Squaring early

Who hasn’t heard the refrain, “Square earlier!” a squillion times?

In my limited experience, it’s often a call that has no effect because the rower doesn’t actually know what to do to make it happen. For whatever reason, sometimes the brain refuses to speak to the hands. Or perhaps the hands just don’t listen.

For me, what finally worked was seeing someone do it, seeing that it was possible. Seeing someone squaring up not just a millisecond earlier, but squaring up insanely early—in sculling, by the time the hands cross over.

Here they are—the Sinkovic brothers in the 2x—showing us that squaring by the crossover is possible.

The Sinkovic brothers squaring insanely early (2’30” to 3’10”)

Like to see that in a 4x? Here’s the  Croatian 4x that won Olympic silver in 2012 (Sinkovic brothers, Damir Martin and David Sain):

Squaring insanely early – the Croatian men’s 4x that won silver at London 2012

Having seen it, I just went out and tried it, with immediate success. I blew my own mind! I tried it first in a double scull with my partner setting the boat up. Later I tried it in the single. Whatever mental block I had before, I overcame it in one session, as did my partner, though we both still need to be reminded to square earlier now and again.

You might say, “Why do that? You’ll never need to race like that.”  Indeed. But it has helped me in 2 ways:

  • Knowing I can do it, I feel in command of my blades, which is empowering. Rather than thinking I can square early, it’s more that I can square on demand—as early or as late as I like, as the situation calls for.
  • Even if only for a millisecond, I love that feeling of travelling with the blades in the square. But the real reward is that once I’m square, the only thing I need to think about is the timing of the entry—when am I going to drop my blades in the water? Dropping them in too early is not a problem I have ever had. And, even in a crew boat, I would be delighted to hear someone say, “You’re dropping your blades in too early!” or “Square later!”.

And, hey, if this exercise is good enough for Valent and Martin, it’s good enough for me.

Having said all of that, a couple of weeks ago I tripped across a video made by US Olympian John Biglow—a really well put together clip that left me, well, quite flabbergasted and not a little emotional. It’s a reminder that there is more than one way to row fast.

Below is US Olympian Sherrie Cassuto demonstrating the ‘flip catch’ which she learnt from Frank Cunningham in Seattle and which, she explains, is the style of rowing used by the Thames watermen back in the day.

She also talks about posture and what we can learn from the deadlift.

It’s a must-watch, right to the end:

Sherri Cassuto demonstrates the ‘flip catch’, part of the Thames waterman style of rowing

On a first viewing, I kept thinking ‘square earlier!’  But the style began to grow on me as I watched it again and listened to the sweet sound of her catches—she’s not missing any water, that’s for sure.

I wonder how would it be in rough water? She must’ve encountered plenty of that on Lake Washington.

What do you think of this style?

Thank you John Biglow for making and sharing this video. I think it’s important to capture not just the now unpopular style of rowing but the contagious enthusiasm and determination of this remarkable woman, Sherri Cassuto.


12 thoughts on “Squaring early

  1. Just found this post and your other one on the flip catch. Another still living proponent of the flip catch is Conn Finlay’s contemporary and fellow 1956 gold medalist, Duvall Hecht, who used it to great effect in the other pair event – the pair without coxswain, while Conn and Dan won in the pair with coxswain. Duvall was my coach; he taught all his rowers his version of the flip catch. It does kind of turn into a square catch at racing rates (34 or so and above). Duvall’s (and Conn’s I think) flip catch is a little different though than the one used by the Thames watermen of yore, and by Sherri too. His style actually did square up fully just before the blade went in, with the lower edge of the blade often touching lightly the water as it flips square before entry. The more traditional flip catch squares *as* it’s entering. It’s a really subtle difference though.

    To answer your question as to why this (the flip and Duvall’s version of it) technique is not used any longer: Easy, it’s because it’s extremely difficult to master, and prone to catching crabs, and other mistakes. If done wrong (even slightly so) it’s slower. So, for the vast majority of rowers, it’s easier to just teach them the square entry. As Sherri said, it’s more important that everyone do the exact same thing at the exact same time, and when coaching an eight of novices, it’s a lot easier to just have them square up in the air, and plop the blade in so. It’s a lot easier to miss water at the catch though, with the square entry. The flip is more elegant, has some minor advantages, but is really challenging to teach and to master.


  2. I would be interested to see the same exercise with cleaver spoons instead of Macon’s . Their asymmetry should make them square up faster. Given the increased pressure on the sleeve and swivel as the squaring takes place I guess the swivels must wear out faster with this technique. Sherrie does seem to have some stop on the boat which she might not get with a squared entry with good back splash but if she says it’s faster for her then it must be. I have not seen the flip catch on the Tideway except very poorly executed by my Beginner juniors and vets and I try to coach them out of it! It must require very light sensitive hands and a delay in the leg drive until the spoon is squared and covered or it will stop the boat.


  3. In our rowing club both the flip and early square are practiced and the coaches are happy as long as they are performed correctly. Located on a small lake we have quite rough water at times caused by thermal winds and i found rowing on the square ok up to the point where the blades start slowing me down so much that i return to the flip catch.


  4. Great video. When I rowed for Bill Stowe at Litchfield Rowing Association (1968-71), he would show us films of Conn Finley in the pair with, using the same flip catch to good effect. In Conn’s case, if memory serves, he got two golds and one bronze out of the technique. Ed Woodhouse


      1. Ed – thanks. I also found these 2 excerpts (‘Conn is Conn’ Parts I and II) from Peter Mallory’s book online:

        Conn Findlay sounds like a real character. I love this from his pairs partner: “In our first month of rowing the pair together, Conn turned to me once and said, ‘You’ll have to row harder than that.’”

        Here’s a reference to his catch, from Dick Lyon: “Conn had a sculling slip catch at low strokes, but a pretty much a square entry at the higher racing cadence . . . by 1964 anyway.”


  5. I learned to row an open water boat in the Florida Keys Where it gets really rough. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time But I now realize when it gets rough I do the flip catch to keep the flat part of the blade from hitting the tops of the waves. coaches tell me to roll up early when the water is flat. I do what the coaches tell me to do.


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