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Traditional Rowing in Finland

Some thoughts on Technique. And an interview with Juha-Matti Valkama!

The traditional wooden boat has a long history in Finland but competitive wooden boat rowing started about 50 years ago with the 58km Sulkava rowing race around an island in the middle of Finland. The Sulkava rowing race features not only solo wooden boat rowers but also doubles and big boats (so called church boats) with 14 rowers and a cox. At best the Sulkava race has attracted over 10000 competitors, but today about 4000 rowers complete the distance every year the second weekend in July.

The boat and the oars are handmade and out of wood. The oars do not feather and are attached inboard. Traditionally the boats had a fixed seat but about 20 years ago also a sliding seat was introduced to the boats. Quiske crew sometimes row a wooden double together, here we are as seen by a drone, this was during the early days before we synchronized our crew technique ;-)

The dimensions of typical wooden small boat: length 6.5m, width 125cm and weight 40kg. A typical racing speed is about 11-12km/h. The shape of the traditional boat is quite a bit chubbier than the Olympic sculling shells. The Finnish boat therefore doesn't glide as well, and slows down during recovery unless you keep a high enough stroke rate. Also a key difference to Olympic sculling shells is that the oars crossover each other by about 35cm, and the hands are behind each other rather than on top each other during the crossover (see the two videos).

The Finnish wooden boat Championships

There are four Finnish Championship Races for the traditional wooden boats: the 58km Sulkava, the 25km middle distance, and the shorter 10km and 1km sprint races (or 2km for the big boats). The Championships cater for age groups 10 years apart: General, 40-80y with also a separate mixed category for crew boats. The Sulkava race around a large island provides for a scenic route with lots of different kinds of waters...

The Sulkava rowing race route

Wooden boat technique measurement with Quiske

The Quiske system can measure not only the Olympic rowing boats but also the Finnish traditional boats, which have oars that do not feather: just make sure to choose the wooden boat as your vessel type in the settings of the Quiske Rowing App.

The below video shows a typical Finnish wooden double with Quiske data from the seats or oars of both rowers shown in the overlays on top of each other:

The Quiske pod shows for example that the typical blade flight path of the oars has less shape than the flight path of Olympic oars which feather. An ideal shape is a simple oblong oval, the flatter the better.

The wooden oars have much smaller blades than typical hatchet blades and therefore the shape of the oar angular velocity graph is smoother than in Olympic rowing boats. The reason for this is that a smaller blade travels through water with less resistance.

Oar technique measurement using the Quiske system

The seat data is similar to Olympic boats, however, Finnish traditional boat rowers tend open their back early during the drive, and, in that case the seat doesn't stay at back stop for as long as in the above video.

Leg speed and seat technique measurement with Quiske Rowing

The typical acceleration graph of a wooden boat is shown below (SPM=25):

Typical wooden double boat acceleration and speed variation during one stroke

Synchronizing crew technique with the Quiske system is quite easy to do (can even be done with just one pod). Measure both rowers during steady state rowing, upload the data and spot differences in the portal. Decide on the necessary changes and use the instant feedback of the App to help reach synchronized technique. Below a screengrab of the portal dashboard showing the session of the above video:

The Quiske Rowing portal stores rowing sessions and allows for detailed techinque analysis and comparisons

Interview with Juha-Matti Valkama

Over the years there have been many hero stories about solo rowers who have been able to win the Sulkava race more than once. We interviewed one of these rowering masters to give more insight into traditional Finnish rowing: Juha-Matti Valkama is a 52 year old building master (192cm, 100kg) and was selected Finnish rower of the year in 2017 ( he is however not only a rower, but also a talented skier). Juha-Matti is an example of a rower who does not measure technique but uses his intuition and feelings with extraordinary results.

Juha-Matti Valkama aims to set a new record on the 58km Sulkava route this year

Juha-Matti, when did you start rowing and why?
- I entered the 58km Sulkava big boat (the 14 rower boat) race by coincidence really, when I was 38. That’s what ignited the spark and when I decided I want to do the same race later in a single boat, and I did it, two years later. The first Sulkava solo race was not easy.

