row2k Features
Best Practices: Dealing With Nasty Spring Weather
April 30, 2019
Ed Moran,

MIT lightwomen fighting their way past the Mass Avenue Bridge in the Charles River Basin

The last few weekends across the country have been a challenge for spring rowing at every level. Wind, rain, flooding, thunderstorms, and tornado warnings have resulted in delays and cancellations, and pushed coaches and athletes to deal with changes in their schedules and routines that can end up disrupting a season, or even become dangerous to continue rowing in.

The second week in April saw such severe flooding in Oregon that the Oregon State men's team resorted to rowing on a flooded golf course that surrounds the boathouse. The flooding was extreme, reaching levels near the boathouse and the course of 24-feet above normal, and caused extensive damage along the Willamette River, forcing the crew team off the water.

After an erg session, men's coach Gabe Winkler took advantage of the flooded course, and let his guys row a few holes. "The boathouse is kind of an island, and around it is a golf course, and the golf course was flooded," Winkler said. "As a novelty, we rowed on the golf course, which was neat. It was fun for the guys. The last time Oregon State was able to do that was in 1996, when it basically reached the exact same height. Everybody brags about it, so I let the guys do it.

"If you could navigate through the holes, you could go for a bit, probably 2k. But in the stretch we went, I let them go about 500 meters. It was fun. We just rowed some pairs and singles." Watch local news station clip from the coverage.

Given the way this spring weather has unfolded, and the fact that it can happen again before the season ends, row2k asked some experienced collegiate and high school coaches how they prepare for the unexpected, and what to do when conditions force change and threaten safety.

Here is what they had to say:

Safety Comes First

The most important consideration for coaches when dealing with either practicing or racing in challenging conditions, particularly in locations where the ability to be on the water is dictated by the time of year, is safety.

Gusty winds the cancelation of the Garden State Scholastics Sarurday on Cooper River
Gusty winds the cancelation of the Garden State Scholastics Sarurday on Cooper River

Northeast clubs and teams already spend a lot of time indoors, and when the water is free of ice and the temperatures are manageable, losing water time or race opportunities can sometimes cloud judgement.

Last Friday, Saratoga Rowing Association regatta director Chris Chase was preparing to help his club host the Saratoga Invitational, one of the largest scholastic and junior club events held this time of year, and the weather was already causing problems. (Some Saturday races were canceled due to wind, but racing resumed Sunday.)

Chase took a few moments to share his past experiences and guidelines for making decisions about when to row and when to stay off the water:

"Traditionally, these last two weekends are always rough, and I think because of the time of year, safety is one of the things that is most overlooked. All of us in the Northeast are so cabin fever crazy by the time the spring comes, we're just begging for any kind of access, and I think we cloud our judgement in our haste to get on the water.

"I would say, the best practice to start with is to be aware of what is possible. Check the weather. And instead of pretending not to know, check more religiously than you ever would. I know coaches that know when it's going to be windy and that will try to beat it, get out there so they at least salvage some time on the water, thinking they can get back in time. That's a mistake. Don't assume you'll get back in time.

"Be aware what the weather apps say - always be aware of what's on the radar and have working devices with you. If the conditions are bad, and are the kind of conditions that a race will be canceled or held for, we won't practice in it. We won't even bother going out. There is no reason to.

"When I was a younger coach, I thought my duty was to respect the fact that the parents had spent a lot of money for their kid to row. But, now that I am an older coach and a parent, I realize that my first and foremost duty to the athletes, and to the parents, is to keep their kids safe."

In a college program, the athletes are older and more experienced. And because race results impact which crews are going to make it into the championship weekends, the stakes are higher from week-to-week.

But, even that does not change the importance of keeping athletes safe as the overriding consideration when addressing the question of when to race or practice in challenging conditions.

Northeastern University is one of the many Boston schools that row regularly on the Charles River and race in the section called the Basin, which is notorious for getting churned up in the wind, including the past two weekends.

Crews beat the wind by rowing earlier in Boston on Saturday morning
Crews beat the wind by rowing earlier in Boston on Saturday morning

The section of the Basin race course was predicted to be bad for races scheduled for Saturday morning, which prompted the coaches and officials involved to move racing up one hour to 6 AM to avoid the worst of the predicted winds. Northeastern's women's team was among those crews that were scheduled to race Saturday.

Head women's coach Joe Wilhelm is used to dealing with these Boston conditions, but said they have been slightly more frequent this season. Like Chase, Wilhelm said his first consideration is the safety of his athletes.

"In terms of practice, it depends on what the goal is for that day, and obviously the first thing we always think of is the safety and well-being of our athletes. That's the first choice. After that, if it is safe to go out, and you're in racing season, and it's the kind of conditions you're going to race in, you probably will go on the water.

"You might change what your focus is for the day; you're not going to do really fine technical work when it's a 20-mile an hour wind, but we try to be prepared for anything we are going to race in.

"I would say this year is probably unusual in that it was happened more often. But, it's not unusual that we face these kinds of conditions in the Basin. It's a great course when there is no wind, but it doesn't take much wind to make it rough. I think if you row in this part of the country, you have to embrace it; you have to just realize that there are going to be days like this. It's almost a point of pride that you are going to be good in it."

