The Shell of Champions

Van Dusen racing shells

Rowing, or sculling, might be described as a primitive sport that employs very sophisticated equipment. As far as what a rower actually does, little has changed since the 19th century, when the sport was one of the most popular in America: Slide the seat forward, skimming the oars flat above the water, then dip the blades in and thrust with your legs, back, and shoulders, driving the eel-sleek shell forward.

A century ago as well as today, rower and boat are one creature, a kind of waterborne centaur. The more complete the merging of human and device, the more powerful and efficient the stroke—whether you are an Olympian in training or a recreational rower who simply believes there is no more satisfying way to keep mind and body in shape. What has changed dramatically over the years is the technology of the shells themselves. Since success in a singles race is measured in a few feet, mere ounces can make the difference between glory and disappointment. Rowers can be any size, but their boats are meant to be minimal, so serious racing shells are now mostly carbon fiber. The best of these offer a level of precision and functional grace for which connoisseurs are ready to pay thousands.

For many of the players in this particular shell game, the Excalibur of racing sculls is the Van Dusen Advantage heavyweight single, made by Composite Engineering of Concord, Massachusetts. The Van Dusen weighs just under 30 pounds. With optional aerofoil carbon-fiber riggers the price for a heavyweight shell is $7,375, which works out to about $240 a pound. This is approximately the price of fine-quality beluga caviar and, to hear dedicated rowers tell it, worth every penny and more.

Ted Van Dusen, the heart and mind behind this sublime shell and the man who changed scull design forever, began making boats in the 1970s, not long after he graduated from the prestigious Webb Institute of Naval Architecture on Long Island. At that time, all racing shells were made of wood, singles weighed between 32 and 40 pounds, and there were no restrictions on a boat's weight at international rowing regattas. Van Dusen felt that the use of aerospace composite materials could create a lighter, stronger shell, so he built a prototype, founding his own company in 1976. By coincidence, that was the first year women were allowed to compete in Olympic single sculling, and an American, using a revolutionary 26-pound Van Dusen, won a silver medal. For the next decade every member of the U.S. Olympic single sculling team—male or female—qualified in a Van Dusen shell.

All design, whether the end product is a juicer or a stealth fighter, is an exercise in compromise, a negotiation between absolute requirements (mandated by the laws of physics or the limitations of material), aesthetics, and ideal (hence theoretical) function. For a rowing shell, the trade-off is between minimizing drag from water and air and maximizing steadiness. The rapier-slim Van Dusen negotiates this compromise brilliantly.

When it became obvious that lighter composite shells gave a competitive advantage, the legislators of international rowing decreed that the minimum weight for any shell would be 30.9 pounds. This meant that Ted Van Dusen had to add weight to his shells, so he began to experiment with improving the boat in other ways. To decrease wind resistance, he put the rower lower in the hull and devised riggers shaped like wings. He also added carbon fiber to the hull, which made it stiffer, reducing the drag through the water. "Usually, when you gain in one direction you lose in another," Van Dusen says. "With the Advantage shell, we seemed to gain all around."

Can such seemingly small refinements actually make that much difference in a vessel powered only by the muscles of one man or woman? Van Dusen claims that, all else being equal, the Advantage can produce a six-meter edge in a standard 2,000-meter race.

Most of America's 100,000 recreational rowers are not fierce competitors but people like me who simply love the feel of a shell moving smoothly across the shimmering surface of a lake or bay—who keep trying to put together a dozen good strokes just once in their lives. So why would a weekend warrior need a shell as special, as meticulously crafted, as the Van Dusen Advantage? Well, "need" is not really part of the equation. The operative word here is "desire." The desire for something so exceptional that, even if it doesn't make you a better rower, will definitely make you feel like a better rower. A much better rower.

Van Dusen racing shells range from $6,000 to $12,000. For information: 978-371-3132;