Rock the boat

Rock the boat

A University of Western Ontario researcher develops an ingenious new balance measuring device
July 1, 2004

If Canadians are especially adept at manoeuvering a canoe along our country's countless lakes, rivers, and streams, perhaps it can be credited to their well-honed sense of balance on the water. But until Siobhan McLaughlin came along, few people had ever taken the time to figure out why, or how to measure that sense of balance.

As a Master's student in kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario, McLaughlin first became interested in the qualities that distinguish the most outstanding competitive rowers. Having participated in the sport since she was in high school, she knew that balance was a major factor and contributed to the efficiency of the best rowers in the field. Anxious to find out about the mechanics behind it all, she went looking for formal research or studies to explain the phenomenon—and to provide clues about how she might help others duplicate their balancing act. She found almost nothing.

McLaughlin decided to solve the problem for herself. Luckily, the University of Western Ontario was a good place to solve it. The surrounding city of London, Ontario, is home to the National Rowing Centre, a facility that represents a unique partnership between the university and its rowing club, the London Rowing Club, and Rowing Canada. The Centre has been hailed for training the country's leading participants in the sport, and for contributing to Canada's successful record in international rowing.

Through the National Rowing Centre, McLaughlin had access to rowing teams at all levels of experience and talent. Although she was keen on improving the performance of all athletes, it was the beginners that interested her most. "Most of my research was on novice rowers, and the best way to teach them how to row," McLaughlin says. "I needed a way to monitor their performance over a season, and to show them how they compared to the ideal."

McLaughlin's quest led her to the celebrated Olympic coach Volker Nolte, employed by the University of Western Ontario and acting as McLaughlin's thesis advisor. After consulting with him, she devised an ingenious meter that looks like a miniaturized musical metronome. The meter leans from side to side as the boat rolls with the repetitive movements of the rowers. The small device can be mounted discretely on the stern, and the fluctuations can be videotaped from a distance by an observer in a chase boat. The resulting data faithfully records a steady tipping cycle for any given set of rowers, which reveals a great deal about the skill and competency of the rowers. "The balance curve—what the balance looks like stroke after stroke—is really interesting," says McLaughlin. "The national team has a very regular profile. But the novices are all over the place."

Click here to view the Discovery Channel clip "Balance in the Boat".

This new analytical approach builds on the technical nature of rowing and could significantly enhance training regimens for rowing teams. Since graduating earlier this year, McLaughlin has found herself with a vested interest in such a prospect. She is now the Saskatchewan provincial head rowing coach and is responsible for teams in Saskatoon, Regina, and Prince Albert. She says that being able to analyze the balance displayed by her rowing teams could give them a serious advantage over the competition. For Canadian rowers heading to the Olympic Games in Athens this summer, McLaughlin's meter may give them just the boost they need to get onto the medal podium.