RRM@21 – 10: Singular Boats

Volke Nolte’s sliding rigger. Photo: Tim Koch.

15 March 2019 

By Chris Dodd 

The boat collection at the River & Rowing Museum in Henley includes one-man vessels with experimental features. Museum founder Chris Dodd looks back on singular men and their flying machines.

All sorts of weird and wonderful shapes for hulls have been tried to answer the question ‘does it make the boat go faster?’ Alexander Alcée Casamajor, a sub-editor on the Field magazine who was a champion sculler at London RC, had a boat with a V-section hull that now hangs in the club’s long room. Marlow RC has a ‘patent tubular wager’ single designed by Greens of Sydney that was named Star of Australia and shipped to England in 1863 for Richard Green to have a shot at the world pro sculling title (he didn’t use it and he didn’t win).

If you happened to be crossing Marlow Bridge sometime in the 1970s, you may have witnessed a teenage Steve Redgrave sculling an aluminium Reredos single scull fitted with two hydrofoils. It was designed and made by James Grogono, surgeon and keen sailor and oarsman. Grogono’s idea was to raise the boat on skis to reduce drag to a minimum, a rowing equivalent to a sailboat’s ability to plane in a following wind. Unfortunately, the test pilot required all his energy to lift for take-off and couldn’t keep it up.

The boats used by Casamajor and Green appeared on loan at the RRM for an exhibition called “Singular Boats” that also included Grogono’s boat donated to the museum by its inventor. Another unusual craft in the boat store is Dr Willy Biedermann’s boat-in-a-box made by Stämpfli of Zürich in 1942. Carolas is a single scull that splits into three parts to pack into a crate together with a pair of sculls for easy cartage to regattas. It was even rumoured possible to take it to the water by tram. It was used by Dr Biedermann on the Aare River at Olten until 1963. It eventually came to Henley via its maker.

The boat in which the Rev Sidney Swann set a record of 3 hours 50 minutes to cross the Channel from Dover to Cap Gris-Nez on 12 September 1911 is also in the RRM’s collection. Swann was a vicar in the Lake District, who brought his robust coastal sculling boat to Dover by train to make his crossing when the weather forecast was favourable. He was a Cambridge Blue who, with seven Dark Blues, won Olympic gold for Britain in 1912. He also won a silver medal in the eights at Antwerp in 1920.

Sidney Swann’s boat with which he crossed the Channel. Photo: Tim Koch.

Swann’s Channel record stood until Ivor Lloyd lowered it to 3 hours 35 minutes in 1983. Lloyd’s record fell in 2003 when Guin Batten reduced it to 3 hours 14 minutes.

The bright orange boat on display in the gallery is a single scull with a fixed seat and a wing rigger and foot stretcher caboodle on slides. The idea of fixing the sculler on the boat’s centre of gravity while moving his fixtures and fittings instead has been around since John Babcock patented the sliding seat in the 1870s, but everyone who tried to make a sliding rigger, including Babcock, failed to conquer the bendiness of wood. But once new materials emerged in the twentieth century, old ideas could be realised.

Volke Nolte designed the RRM prototype using modern materials at Cologne University in 1980 and persuaded Empacher to make it. For three years such boats helped the world’s top scullers go faster until World Rowing (FISA) banned sliding riggers before the 1984 Olympics. However, the wing rigger for boats with siding seats is the lasting legacy of Nolte’s experiment.

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