To the inexperienced eye, rowing looks so easy. I've heard many stories of people deciding to row after seeing boats gliding across the water only to find it is much harder than it looks. Rowing is a very technical sport and the more you learn about it, the more you realize there is to learn. A rower can go for years rowing in an 8 or a 4x never making the technical changes that will turn them into a really efficient rower.
As we get older, we're not getting stronger, but we can get faster if we learn to row more effectively. Pretty much every high school and college rower has a full time coach who is with them every practice, but as adults, that coaching can be sparse to nonexistent, especially for scullers.
So how to get better with little feedback? Row the single.
Do you find that the set is off in most team boats you're in? That the boat doesn't go straight? That short pieces work well but longer pieces don't? In an 8 or a 4x, it can be easy to place the blame on someone else, but in a single, there's nowhere to hide. There's a reason so many of the top collegiate programs have a fleet of pairs that are used frequently for practice though rarely on race day. The coach can see clearly who the boat movers are. We like to say that as a single sculler, you need to become your own best coach, and the single will help you do that.
If you're new to the single, don't jump right into a racing boat. It's important that you can be relaxed and if you're on the verge of falling in every stroke, it's pretty difficult to relax! The boat will give you enough feedback initially. Once you get reasonably competent in a wider boat, move up to one that is more challenging as you don't want to start getting away with things. You want to remain sensitive to what the boat is telling you. I encourage our guests to listen to the boat, to try and keep the catches and finishes reasonably quiet. You can also, for a short stretch, close your eyes to help you become more aware of your other senses.
You'll be able to feel where the set is off so you can adjust your hand heights, and immediately, the boat will readjust. Keep playing with the hand heights to find out where they need to be to set the boat. While you might have them in the right spot for good balance at the catch, they may be off at the release. Keep adjusting. To get more feedback, look at the shaft of the oar occasionally to see how high the water line is on the shaft. It's very easy to dig the blades in the middle of the drive - water half way up the shaft is a clue that your blades are too deep.
You'll also be able to see if the boat is going straight. When you first get in the single, there's a good chance it won't, but as you spend more time, your timing should improve which will help with the steering. However, if you're still veering to port or starboard, you'll want to figure out why. If either oar gets caught at the release, that will pull the boat to one side. If you pull a longer arc with one oar, that will also affect the steering. Figuring out you have a problem is the first step to resolving it.
The other nice thing about the single is that you can stop whenever the boat doesn't feel right. Maybe your grip is off. Don't keep going; stop, readjust and get your muscle memory working on remembering what is right, not wrong.
Going into this, hopefully you have an idea of how you want to row. There are lots of photos and videos on row2k where you can analyze the technique of the elite rowers.
How far are they going at the catch?
At the release?
How do they hold onto the oar?
What kind of progression are they doing on the recovery? On the drive? What posture do they have?
It's hard to figure all of this out on your own but it will be easier in a single than a team boat. And if you can row a single well, you'll take that skill into a 2x or 4x and even into a sweep boat.