The Other Parts of Rowing (TOPOR) II – In the Tank

[January 7, 1932] “Eli Men Foil Old Man Winter – [W]ith this modern tank in the new Eli five million dollar gymnasium at their disposal, Coach Ed Leader no longer has to wait for Old Man Winter to pass by. He is putting his crew through the first workout of the season … in real water where conditions approximate those on the Housatonic River.”
21 April 2020

By Thomas E. Weil

Rowing qua rowing is to most HTBS Types the act of attempting to achieve symphony in motion in a competitive context. But even that core act takes place within a smorgasbord of other activities. This, another in HTBS’s Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series, is the second in a mini-series illustrating some of those other elements of rowing, as depicted by several decades of randomly collected news photos, images that demonstrate the insatiable appetite of the popular press at a time when journalism was interested not just in the act of rowing itself, but also in the bits and pieces that make up the greater tapestry of the sport.

“In the tank” is a slang term referring to prolonged poor performance. This would not, however, reflect the hopes of those rowing coaches who are lucky enough to have rowing tanks available for their crews to practice in when conditions preclude being able to get out on the water. Wikipedia describes a rowing tank as “an indoor facility which attempts to mimic the conditions rowers face on open water [note: not really].  … Rowing tanks are primarily used for off-season rowing, muscle specific conditioning and technique training, or simply when bad weather does not allow for open water training. A tank allows basic technique to be taught to newcomers to the sport in a safe environment, and enables coaches to work on the technique of more experienced oarsmen.”

Just as with the training barges addressed in TOPOR I, rowing tanks appear to have inspired no history of their own. The earliest mentions I have found are references to Yale’s construction of an indoor rowing tank in the late 1880s, which quickly led to the installation of a tank by Harvard. Tanks were conceived and built with a variety of designs over the years. As depicted above, the advanced tank was purpose made, with seats and rowlocks built onto a large concrete platform, with powerful pumps that sending water past the rowing stations at speeds that could be adjusted to simulate the different feels of the water when rowing. But as seen in the following photographs, most rowing tanks did not meet that level of sophistication…
Some early tanks, as in this image of indoor rowing at the Naval Academy in 1927, were cobbled together with impressive ingenuity. The midshipmen here sit in a form that approximates the body of a racing shell which has been placed in a swimming pool and is restrained by great cables from surging back and forth or from side to side as the oarsmen take their strokes.

[March 4, 1930] “Columbia Varsity Crew Practices on Barge in Swimming Pool.”
The caption notwithstanding , the image captures not the crew, but Columbia coach Richard Glendon carefully watching his charges at work.  Whether the megaphone is actually needed in the confines of the pool area is not clear, but it would be hard to miss any directions issuing from its mouth.

If the swim team wanted their pool back, a crew (like these Columbia oarsmen in January of 1934) might construct an outdoor jerry-rigged rowing tank, putting the “shell” within a compartment allowing space for coaches to closely observe and provide on-the-spot guidance, while dividers in the water on the port and starboard sides, aided by the circular corners of the structure, allowed the current being pushed sternwards by the oars to circulate back towards the bow.

[February 2, 1935] “Middies Train to ‘Rule the Waves’ – … Crew aspirants are shown churning up the water in the indoor practise [sic] tank before taking to the open water. Indoor practise will be held until spring thaws out the frozen Severn River.”
When Hubbard Hall was constructed as the Naval Academy’s boathouse in 1930, it was so situated on the bank of College Creek near the Severn River that a portion of the structure was built out over the water. The lowest floor of the east wing of the building was a rowing tank that effectively sat in College Creek, with water (as well as oyster larvae) flowing into the tank through grates built into the foundation walls (as seen here on the far wall, starboard side). And the Naval Academy swim team had no interest in using that pool …

[January 19, 1937] “Columbia Crewmen Begin Training. – Championship crews are made in the long winter months, when the oarsmen perfect their technique and build up their stamina for the racing season by daily workouts on indoor machines or in indoor tanks. Laying on the oars in the approved Glendon manner are [crew names follow]. This indoor tank was specially designed to simulate actually [sic] rowing conditions.”
So, by 1937, the Columbia oarsmen had at last acquired their own indoor tank, where they took on the challenge of rowing while lying down – but that is a subject reserved for the next piece – TOPOR III – in this series…

[May 1956] “U.S. 1952 Olympic Crew Sets Sights on 1956 Melbourne Games – Bad weather doesn’t stop training of the U.S. Naval Academy’s 1952 Olympic oarsmen. The crew men, who have reassembled to train together in hope of representing the United States in the 1956 Games at Melbourne, row in the Academy boathouse when the weather is bad.”
If one witnesses nine Olympic gold medalists hard at it, there must presumably be something good to be said for rowing in the tanks …

One comment

  1. Fifty years ago my New England boarding school coach and I designed an oval tank that fit two oarsmen at a time for winter training practice. Rowing from the side the oarsmen could row as port oars or by reversing the rigger/seat/slide/stretcher fixture row as two starboards. The water circulated around the oval tank speeding up as the rowers rowed harder. Quite realistic and a lot of fun to build and see work.

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