Geek Special: The Ups and Downs of the Sliding Rigger

A graphic from the “Illustrated London News” (ILN) of 25 September 1954 showing the then latest incarnation of an old idea, a double scull with fixed seats and sliding riggers.

17 October 2017

Tim Koch gets technical.

Condoms from 1000 BC and 17th-century contact lenses are but a couple of examples of inventions or innovations that were ahead of their time because, at their origin, the materials did not exist to make them a practical (or at least, a reliable) proposition. Two of the greatest advances in ‘modern’ rowing equipment, the outrigger (first made in wood in 1828 and in iron in 1830) and the sliding seat (first made in leather and brass in 1857), are also cases in point; the early history of their use in competition is littered with examples of them failing under the strains that racing placed on them. In his autobiography, Guy Nickalls recalled his race against Walter Sweetman in the Diamond Sculls of 1888:

I heard a bang, and a shower of shrapnel fell around me; the balls from (Sweetman’s sliding seat) bearings. I offered to start again and he paddled back to the raft and got another slide fixed.

Occasional failings aside, the advantages that both outriggers and sliding seats gave when they did actually work meant that their use could not be dispensed with and, eventually, improvements in metal technology and the development of plastics meant that breakages became rare. American rowing historian Bill Miller holds that, ‘Once the outrigger and sliding seat were developed, things were pretty status quo for almost 100 years’. I would add that the advent of national rowing associations and of the International Rowing Federation (FISA) also led to demands for equipment standardisation throughout the sport. However, the dominance of the sliding seat/fixed rigger combination overshadowed a rowing invention of 1876, something that appeared to confer great advantages but which took nearly a century to become workable – only to then ‘fail’ because of rules, not reliability. This was the sliding rigger.

William Blakeman’s 1876 patent for sliding riggers, the first of many from various inventors. The patent preface read: ‘The object of this invention is to furnish boats provided with sliding oar-locks to enable the oarsman to keep his oar longer in the water when making a stroke, without retarding the motion of the boat by the recovery, than is possible when sliding or stationary seats are used without my improvement’.

The simple concept behind the sliding rigger is that it is the outrigger that moves rather than the rower and the seat. Both the sliding seat and the sliding rigger were invented in the 1870s, but the movable seat won over the movable rigger simply because it was much simpler to build and was less prone to failure using the materials of the time. In a long and technical article in The Times of 26 June 1954 about the sliding rigger, rowing historian and journalist Richard Burnell quoted JC Babcock, the man usually credited with inventing the first sliding seat, writing in the New York Spirit of the Times, 14 December 1872:

the rowlock should be moved six inches back and forward each stroke. As this was impracticable, the idea of moving the seat occurred to me…

Burnell concluded that:

This suggests that Babcock had the idea of the ‘sliding rigger’, but adopted the ‘sliding seat’ for technical reasons.

The ILN’s 1954 summary of the problems of conventional rowing and sculling using fixed riggers and sliding seats (click to enlarge).

 

The ILN’s version of the supposed advantages of using fixed seats and sliding riggers (click to enlarge).

The most important claim for the sliding rigger is that, with the body weight almost stationary, the boat does not pitch bow to stern as much, thus there is less hull resistance and the boat speed is increased. In practice, engineers, physicists, and mathematicians do not seem to agree on the exact figures. If you would like to read (but not necessarily understand) an example of a Super Geek argument, click here.

The 1954 attempt by WTJ Baker and CE Poynter to produce a workable sliding rigger was to debut at that year’s Henley, but on 1 July 1954, The Times recorded:

The great disappointment of the day (30 June) was the scratching of Poynter’s sliding rigger boat. It was damaged on (28 June), and…. repairs proved to be unsuccessful.

