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science of sport

From top: Powerful start of Ukraine, Great Britain, Canada and Poland during the men's Eight Heat 2 race at the World Rowing Cup on Lake Rotsee in Lucerne, Switzerland, Friday, May 25, 2012.Sigi Tischler/AP

It is breakfast time on the West Coast so a fork will do nicely.

Mike Spracklen picks one up from the restaurant table he is occupying and uses it, not to eat, but to demonstrate the subtleties of rowing. Holding the fork between two fingers on his left hand, he makes it dip to one side and then the other.

That, he explains, is how a 19.8-metre-long, carbon-fibre racing shell acts in the water. How it goes fast with eight men working in simultaneous exertion is part of that delicate balance, a division of power and precision, and few men understand that better than Spracklen, the 74-year-old coaching sage who helped Canada to Olympic gold in 1992 and 2008.

British-born, world-renowned, a man who has produced a boatload of success,Spracklen is the mastermind behind Canada's bid to repeat as Olympic champions in what he dubs rowing's most prestigious event, the men's eight. To accomplish that, he has been pushing his athletes for a strong showing at this weekend's World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland, while making some significant adjustments.

Recently, he watched his crew training on Victoria's Elk Lake and relocated 2008 Olympic veteran Andrew Byrnes to seat 6, a pivotal spot both for stroke strength and rhythm. Seat selection in the men's eight is not done on a first-come, "I like to be up front" basis. As the fork demonstrates, there's equilibrium at play.

The biggest, strongest men sit in what's dubbed the "engine room" – the middle of the boat, seats 3, 4, 5 and 6. "It's where the power comes from," says Malcolm Howard, who occupies seat 5 and, at 6 foot 6 and 234 pounds, is built like a CFL defensive end.

From seat 6, the lanky 6-foot-7 Byrnes helps Will Crothers in seat 8 – and also coxswain Brian Price – set the rhythm of the rowing. "In 6, you're in the power part of the boat," says Byrnes. "You have to have long, powerful strokes."

Seats 1 and 2 are at the bow, which the coach points out is light and lively, a place where you need "skill people. They have a big effect on balance and are guys with good feel. You change one man, you change dynamics."

Spracklen is acutely aware of dynamics. So are others. Dr. John Barrow from the University of Cambridge Centre for Mathematical Sciences has examined rower and oar placement (known as rigging) and how it could reduce a boat's "wiggle" in the water. A boat that wiggles creates more water resistance and can be 1 per cent slower. Barrow produced a couple of seating patterns drawn from mathematical computations, including one where the entire engine room rowed on the same side of the boat. His analysis has been debated in various forums.

In their training sessions, Spracklen has had the man in seat 1 and the stroke in seat 8 both pulling their oars from the port side to see if that increases speed. Sometimes he's had seats 4 and 5 rowing the same side, which worked to perfection in Beijing. The current lineup has the even-numbered seats rowing port side and the odd numbers working starboard, the conventional approach.

University of Western Ontario biomechanics professor Volker Nolte, a former coach of the Canadian national rowing team, figures 95 per cent of the rowing world uses the standard seating plan and that having the two lightest men at the bow is pivotal. When the boat is being rowed at full strength, the bow can rise by as much as 15 centimetres, reducing friction with the water.

"It can create a surf effect," says Nolte "This is what rowers can feel. The good ones use it to their advantage."

The Brits, as Olympic hosts, have been honing their competitive edge by pushing the limits of technology in virtually every sport. Cycling and rowing have been listening to experts from Formula One racing conglomerate McLaren. The idea is to use data-gathering technology in areas such as stroke mechanics and to determine the proper spacing between rowers so the coach can provide immediate feedback.

Spracklen has done the same, using high-definition video cameras to record races and then showing his rowers where their hands should be and how they should all be leaning at the same angle when they cross the finish line. Before video cameras, he used frame-by-frame, high-speed photography to make the same points.

Such inquisitiveness prompted Rowing Canada's quest for the perfect oar and blade. With funding from Own the Podium, Rowing Canada has examined everything from oar length to how a blade is shaped to how it acts in the water for greater catch and pull. The athletes have used the oars and blade styles in training, and any learned advantage is closely guarded.

What they will say is that theirs is the consummate team sport, with eight men working in complete syncopation. To win a medal, everything has to be aligned perfectly from bow to stern and all oars in between.

"Everyone's got a particular strength and weakness," says Byrnes. "You put them in places where they'll succeed because you have to be identical in the water, everything in unison. That's what it takes at this level."

With a file from Eric Reguly in London

"Second in a 10 part series on the Science of Sport"