What is Math?

Rowing, like any other racing sport where the ultimate goal is to cover a given distance in the shortest amount of time, is a constant mathematical battle. Much like track, in which athletes can compete in a variety of distances and either individually or as part of a relay team, in rowing there is a multitude of “boat classes” that comprise the full scope of the sport. Boats can include 8 people, 4 people, 2 people, or 1 person. In all competitions the 8s include a “coxswain” who steers the boat and controls the race cadence. Some competitions require a coxswain in the 4-person boats, other competitions do not allow it. The 2-person and 1-person boats never have include a coxswain. In 8s, each person has one oar. For 4-person and 2-person boats each athlete, depending on the event, could have either one oar or two (meaning one oar in each hand, each oar on the different sides of the boat). In the 1-person boats, the athlete must have two oars, unless they would like to row in a circle, which is no competition that I have ever heard of.

Take, for this example, the 8-person boat. The coach must take his pool of athletes and determine the fastest possible lineup of 8 people from all included athletes. One rower might be capable of a slightly higher capacity of work than another, but since we are talking about moving a boat through water, if the stronger person weighs a disproportionate amount more than the other they will create more drag, and their higher capacity to work will not be able to overcome the additional amount of drag they create by being so much bigger. One person might be stronger and smaller than another, but if they pull their oar through the water in a far more inefficient manner (using poor “technique”), the much more technically-savvy rower will win out. Not only must a coach consider individual rowing abilities, but also the best possible arrangement of those with strong rowing abilities, since putting a very strong rower at a different place in the boat will change the effect of their leverage on the direction and speed of the boat (a strong person in the bow of the boat will risk turning the boat off course more so than if that person is in the middle or closer to the stern of the boat).

Once a lineup is chosen the coach must then get his athletes to find the best possible stroke rate (strokes per minute) of the boat for  given distance. In a sprint race of 2km, the ideal stroke rate for a collegiate 8 is between 36 and 38 strokes per minute. The main factor of consideration for this ideal stroke rate is a crew’s Propulsion Per Stroke (PPS) – how far the boat moves with each stroke taken. At lower stroke rates the boat will travel farther per stroke than at the higher rates, as the boat has more time to glide over the water in between each stroke. So as the stroke rate of the boat increases, the PPS decreases. The coach, then, has to determine that sweet spot stroke rate, right before the diminishing returns of the higher stroke rate becomes too significant, and the crew is not moving very far forward as the stroke rate increases. These principles do not even begin to explain the overall scope of mathematics needed to find an ideal lineup of rowers, but for the sake of word-limitations, I will cut the discussion short.

Math is what helps coaches, athletes, teachers, businesspeople, biologists, doctors, students, and anybody else, figure out difficult situations in a logical, and oftentimes numerical, way. It is a discipline that deals with principles such as logic, shape, arrangement, and quantity. Often in mathematics we use its principles to determine the “best way” to go about doing something, such as selecting the fastest possible permutation of rowers, or more commonly in finding the quickest route to get from home to the movie theater with regards to distance, direction, speed limits, traffic, etc.


Top 5 Biggest Moments/Discoveries in Math:

  1. Quantification of time
  2. Invention of the numeral system
  3. Introduction of standardized weights and measurements
  4. Discovery/understanding of pi
  5. Finishing my Math degree from GVSU (pending)

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