GB PR1 Andy Houghton demonstrating AS capsize on British Rowing website
Marlow Rowing Club held one of its periodic capsize drills last month and had a chance to drill three of our fixed seat athletes.
Some people think PR1 is less risky because of the nature of their stroke (shorter range of motion so less to throw off the balance of the boat) and the presence of safety pontoons. And while the incidence of capsize might be the lowest, the severity is definitely the highest.
Risk is a combination of (a) incidence (how often or likely), and (b) severity (how bad when it does happen). A PR1 who capsizes both (a) has the most work to do to free themselves from the boat (3 straps plus feet), and (b) by definition has the highest degree of impairment to impede extraction. For example, a PR1 rower might lack the core strength or control to reach down to the foot straps or even the furthest lap strap. In one of the drills we did yesterday, the athlete thought they had released the lap strap, but they hadn’t and got caught up in the extraction. One reason they got confused is that they lacked sensation in the legs so they couldn’t feel that the strap was still holding them.
Despite the safety pontoons and stroke action, PR1 athletes can and do capsize. A very notable PR1 capsize took place a couple of years ago at a rowing camp run by British Rowing. The incident led to a full scale inquiry as to how it happened. One of the issues turned out to be that the pontoons hadn’t been set up properly. And this is the most likely scenario for a capsize with the presence of stabilizing floats – equipment failure. Any number of parts can break on a boat and if the wrong part breaks it could severely impede the boat’s stability and cause a capsize. But any number of other events could produce a capsize even with the protection of floats, most notably collisions. Not just collisions of the boat into fixed objects (eg. bridges, banks, fallen trees, floating logs, anchored boats), but into moving ones as well (eg. rowing boats coming the other direction, inattentive motor boats).
This article is not intended as a comprehensive “how to” guide to PR1 or fixed seat capsize drills. British Rowing actually runs special courses in conducting capsize drills and anyone who wants the comprehensive understanding of their operation and issues, should attend one of these. This piece is just to share a few personal perspectives on (a) the particular importance of capsize drills for fixed-seat athletes, and (b) a few considerations and tips for conducting those drills.
- Facemask or Goggles – One in-water helper will need to wear either a snorkeling mask or swim goggles to be able to see clearly under the water and monitor the athlete’s progress. I advise not to use a snorkel to provide air for the helper. I think it is better for the helper to feel the sensation of holding their breath along with the athlete so as time ticks along the helper has some sense of how acute the sensation is of feeling vulnerable or desperate for air.
- Fixed Seat Boat without Pontoons – Some capsize drills are run complete with blades (to make the capsize process a bit more realistic), but many are run without blades. I chose to run the session without blades. You definitely do not want to have safety pontoons on the boat during the drill. It is extremely hard to capsize the boat with the pontoons affixed (which is exactly how it should be). Furthermore, if there were any problems with the athlete, then tilting the boat sideways to get access to the athlete and get air to them would be equally as challenging.
- Two Helpers – You will need at least two capable helpers in the water during the drill. If the athlete gets into trouble with the extraction and the underwater helper is also unable to release the straps and the athlete adequately, you will require two people to be able to lever the boat to the position so that the athlete’s head is above water (at which point the helpers can determine what is impeding the release and remedy it). Make sure there is a very clear signal by the main helper to the assisting helper that indicates both helpers need to work together quickly to lever the boat to get the athlete’s head above water. I usually tell my assisting helper that I will touch him firmly (eg. tug at arm) as that signal is not likely to be missed or misconstrued (eg. if it is some sort of “sign”, then the main helper might accidentally make something appears like it triggering confusion as the assisting helper starts to try to lift the boat rigger by themselves). If the boat needs to be righted (even partially to get air to the athlete still strapped in), one helper pushes up on one rigger and the other pulls down on the opposite rigger.
