


Last, one of the naysayers.

Peter –

Not sure I agree that Kernschlag is simply banging the legs down hard. The science shows us that the most effective way to propel the boat is to achieve peak force early in the drive; the faster the boat-class, the earlier, while in the single we want peak force to be before mid-drive.

But that's not all. [On our team] we teach early peak force, followed by an acceleration into the finish – Perhaps you'd call that a hybrid Schub/Kernschlag.


I am not going to mention this coach’s name. He’s a friend and colleague, a fine coach, a successful coach, and I respect his opinions. On this subject, he well represents the majority of coaches in the world.

First of all, Schubschlag and Kernschlag in their purest forms are the two extremes along a continuum, and so it is possible to at least attempt to blend the two in order to get the best of both worlds. I have heard many people describe to me their preference for a left-leaning haystack to a pure Schubschlag symmetrical haystack.

For me the most troubling statement in this thoughtful email is: “The science shows us that the most effective way to propel the boat is to achieve peak force early in the drive; the faster the boat-class, the earlier.” There is no true science anywhere that supports that! No rigorous studies have ever been done. There are researchers who sincerely believe in Kernschlag, and it seems to me that they have sought out and published the data that supports their preferred outcomes. That's not science. That's advocacy.

One researcher has stated that 85% of the world’s rowers row what GDR scientists called Kernschlag. When I first read it, I took him at his word, and it very well may be true of ALL the rowers in the world. But I was interested in the rowers who make it to the highest level of our sport, who make it into World and Olympic finals. So I checked the entire population of finalists in all categories with as much of an open mind as I could muster.

I did find some Kernschlag rowers . . . but not 85%. More like 15% or even 10% or even 5%. And winners? Over the last decade you could count them on the fingers of one hand. How could this be? "Scientific" results need to be repeatable.

It’s all in my book.

But what if I am the biased one? What if I am seeing only what I want to see? There’s a continuum, after all. What if the average Kernschlager and I might differ a bit on the degree of Schub or Kern? But would they see 85% while I see 3%? Seems unlikely, no matter how looney I might be, but don’t take my word for it. Decide for yourself.

How does my friend and his fellow Kernschlagers explain away all the New Zealand Crews of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, of the early ‘80s and of the last few years? Or all the GDR men's and women's crews of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Or the Romanian women of the ‘80s and ‘90s and ‘00s? Or Olaf Tufte? Or the 2004 U.S. Men’s Eight or all the U.S. Men’s and Women’s boats of the last decade. Or all of Steve Redgrave’s boats? Or the Oarsome Foursome? Or the 2000 Polish Men’s Lightweight Double. Or the 2013 Croatian Men’s Quad?

Here’s my opinion. There is no “best of both worlds.” There is no benefit to Kernschlag! Trying to compromise only waters down the organic integrity of Schubschlag. But you believe what you want. When I was younger, I wanted to convince everyone and change the rowing world. Now all I want to do is make the little world around my coach’s launch a little bit better place . . . and do that one stroke at a time.