Skip to main content
Original Issue

How they row in Ratzeburg

The town of Ratzeburg (population about 12,100) sits between two mirrorlike lakes in Germany's Schleswig-Holstein. Until recently it has been notable chiefly for being 900 years old, and for having a bishopric established in 1154 by Henry the Lion. In the last few weeks, however, Ratzeburg has become famous, in the U.S. at least, for being the home town of an apparently tireless eight-oared crew that has systematically beaten the best oarsmen this country could muster during its month-long visit to the eastern U.S. So far the Ratzeburg crew, the first German eight to come here since 1932, has defeated Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia, Georgetown and the New York AC, as well as St. Catharines of Canada. This Saturday, in their final race, they will try for the Eastern Sprint Championship on Lake Quinsigamond, near Worcester, Mass.

This success of the Germans has come as no surprise to most American rowing coaches. Nine of the 10 visiting oarsmen (two came along as spares) were members of the German crew that won the world championship at Lake Rotsee over a championship crew from the U.S.S.R. The Russians, who in reality were all Lithuanians, already had defeated three of America's best eights—those from Cornell, Washington and the Vesper Boat Club—on Philadelphia's Schuylkill River. Moreover, lending heft to the German shell are two members of the German eight-oared crew that won the 1960 Olympic championship in Rome. Prior to that victory, American crews had rowed away with every Olympic eight-oared championship since 1920.

Like rowing clubs the world over, Ratzeburg is not noted for its solvency. In 1958 it had to borrow an eight to win the German championship. Since then it has managed to acquire two eight-oared shells and has two more on order. It also owns 10 single sculls, six doubles and four four-oared shells. Two of Ratzeburg's fours are designed to be raced without benefit of coxswain but its eight is steered by a sturdy little 14-year-old named Thomas Ahrens who handles a racing shell like Graham Hill handles a Grand Prix auto.

Far more important to the German crew than its boats, its snug boathouse and its inspired coxswain, however, is its coach. Stocky, dedicated, 51-year-old Dr. Karl Adam, a former boxer and hammer thrower, makes his living teaching mathematics, physics and gymnastics in a Ratzeburg high school. The Herr Doktor helped found the local rowing club in 1953. In 1956 he accompanied the German crews to the Olympics in Australia as sculling coach. Upset by a German debacle, he returned to Ratzeburg full of revolutionary ideas to improve matters. During the winter Adam set his aspiring oarsmen to a strenuous program of gymnastics, running and weight lifting. (German crews never practice in tanks in the winter as many Americans do.) In spring and summer they rowed—but only now and then in the big shells. Since it was difficult to get eight men together at the same time, they generally practiced in sculls. In the light, extremely narrow boats, Dr. Adam reasoned, oarsmen get a better feel of the water. Besides, it is easier for the coach to determine who the strongest rowers are simply by pitting them in races against each other.

From track, Adam borrowed a system of conditioning called interval training, in which a runner goes as fast as he can for a set period of time or distance, jogs for another set period, then sprints again. He never stops to rest during his entire workout.

Ratzeburg's coach also found, by experimentation, a kind of magic number for applying this system to whip his rowers into condition for best performance over 2,000 meters—the Olympic and international championship distance for eight-oared crews.

The magic number lies somewhere between 500 and 600 meters. After five days of sculling, Adam takes his eight best rowers, gives them big sweeps in place of their sculls and puts them in a shell. From a racing start, he has them tug away as fast as they can for the magic distance. They then paddle back to the starting point, rowing one-handed and chatting together if they wish. Reaching the start, they once again drive down the course. They do this from six to eight times, trying hard to reach the finish line in exactly the same number of seconds (give or take half a second) each time they row. If they can do this, say eight times in a single afternoon, reasons Dr. Adam, they can row 2,000 meters in competition at the extremely high, extremely smooth stroke their coach has settled on as necessary to demoralize all opponents.

This stroke is the highest in the history of eight-oared rowing. The Germans, who sit relatively upright in their boat, take off at 50 strokes per minute—a figure that makes American racing crowds gasp when they hear it announced—then average, for the 2,000 meters, about 40. Most American crews, which use a longer, slower stroke, start at around 44 strokes and average 38 for a 2,000-meter race. The Americans reach forward more, keep their oars in the water longer, drive the shell farther with each stroke. But "the Germans just stick 'em in and take 'em out," grunted one coach after the Ratzeburg victory on Lake Carnegie. That they can keep up this fatiguing beat for the second and third 500 meters of a 2,000-meter race speaks well for interval training.

With superbly conditioned oarsmen at his disposal, Adam has been able to experiment in other directions. He has designed a spoon-shaped blade, slightly shorter than that used by most American crews, which, he maintains, produces less slippage in the water. He also experimented with shells in which the No. 4 and No. 5 oarsmen row on the same side, to provide better steerage.

The trouble with us

Coach Adam's principal asset, however, is his rowers. They are not large by rowing standards—their average height is 6 feet 2, and their average weight is 180 pounds. Their average age is 23. Most of them are students, though the bowman is an insurance clerk, and No. 3 is an apprentice electrician. One U.S. coach has called them the best crew he ever saw. On Lake Carnegie, against Princeton, Columbia and Pennsylvania, the Ratzeburgers not only rowed in the windiest lane but used a lightweight shell. (They felt that the first shell Princeton offered them was too old.) Though this shell had less free-board than a heavyweight, and the distance—a mile and three-quarters—was around 800 meters farther than the distance they are trained for, they won impressively over a fired-up Columbia eight. "It shows our training is good for a mile and three-quarters as well as for 2,000 meters," said Adam.

"The success of the Germans—in borrowed boats, on strange waters and against some of the best competition we can furnish," said the coach of one of the crews Ratzeburg beat, "makes you wonder what is wrong with American rowing." Dr. Adam gave him the answer. "American rowing," he said sadly, "has not changed in 50 years."