RRM@21 – 8: Five Fours to Fathom

The Sydney 2000 Olympics boat, built by Ayling, which carried James Cracknell, Steve Redgrave, Tim Foster and Matt Pinsent to Olympic gold. The boat is now in RRM Rowing Gallery. Photo: Tim Koch.

7 March 2019 

By Chris Dodd 

A museum for rowing means boats, and there are plenty to relish in the collection as the River & Rowing Museum comes of age. Chris Dodd continues his birthday series.

Five famous fours grace the collection at the RRM. Victoria was built by Matthew Taylor of Newcastle for Royal Chester RC in 1855 and demonstrates two early advances in boat design. Outriggers enabled the hull to be lighter and narrower, and an inboard keel reduced its friction. Taylor’s claim to be the first to bring the keel was disputed by Harry Clasper, his rival on the Tyne. Whoever got there first, Victoria is the oldest surviving example of a ‘shell’ – a boat with a smooth hull.

Stakhanovite is a state-of-the-art wooden veneer prototype coxed four by Wilhelm Karlisch of Germany that belonged to Wallingford Schools Boat Club, the most successful British junior internationals in the 1970s. Named after a Soviet miner who always delivered above his quota, Stakhanovite represents the far end of the design line that Taylor and Clasper began on the Tyne a century and a quarter earlier.

The watershed for wood construction came in the 1970s after experiments with synthetic materials appeared in the late 1960s, notably by the Germans Luigi Colani, Leo Wolloner at Empacher and Klaus Filter in East Berlin and by John Vigurs at Carbocraft in Britain. Professor Alistair Cameron of Imperial College stepped into this arena in 1976 when he and the Putney boat builder Edwin Phelps unveiled the Virginia Cameron, a wooden prototype made by deconstructing a conventional coxed four and rebuilding it on the ‘monocoque’ principle used in the airframe industry. The hull was lightened by doing away with the frame and investing strength in sealed sections (staterooms) of hull, the principle upon which racing boats have been built since.

The Virginia Cameron went on to win the Prince Philip Challenge Cup at Henley, but its success was impaled on the materials revolution under way just up the road at British Aerospace in Weybridge, where engineers were investigating the properties of carbon fibre for jet engines – and racing boats.

The RRM’s fourth famous four is Dzintars, an experimental boat from Riga with a coxswain’s seat in the centre. It was used by the Soviet Union’s top women’s four for the World Championships of 1979 and 1981 and the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. The theory was that the bow pair and stern pair could row asymmetrically to gain more speed because two blades would always be hooked into the water. The crew mastered asymmetric rowing but found that symmetric rowing was just as quick, so Dzintars was rowed symmetrically for all its triumphs. Dzintars is an indigenous Latvian masculine name meaning ‘amber’, according to Wikipedia.

Incidentally, asymmetric or ‘syncopated’ rowing was tried, with some success, by London Rowing Club in the 1920s. An eight was converted into a six with a cox in the middle. Rowing it was technically difficult, and it never caught on.

Here is a newsreel from 1929 showing London RC eight trying syncopated rowing, though the cox is sitting in the stern:

The fifth four is the iconic craft by Aylings that won the Sydney 2000 Olympics with the aid of James Cracknell, Steve Redgrave, Tim Foster and Matt Pinsent. It is an Ayling state-of-the-art coxless four with refinements to fit Pinsent’s size-14 feet into his foot-stretcher, and it delivered Redgrave’s fifth Olympic gold and Pinsent’s third. What more is there to say?

Redgrave’s seat in the Sydney Four. Photo: Tim Koch.

As for acquiring these boats, Victoria came from the Science Museum in company with Oxford’s 1829 eight. Stakhanovite was presented to the museum by its crew, one of whom had ensured that it was looked after when it ceased active life. Virginia Cameron was found rotting outside Imperial College’s nuclear plant somewhere in the south of England and brought to Henley by a former IC oarsman. Dzintars was offered to the museum as a swap for a pair-oar training boat in a deal brokered by World Rowing’s scheme to supply much-needed equipment to countries where rowing is growing. The ‘Sydney Four’ was donated by Aylings and rowed to the RRM’s landing stage by its crew.

In their different ways, all these boat answer the question ‘Why a rowing museum?’

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