Do you like rowing solo or in a crew and why?
-Solo. When you’re by your own, you don't have to make any compromises: you can row as hard and long as you feel like.

How many boats do you own?
- I’ve spent lots and lots on sports equipment. I own over 100 pairs of cross-country skis and all of them have been used (ski brands that Juha-Matti owns: Järvinen, Fisher, Rossignol, Kneisell, Madshus, Karhu, Peltonen, Salomon, Atomic ...). Also I own many pairs of roller skates, and have used them for over 20,000 kilometers.
Regarding my boats, I was almost losing my sanity with them, which almost made me quit rowing altogether. At last, however, I found a good boat builder who made me a boat that I was happy with. At the most I’ve had three boats but currently I own just the one that I like the most. Trusting your boat is important (although there are pretty strict rules for the main wooden measures, there is some room for rower specific preferences and rowers can make requests to their boat builder, which makes the boats unique)

You row alone but you’re still member of a rowing club, what do you get out of that?
- The members of the rowing club that I am a member of (Keravan Athlete Rowers) have enormous enthusiasm towards rowing and active leaders who motivate active competing and goal-oriented training.


What would you do differently in your rowing career?
- If I were to change something, I would listen to the advice of others more. I tend to do things "wrong" many times but in the end I learn from my mistakes. I usually learn after having made my third mistake. Even so, I do not like admitting that I was wrong. Maybe today I can admit having been wrong, but I cannot do it easily.


Do you use rowing monitors?
- I don't use any monitors, not even a heart rate monitor. My own senses is all I need to know how I’m rowing. Measuring power might however be interesting. The only accessory I use is a mirror attached to my cap: I started using it last summer and it made my rowing better because it means I don't need to turn my head so much anymore, and turning my head tends to rock my boat.


How do you train all year round?
- In the winter I do skiing and indoor rowing. Without indoor rowing in the spring there would be too big a step to start rowing in the early summer. I row on water from the beginning of June. A normal rowing session is about 30km long and I total about 400-500km in June. I also run sprints during the summer.


What does a typical indoor rowing session look like?
-2h on the erg is normal, a session shorter than that would not count as an exercise (on the day of the interview Juha-Matti did 4h on the erg…)


Do you stretch or do yoga?
- No ... but I should.

What’s your best rowing achievement so far?
- The 2016 58km race Sulkava at 5:24 and the many Pirkka Rowing Championships that I’ve done. Also I appreciate having been selected as rower of the year in 2017. (Editors note: Juha-Matti was also the fastest rower in any age-category at the 1km sprints during the past two years!)


What are your goals for this season?
- Breaking the 50y track record at 58km Sulkava.


What snacks do you eat during Sulkava?
- Sports drink, gels, and pharmacy salt tablets


How to get more young people interested in rowing?
- Collaboration with other endurance sports is needed. The traditional wooden boat may not be the sexiest sports alternative for young people. Maybe the Coastal category might be more interesting. The Indoor Rowing training and competing should be developed to better suit the tastes of young people.

The wooden boat foot stretcher and the equipment for getting water out of the boat when the waves get in

Finally, a video of Juha-Matti when he tried the RP3 for the first time. Juha-Matti is a very strong rower, and his technique represents typical Finnish wooden boat rowing where the back opens together with the leg push. Juha-Matti is able to row very fast with this technique and keeps winning the races.

Hope you enjoyed this intro to traditional Finnish rowing. We would love to learn of similar traditional rowing boats elsewhere: Let us know and maybe see you at Sulkava some time?

Happy rowing,

Quiske team

Photo credentials: Header image taken at the Sulkava rowing race 2017 by Juhani Kosonen. Drone video of Quiske crew by Steve Peltonen. The rest of the images and videos by Quiske :-)