Conditions on Lake Carnegie in early spring are often cold and windy
Conditions on Lake Carnegie in early spring are often cold and windy

Be Prepared and Practice for the Unexpected

Rowing - the time-honored saying goes - is an outdoor sport. And weather issues can happen anywhere, and at any time of year. The best way to handle the kinds of conditions is to prepare for them. Here is what two coaches who have been dealing with some of the most recent conditions do as a matter of routine, and how they keep their athletes calm when the unexpected does happen.

Princeton Men's Lightweight head coach Marty Crotty said he starts preparing his crews for dealing with immediate and unexpected changes months before the spring racing season begins:

"Honestly, it starts on day one of school. A lot of times, I use the fall and the winter, and I will do things you might think are silly. I will tell the guys, we're going to practice tomorrow and this is what the workout is going to be. I might say it's a moderate workout. And when they show up, the workout is completely different, and it's much harder. I want to see how guys react.

"Another way is by challenging them in different ways, but not always the same way. Sometimes coaches might choose to do that extra piece on the erg, or be out on the water for longer durations. Instead of being out there for an hour and a half, keep them out there for two hours on a Monday night. Keeping them out on the water longer helps them learn how to swallow that.

"Or, I challenge them on the water. Like, if you come around the corner, and there is a white-capping head wind, I'll say, 'OK, let's go up to the catch, square them up. We're going to do a piece right into the teeth of this. It's just an impromptu piece. It was a steady state workout, but that's OK, here are these conditions and we're going to do a three-minute piece at 36 right into the teeth of this. It's not on the schedule, but the question becomes, how are you going to deal?

"A third way, especially on home water, is I make my athletes aware of exactly what the wind direction is going to be. I tell them before they launch what the wind direction is, and the intensity.

"I say, now you might not care that the wind is Southeast at 10 miles per hour, but I want you to be aware of it because at some point in the season, you're going to launch for your race and it's going to be Southeast at 12 miles an hour, and I want you to know exactly what to expect."

To help prepare his athletes for unexpected changes that happen after they are already launched, Crotty also relies on prior preparation and creating routines. "I think your warmup routine - how you launch, how long your warmup is - has to be a routine that you can apply at any time, at the drop of a hat. That doesn't change if you are out there, and you get stuck out there, and you are just kind of rowing around in circles waiting for a delay or something like that. You just have to be confident with your ability."

Jamie Hamp, who coaches the boys' varsity squad for the Princeton National Rowing Association Mercer Juniors, has generally the same weather that Crotty experiences. And Mercer Lake, their home water, is notorious for falling victim to winds that tear up significant portions of the race course.

Recently, the Mercer Lake Sprints and ISA Sculling Championships, was experiencing weather conditions that threatened the cancellation of the entire regatta, and eventually forced race organizers to shorten the race distance to one-thousand meters.

Hamp said he is used to dealing with weather conditions on Mercer Lake and like Crotty, he teaches his junior athletes to rely on routine, but not be shaken when the conditions force a change in how they prepare, how they warm up, how to stay hydrated and nutritionally fueled when their race times have pushed them significantly past their pre-race meal.

As far as dealing with shortened distances, Hamp said he just told them; "It's a combination of the first 500 and last 500 - basically a sprint the whole time, no really settle to base. I don't really prepare them for a 1k. I just tell them that it's going to be shorter, so go faster.

"I find that nutrition, especially during racing season, tends to be relatively simple, especially at this level because they know what they like to eat, and they can sort of just keep munching on something to keep them full and ready to go.

"If the original schedule says we are racing at 10 AM, I tell them to eat a meal about two and a half to three hours before. If a race is delayed, and they want to eat, I let them eat. But I but ask that they be smart about what they're eating.

"Bananas, or bagels without butter or cream cheese are good. And if they are hungry before they launch, we encourage them to eat something simple, something that will put a little energy in you, but not something that is going to disrupt your stomach."

For the other issues that come with race delays and weather changes, the main message Hamp imparts is to remain calm and trust the routine - warm-up the same way no matter when the racing resumes.

"If a race is delayed, one thing I am big on is keeping them calm and not having them worry. You have to focus on the present, and what you can control about it, and you can't worry about the past or the future. You can't control the weather, or the race schedule.

"If there is a delay on the water, I have contingency plans with my coxswains. We have them try to keep moving. You don't want to just sit. I have them do the start work and drills right off the dock, because you are not really moving before the race.

"I want them warmed up on land, and when you get in the boat, find the rhythm. Once you do that, you can keep doing loops on the water if there are conditions of some kind that cause a delay to the start.

"I don't really have a good solution to being marshaled 15 minutes before a race, but they need to know that every other crew is experiencing the same thing, and it's not a competitive advantage or disadvantage.

"The big thing I tell my crews is to expect the unexpected, and deal with it."

Crews waiting out a delay at the eventually canceled Clemson Invitational
Crews waiting out a delay at the eventually canceled Clemson Invitational

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