Just off Franklin on the Huon River, 30km south of Hobart, a small black box sends messages off the back of a $20,000 rowing shell to satellites orbiting in space.
In a town where mobile phone coverage is not guaranteed, this state-of-the-art technology is propelling Australian rowing towards Athens Olympics glory.
The small black box is a GPS and is attached to the boat of Australia’s men’s lightweight coxless four. Following along behind the crew in his motorised dinghy, barking orders through his bull-horn, is the coach, Tasmania’s Sam Le Compte.
The GPS is rapidly gathering data, which is downloaded onto Le Compte’s laptop back on dry land and pored over as the coach seeks that extra few seconds which will take this crew from silver in the Sydney 2000 Olympics to Athens gold. The array and precision of the information gathered from the boat, powered by Tasmania’s Simon Burgess, West Australian duo Ben Cureton and Glen Loftus, and Victoria’s Anthony Edwards, is staggering.
The boat’s velocity, pitch and yore (the roll of the boat) plus the synchronisation of the rowers’ blades as they enter the water, are all collated. The use of the GPS has already made startling revelations for the rowing fraternity. It was previously thought a rowing boat was going at its fastest as soon as the oars leave the water, but the GPS has revealed as the rowers lean forward at the beginning of their stroke, their body momentum propels the shell to its top speed.
The GPS is also attached to the other 11 Olympic boats based around the country at a cost of $10,000 each, with Australia the only nation in the world using the technology to advance its rowing program.
While the system was first devised at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra two years ago, it has been streamlined in Tasmania so it can be fitted to the shell even during competitions with no ill-effects.
“It is hard to quantify the advantage it gives us, it is probably only a half or 1 per cent, but in a sport like rowing, that could be the difference.” Says AIS sports physiologist Tony Wright
“Every four years you have to go faster to win a gold medal. They are looking at smaller and smaller things to try and sneak a few centimetres here and there. If you’re rowing well the boat has a certain feel about it and the GPS can confirm that and gives you a lot of confidence that what you are doing is right — that is the basis of it. If it is telling you your boat speed is slowing down too much during the stroke itself, you can try and correct it.”