- Depth – The depth of the drill should be shallow enough so that the helpers can stand firmly on the pool bottom (in case they need to lever the boat), but deep enough so that the athlete’s head does not get too close to the bottom of the pool. The distance from the upside-down athlete to the bottom is not that far so conceivably you could conduct the drill in very shallow water (eg. as little as a metre if the head is clear), but I prefer going a bit deeper so that the conditions and the sense of more water is more realistic to the athlete.
- Experiment and Adapt – First, as with all adaptives, do what is most comfortable and works best for you and your situation. An important part of having a capsize drill is to test that comfort and experiment with adaptations in the extraction maneuver in a safe and supervised environment. While for most non-adaptive athletes, a capsize drill is a simple and quick affair, fixed-seat drills can take considerably longer and require a number of goes.
- Release Body Strap Last – Recognizing the previous point about all situations being individual to the athlete and even the boat and seat they are using, both our PR1 athletes found releasing the body-strap last to be helpful (as opposed to eh lap strap or the leg strap). When they released the body strap first, the air in the chest cavity made the body float toward the surface. Being PR1, they had less control of their body to stop this movement of the body. As a result, they had trouble reaching the lap strap to release it. Partly because the body was floated further away from the legs and also because the body was floated to a different position the strap wasn’t where the athlete expected it to be. This was our experience, but situations will definitely differ by athlete and the drill is the opportunity to experiment with and determine which approach works best for you.
- Breath Holding Drill – A critical part of a PR1 extraction is holding your breath. Athletes in conventional sliding seats pretty much pop out the boat pretty readily. At most, their feet are secured firmly in their shoes which might require a reach down to release (if the feet haven’t just slipped out), but even with one’s feet “stuck” in stretcher shoes, it is still often quite feasible for a non-adaptive athlete to pull their head above the water pulling on the rigger. The PR1 athlete will not get their head above water until their straps are released (not to mention the foot straps). In a typical capsize (and all the fixed seat ones I have conducted), this should be under 10 seconds…
- 1st second – Release strap 1
- 2nd second – Release strap 2
- 3rd second – Release strap 3
- 4th second – Whoa, wait, where is strap 3?!
- 5th second – Ah, there it is.
- 6th second – Release strap 3
- 7th second – Wriggle out of feet straps
- 8th second – On the surface clinging to the boat
Despite 10 seconds being a relatively modest amount of time, things can go wrong and the athlete might require considerably longer underwater to achieve the extraction. If the extraction does not go smoothly, I want the athlete to understand before doing the drill that they actually do have comfortably more time than 10 seconds. As a result, I conduct an underwater breath-holding drill. The athlete dunks their head underwater, I use a stopwatch to count 30 seconds and then tap them on their head at the 30 second mark. For most people who have not trained in breath control, 30 seconds is about where things get a little uncomfortable and I want to acquaint them and prepare them with that sensation so it is not as scary. The drill also highlights to them that what seems like a really long time (when you are holding your breath) is really just 30 seconds. I also highlight, that while unnerving and uncomfortable, if they were ever stuck for more than that, they still have time before they are going to be in a more serious problem and they should resist the urge to panic
- Mind Your Head – I think because there is a bit more time pressure and eagerness to get back on top of the water and get a breath of air, most of the fixed seat athletes seem to hit their head on the rigger on surfacing. In an already fraught situation (in real life), this could be further disconcerting, disorienting and could cause injury. The drill is a good chance to highlight this issue and prepare the athlete for its possibility.
- Check Hull Grip – The boat is your floatation device. All athletes are taught to never leave the boat unless specifically instructed to so by a safety launch or other person providing assistance. For a sleek scull, reaching over the top of the overturned boat is pretty straightforward. If it is a bigger boat, athletes can often kick their legs to push themselves up onto the hull for more safety. But a PR1 boat is much bigger than a sleek single and an impaired rower will have less physical resources to get secured onto the boat (eg. kicking their legs). Always check that after the athlete has extracted themselves, they are capable of securing a hold onto the boat that can keep them safe until assistance arrives.
If your club has a PR1 capsize, it will attract a huge amount of attention from British Rowing and one of the first questions will be whether the athlete had undertaken a capsize drill.