History, Tips & Terms

A Brief History of Rowing

Rowing is one of the oldest and most physically challenging sports still in existence today. Like swimming, rowing uses every major muscle group in the body: legs, abdomen, chest, back, and arms. Rowing originated not as a sport, but as a means of warfare and transportation where rowers were typically prisoners or slaves. It is sometimes jokingly said that rowing is the only sport to come from a form of capital punishment.

The sport of rowing unofficially began in the 1700s when watermen would race in long barges on the river Thames in England. The sport began its modem incarnation when “gentlemen’ created the Oxford-Cambridge race in 1829. The Henley Royal Regatta was started in 1839.

The Yale-Harvard race on the Charles River marked the beginning of competitive rowing in the United States in 1852. Rowing became the first organized collegiate sport in the U.S., complete with its own governing body. International championships were first arranged in 1893, and remain under the direction of the Federation International des Societas d’Aviron (FISA).

International rowing (and collegiate) competitions are standardized at 2000 meters. Masters championships (both national and international) are contested over a distance of 1000 meters. At the elite level, 2000-meter race times average between 5:20 and 7:30 depending on boat type.

Rowing is divided into two distinct disciplines: ‘sweep’ rowing, where each oarsman handles one oar, and ‘sculling’, where he uses two smaller oars. Sweep oared races are contested in 2, 4, and 8 person boats (known as pairs, fours, and eights respectively). Sculling races are contested in 1, 2, and 4 man shells (single, double, and quad).

Steering in sweep oared boats is accomplished with the use of a movable rudder. (It is handled by either a steersman (known as a coxswain) who sits in the bow or stern of the boat (depending on the construction and size of the shell), or a rower in bow or stroke seat using a foot-controlled rudder (‘toeing’). Singles and doubles are usually maneuvered by a change in pressure between the port and starboard oars. A quad is typically controlled with a foot rudder.

International rowing competitions typically have two weight categories for men and women: lightweight and open. Lightweight oarsmen are restricted to a body weight of 72.5 kg/160 lbs. (men) and 59 kg/130 lbs. (women). The average weight of the open class (heavyweight) in international competition is about 92 kg/200 lbs. and 79 kg/173 lbs. respectively.

Tips for watching rowing

The Events

Sculling events include (lx, 2x, 4x) where each rower uses two oars. Sweep rowing events include (2-, 4+, 8+) where each rower uses one oar. Events can be categorized by men’s, women’s, mixed, lightweight, open, and master’s classes.

The Course

There are typically six lanes on the race course. If there are more than six entries for an event, heats will be held to determine finalists.

The Start

Crews are expected to be at their starting stations two minutes before the scheduled time of the race. Once the boats are locked on, the judge at the start will supervise the alignment process. When all the crews are even, the Starter will poll the crews by calling their name. After polling, the Starter raises a flag and says “ATTENTION”. After a clear pause, the Starter drops the flag quickly while simultaneously saying ‘GO.’ In windy conditions, the Starter may dispense with polling and use a Quick Start by simply saying “ATTENTION” and, if no crew responds, immediately raises the flag and gives the starting commands.

Crews can be assessed a warning for a false start, for being late to the start or for traffic rules violations, established for the course. A crew which receives two warnings in the same race is eliminated from the event.

If a crew breaks equipment in the first 100 meters of the race, it can stop rowing and signal the umpire who will stop the race. The crew will not be penalized. Broken equipment does not include a crab or jumped slide.

Once the race begins, the Umpire or Referee follows in a launch. If a crew is about to interfere with another crew, the umpire will raise a white flag, call the crew’s name, and drop the flag in the direction where the crew should move. If a crew is about to hit a known obstruction (such as a bridge abutment) the Umpire will raise a white flag, call the crew, and yell ‘OBSTACLE’ or simply ‘STOP.’ If the Umpire needs to stop the entire race, he will ring a bell or sound a horn, wave a red flag and call out ‘STOP’ if necessary.

The Rules

Each crew is allowed one false start – two means disqualification. Crews may move anywhere within the course during the race as long as they don’t impede another crew. Referees use flags to signal the crews. A crew has finished the race when its bow crosses the plane of the finish line. A horn is sounded as each crew finishes the race.

The Oars

People who have two oars in the water are called scullers. People with only one oar are called sweepers. Oars move the boat through the water and act as balancers. Sweep oars – 12-13 feet long – are approximately two feet longer than sculling oars. Scullers use rubber grips – sweep oars have a wooden handle. Oars vary by length and blade type. The basic blade types are called spoons (tulip or macon) that have a long, cupped rectangle blade at the end of the oar and hatchets that have a hatchet-like blade at the end.

The Stroke

The entire body is involved in moving the shell through the water. There are four parts to the rowing stroke: Catch, Drive, Finish and Recovery. They all flow together in a smooth, continuous and powerful movement.