Previously, The Times had written that

Poynter and Baker have had trouble with breakages in the carriage of the sliding rigger, which suggests that the design is not sufficiently robust…

Before Poynter and Baker’s work, U.S. sculling champion Walter Hoover had tried the concept in the 1920s, as did German industrialist and champion sculler, Georg von Opel in 1946, the latter finding it too heavy. Serious experiments with the movable rigger were also made in France in 1955, in Australia in 1960, in West Germany with the legendary coach, Karl Adam, in 1962, and in East Germany in 1970. No prototypes seem to have made it to competition and it was not until 1980, 96 years after Blakeman’s patent, that the first really successful sliding outrigger boat was produced.

Dr Volker Nolte’s Empacher sliding rigger sculling boat of 1980, on display in Henley’s River and Rowing Museum.

In Rowing News in August 2004, Hannah Hoag recalled that during the late 1970s:

During his doctoral thesis at the University of Cologne… Volker Nolte developed a computer programme that could predict the velocity of a single based on a slew of variables… He soon realised that the rower’s movements during the recovery had the largest single impact on boat speed. ‘It became clear that the boat speed would be faster, much faster, if you could build a sliding rigger because the recovery would be faster,’ he says.

Nolte convinced Empacher to build a prototype rolling rigger single scull, the device now perfected using modern materials and hardware. To test it, he entered the boat and himself in a 1981 race, which included many West German squad rowers. Hoag again:

The results caused quite a stir: (Nolte) finished in second place and first place over two days of racing. (He) says that although he was in reasonable shape, he was past his prime and considered his racing career over. He entered another regatta and finished… four seconds behind… Peter-Michael Kolbe, the men’s singles champion in the Worlds in 1975 and 1978. ‘I was a retired athlete: it was way too close,’ said Nolte.

Alan Oldham, writing in Rowing News, March 2017:

Without a clear definition of what constituted a change radical enough for a ban, FISA watched and waited, weighing the pros and cons. Very quickly though, the sliding rigger was demonstrating its potential.

Using Nolte’s sliding rigger, Peter-Michael Kolbe triumphed at Lucerne in record time in 1981 and won the World Championship Singles final in Munich in 1982 (the best place for a conventional boat in that race was sixth). Also in that year, all the A-Finalists at the Rootsee International Regatta used the revolutionary device, and Chris Baillieu won the Diamond Sculls with a rigger that Jim Railton described as ‘having a wheeze as it rolls up and down its slide…’ Not everyone abandoned convention immediately. In The Times of 8 July 1983, Jim Railton wrote that ‘Steve Redgrave… may experiment with a sliding rigger boat. Considering that….. in good conditions, it can be worth at least 10 seconds over 2,000 metres… it is about time…’

The above YouTube video starts with an unidentified sculler at Vichy in 1982 and then Steve Redgrave in practice at Lucerne in 1983, both using sliding riggers.

The young Redgrave had little time to get used to the change as, in September 1983, FISA held a referendum among its constituent members and it was decided to ban sliding riggers from International, World and Olympic competition from 1 January 1984. Jim Railton reported that,

Opinions are split, but Peter-Michael Kolbe, of West Germany, shrugged off the decision: ‘I won my first two titles in a conventional boat’.

The FISA ban was allegedly on the grounds that sliding riggers were too expensive for some rowing nations to afford. While some said that with this logic we would still be rowing in fixed-seat boats without outriggers, others emphasised that, if everyone adopted the device, they would all go faster by the same amount, the order of the winning boats would not change and the same people would still win.

Early 1980s hairstyle, singlet, blades and sliding rigger – Swedish sculler Hasse Svensson.

Presently, several companies offer sliding rigger boats for the leisure market, though they are still a rare sight.

There is a view that nowadays, with the improvement in materials technology, the cost argument against allowing such devices no longer applies. However, FISA is currently trying more than ever to recruit and keep nations in order to safeguard the sport’s future in the Olympic Games. Anything that would make that task more difficult (such as having to develop and learn new techniques that different equipment may require) is unlikely to find favour. Possibly, rowing equipment manufacturers are the only people who would welcome the lifting of FISA’s ban on a device that, in the old phrase, is dead – but will not lie down.

Bill Miller’s wonderful collection of American rowing patents, including many for sliding riggers, is on the Friends of Rowing History website.

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