Balancing a boat is essential for a race, but many teams overlook exactly how crucial it can be to their success. Having a properly balanced boat not only makes it easier on the steersman, it also allows the boat to glide through the water evenly. But balance doesn’t only apply to the left and right sides of the boat. Your race boat needs to be balanced front to back as well.
Recreational teams will often encourage paddlers to find a “partner paddler” who is more or less the same weight. This will result in an approximation of a left-right balanced boat, but will certainly not be accurate. Competitive teams precisely balance their boat by taking each paddler’s weight and carefully calculating the left and right side weights, as well as the front and back weights.
There are many different philosophies about balancing a boat, but as a coach, this is my approach:
1) First I make sure to have updated weights on each paddler who will be on the race boat. The best way to get accurate weights is to bring a scale to a practice session. When paddlers self-report their weight, they often give a weight that they hope to be instead of what they actually are. I once had a paddler tell me that she was 35 pounds lighter than she actually was. This can cause big issues in the final boat balance.
2) I use an Excel spreadsheet with formulas to calculate the summation of the weights in three areas: left/right, front/back, and front 6+drummer/back 6+steer.
3) I start entering paddlers into the spreadsheet according to their paddling side preference and position (i.e. strokers, engine room, rockets, etc.). I take into account each paddler’s size and height – obviously some paddlers fit better in certain parts of the boat than others.
4) Once the paddlers are placed in the spreadsheet, I look at side-to-side balance. This is where I truly value paddlers who can paddle both sides because I can swap them around to help achieve my perfect left-right balance. I aim to have my left-right weight differ by no more than 30 pounds. I love it when I get it within 10 pounds!
5) Then I consider my front-back balance. My preference is to have the front half of the boat be slightly heavier than the back half because as the boat picks up speed during the start, the idea is to have it up on a plane. You don’t want your rear end dragging down the course, so you would never want to start with a boat that is back-heavy. A slightly front-heavy boat will have its bow picked up as the hull sped increases so that the boat is level.
6) Next I consider my front 6 + drummer and my back 6 + steer. These are the ends of the boat and therefore you don’t want too much of a difference. Your front-back balance might be perfect, but if you overloaded your back six paddlers, your boat is still going to act back-heavy. And take it from me, when you steer a back-heavy boat it feels awful and sluggish. I aim to get the front 6 + drummer only slightly heavier than the back 6 + steer; within 10 pounds is great.
Here is an example of what my spreadsheet will look like as I work on it:
Keep in mind that when you rotate in a spare or substitute paddler, you will likely need to rebalance your boat. If you sub in a paddler on the left who weighs 135 pounds for a paddler who weighs 198 pounds, the total weight of your left side just dropped by 63 pounds, which will affect your balance. Therefore, you will hopefully either have another sub or spare that you can rotate in to help create the balance, or you will have a few paddlers who can paddle on either side and so you can move them around and swap them from left to right or vice versa to achieve your balance. Paddlers should be flexible enough to paddle in a variety of different locations and behind a variety of different paddlers.
A lot goes into balancing a boat and on top of the numeric values, you have to carefully consider the abilities of each paddler. Ideally, you will have a wonderfully competitive boat where every paddler is above-average to excellent. But this is not reality. So, in many cases, you have to find the right balance between placing a less-competent paddler in a seat where they won’t be disruptive to the timing, and balancing your boat accurately. There is no correct formula for this, so a coach needs to experiment with what works. Try out different configurations during practices and find what is most successful for your team.
Good luck with your boat layouts!
ABOUT THE BLOGGER
Kristin Stickels is a three-time Team USA member of the US National Dragon Boat Racing Team. She is the coach of the Miami team Puff, the Florida Tarpons women's team and the local Breast Cancer Survivors' Team (SOS).
She is also an avid outrigger canoe paddler and raced through the Panama Canal on a native cayuco boat from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Found out more about Hornet paddles at www.hornetwatersports.com