  • Catch: The rower is coiled forward on a sliding seat with arms outstretched. He raises the oar handle as the blade enters the water.
  • Drive: Contrary to common thought, legs are the primary muscle group in rowing, not the back or arms. After the leg ‘drive’, the back swings into a comfortable lay-back position. Then the arms pull into the body.
  • Finish: The hands drop smoothly, the oar comes out of the water and the blade is turned horizontal.
  • Recovery: The hands lead the body as it swings forward pulling the legs and sliding the seat for the next catch.

Oar Blade Coordination

Timing throughout the stroke is critical. As the blades are brought out of the water, they should move horizontally at the same height, just above the water.

Consistent Speed

Shells move slowest at the catch, quickest at the release. A good crew times the catch at the right moment to maintain the speed of the shell.

Strokes per Minute

Stroke rates vary from boat to boat depending on the number of rowers and the size of the athletes. At the start, the stroke rate will be higher – 32 to 34 strokes per minute for an eight, 28 to 30 for a single. The rate will settle down at the middle of the race to around 28 for an eight or around 26 for a single. Finishing stroke rates can go as high as 46 for Olympic rowers.

Don’t Be Fooled

The last 500 meters of a race are excruciating. The energy is gone, the muscles are burning and the body is well into oxygen debt. This is where mental discipline comes into play. The athletes continue, straining to synchronize each motion. Rowers also bear the pressure of knowing that each stroke they take affects their teammates.

What is a Coxswain?

A coxswain was originally a servant, or swain, whose job it was to steer a ship’s boat, a cockleboat or cocque (from the Old French for canoe). While it appears that a coxswain just sits in the stern of the boat and yells, he or she actually plays an essential role.

The two primary requirements for a coxswain are: 1) must be small, and 2) must be loud. A coxswain also needs to be able to motivate a crew, especially in the last 500 meters of a race when the rowers are exhausted. A coxswains’ main function is to keep the boat moving straight because if it can’t stay in the lane, it will get disqualified. This is done by making minor corrections to the rudder. Working with the stroke (the rower closest to the stern), the coxswain executes race strategy. Contrary to popular belief, the coxswain does not yell ‘stroke,’ while performing his or her function. After a victory, it has always been tradition for rowers to throw the coxswain into the river, although this has not always been to the coxswains’ liking.

Shell Composition

Today’s rowing shells are made up of several lightweight, yet strong materials including carbon fiber, carbon and fiberglass, and carbon composites. These aerospace materials can be woven, honeycomb or single hull, epoxy and cured at high temperatures to develop their stiffness. Ribs throughout the hull provide additional support and also are made of carbon materials or aluminum alloys.

Hulls are designed to handle specific crew weights (light, mid and heavyweight), for maximum speed. Lengths for a coxed four shell average around 44 feet and range from 110 to 125 pounds, depending on material composition, and 57 feet and 195 to 232 pounds for a coxed eight shell.

