The maximum speed of a rower boat is a classic example of the beauty of dimensional analysis. It was originally derived by McMahon (1971). Here it is brought again for the convenience of the Internet audience, together with updated rowing record data.
First, some assumptions (some are better than others).
- Boats with different rowers are geometrically similar to each other.
- The submerged volume of a boat, per rower, is the same and equal to
- The power supplied by a rower is always the same and equal to
Second, we need to understand which physical processes govern the maximum speed of the rowing boats. The dominant drag force is that of friction with the water. Note that if the boat was larger or the speed faster, the typical Froude number
would have been large. In such a case, the drag would have been governed by the generation of surface gravity waves (or "waves" for short). For a typical rowing boat, the Froude number is small and hence the effect of gravity waves is negligible.
Since the motion of the water is turbulent (there are vortices behind the boat), the frictional drag force is given by:
(This can be seen from dimensional analysis, the only "force" we can construct from the density of water
, the speed of the boat
and its dimension
The power lost to drag is therefore:
Since we assume geometric similarity, the size of the boat
will be proportional to the submerged depth, which itself should be proportional to the cubic root of the submerged volume. Thus,
On the other hand, the total power supplied by the rowers,
, should be proportional to the number of rowers
, each supplying a power of
At steady state, the power of the rowers should be the same as the power lost to drag. We thus find:
In other words, the speed of an
rower boat scales as
. The time it would take them to finish a race will therefore scale as
Different type boats will of course have a different prefactor, since
(the drag coefficient, which is the prefactor in the drag equation) are somewhat different. But for a given type, we should see this scaling behavior.
What happens if there is a coxswain? In such a case, there is an extra person who does nothing (well, from a physical point of view), except add weight and volume. This implies that now, the power supplied by the
rowers is the same, but the drag they need to overcome is larger:
Both results, with and without a coxswain can be seen in the graph.
Evidently from the graph, the predicted scaling of
for rower boats without coxswains, and
with coxswains very nicely explains the observed world records. In fact, all are consistent with the prediction to within about 1.5 seconds or less!
Of course, given that we deliberately forgot all the prefactors (such as
), the absolute normalization can be estimated, up to an order of manitude. If we plug in typical values:
, we find that the normalization (i.e., the time for a one man rowing boat, over a D=2000m race) is:
In reality, it is of course around 400s. The discrepancy is mostly because
, multiplying the drag force, is actually small, only a few percent (e.g., about 2%
, a better estimate would be
Another interesting point. if one compares the world records for men and women, of the same class boats, it is evident that women records are about 8% longer. Since the time is proportional to
, it implies that the best men rowers can deliver power from their muscles at a rate which about 8%*3 ~ 25% higher than the best women rowers. Men are about 25% stronger than women, but of course less pretty and often less smart as well.
McMahon, T.A. 1971. "Rowing: A similarity analysis". Science 173:349.
Peterson, I, 1999. "Row Your Boat"
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