Glossary of Rowing

ALIGNER – The person at the starting dock who aligns the boats evenly for a fair start.
BEDLAM – What happens when thousands of people try to park in one small lot at a regatta.
BLADE (HATCHET OR SPOON) – The face of the oar that pushes against the water.
BODY ANGLE – Leaning to the left or to the right in the boat. Ideally, a rower should sit upright for the entire stroke except a slight lean into the rigger at the catch. Improper body angle can result in a bad boat set.
BOW – End of the boat closest to the direction of travel. Also can be used to refer to one-seat, or in conjunction with either four or pair. Bow-four refers to seats four thru one. Bow-pair refers to seats two and one.
BOWMAN – The rower in the bow of the boat. When the boat is coxless (i.e. no coxswain), the bowman issues the commands and steers the boat.
CATCH – The part of the stroke where the oar enters the water.
CHECK – Bad technique that slows the boat down. Essentially, the momentum of the rowers sends the boat in the opposite direction.
COURSE – A straight race course for rowers that has 4-6 lanes. In high school, the length is 1500 meters, while in college/Olympic events, the length is 2000 meters.
COX BOX – A small electronic device which aids the coxswain by amplifying his voice, and giving him a readout of stroke rate and time.
CRAB – When the oar gets caught under water at the stroke finish. A bad one can knock a rower over.
DRIVE – Part of the stroke where rower pulls the blade through the water to propel the boat.
ERG (ERGO / ERGOMETER) – Rowing machine that closely simulates rowing in a boat.
FEATHERING – Rotating the oar in the oarlock so that the blade is parallel to the water.
FINISH – Part of the stroke after the drive where the blades come out of the water.
FOOT STRETCHER – Part of the boat where the shoes are attached and where the rower pushes his legs against on the drive.
GUNWALE – (pronounced ‘Gunnel’) The top edge of the side of the boat.
HEAVYWEIGHT – Heaviest of the three major weight categories in competitive rowing.
“HOLD WATER!’ – Coxswain call that makes all the rowers drag their oarblades through the water perpendicularly, effectively stopping the boat.
KEEL – steadiness of the boat. If the boat alternates leaning side to side, it is a sign of bad technique.
LAYBACK – Term for how much you lean back at the finish. Too much is bad, too little is, well, bad also.
“LET IT RUN!’ – Coxswain call for all rowers to stop rowing and to pause at the finish, letting the boat glide through the water and coast to a stop. Used as a drill to build balance.
LEG DRIVE – Term used for driving the legs against the foot stretchers on the drive.
LIGHTWEIGHT – Lightest of the three major weight classes in competitive rowing.
MIDWEIGHT – those rowers that are too heavy for lightweight and too light for a heavyweight.
MISSING WATER – Bad technique where you aren’t moving the blade through the water as much as you could. Usually caused by not getting the blade in the water soon enough at the catch. Therefore, missed water equals less movement of the boat.
OARLOCK – Square latch to hold the oar & provide a fulcrum for the stroke against the rigger.
OARSMAN, OARSWOMAN OR OARSPERSON – Another term for a rower.
OFFICIAL – An official regatta race administrator that follows behind the current race in a motorboat. The official makes sure all boats stay in their designated lanes.
PORT – Side of the boat to the coxswain’s left and to the rowers’ right.
‘POWER 10’ – Coxswain call to take a certain number of power strokes. A power stroke is a stroke that musters all the strength you can give.
PUDDLES – A measure of your power (and of run). If your blade leaves behind little dinky ripples, then you are not pulling hard enough. If you leave tidal waves after you pull your blade out of the water, then you’re pulling just right.
PYRAMID – Strength/endurance building drill where the coxswain calls an increasing series of power strokes, then a decreasing series of power strokes.
RACE PACE – A stroke rating that you can hold for the entire race.
RECOVERY – Part of the stroke where a rower comes back up the slide towards the catch.
REGATTA – An organized crew race.
RELEASE – Another term for finish.
REPECHAGE – A race after the heats for those who didn’t qualify. Basically, a second chance to make it to finals.
RIGGER – An apparatus on the side of the boat to provide a fulcrum for the oar.
RIGGING – The settings for the riggers to create the perfect stroke. (pitch, inboard, outboard)
RUDDER – A little fin on the bottom of the boat that the cox can control to steer the boat.
RUN – The distance the boat moves after a stroke. Long run is very good. Run can be visually measured by the distance between the last puddle made by two-seat and where eight-seat’s blade enters the water.
RUSHING THE SLIDE – Bad technique that causes check. Comes from moving towards the catch from the recovery too fast.
SCULLING – Sculling is rowing with two oars (an oar on each side of the boat).
SCULLER – A rower who sculls.
SHELL – Another term for a boat. Specifically, a boat used in racing.
SKEG – (Or Fin) A small fin located along the stern section of the hull. This helps stabilize the shell in holding a true course. All racing shells have a skeg. Should not be confused with the rudder.
SKYING – Bad technique where the blade is too high off the surface of the water at the catch.
SLIDE – The tracks in which the rolling seat moves.
SLINGS – (Or Boat Slings) Collapsible/portable frames with straps upon which a shell can be placed temporarily.
SPLIT TIME – Projected amount of time it would take to row 500 meters at this specific power at this specific pace. Calculated by erg monitors and cox boxes.
SPRINT – The last 500 meters of the race. This is the point where everyone is exhausted, and whoever has the guts to go even faster wins.
STARBOARD – Side of the boat to the coxswain’s right and to the rowers’ left.
START (and STARTING CALL) – When all the boats are aligned, the starter says ‘We have alignment.’ The starting call (most of the time) is ‘Are you ready? Row!’ or “Attention’ (pause) ‘Go!’ Sometimes there are subtle variations on that.
START SEQUENCE – A sequence of very quick (sometimes short) strokes at the very beginning of the race to shoot out into the lead.
STARTING DOCK – Boat Dock or stake boat at the starting line where all boats are aligned.
STERN – End of a boat farthest from the direction of travel. Can be used in conjunction with either four or pair. Stern-four refers to seats eight thru five. Stern-pair refers to seats eight and seven.
STROKE – One full motion to move a boat. Consists of the catch, drive, finish, and recovery. Can also be used to refer to the person in the eight-seat.
STROKE RATE – How fast a stroke is being taken. In terms of strokes per minute.
SWEEP – Rowing with one oar on one side of the boat.
WAKE – Waves that motorboats leave behind. ‘Getting waked’ in a race means you’re behind another shell or an official boat. Getting waked by an official is very bad – either you’ve got a bad official or you’re really far behind in a race.
WASHING OUT – Similar to missing water except it means taking the blade out of the water too soon at the finish.
WEIGH-ENOUGH! – Coxswain call to have all rowers stop rowing. Sounds like ‘way-nuff.’