Rowing 101

Rowing – the ultimate Sport 

  1. Rowing is a total body workout. Rowing only looks like an upper body sport. Although upper body strength is important, the strength of the rowing stroke comes from the legs. Rowing is one of the few athletic activities that involves all of the body’s major muscle groups. It is a great aerobic workout, in the same vein as cross-country skiing, and is a low-impact sport on the joints.
  2. Rowers are among the world’s best athletes. Rowing looks graceful, elegant and sometimes effortless when it is done well. Don’t be fooled. Rowers haven’t been called the world’s most physically fit athletes for nothing. The sport demands endurance, strength, balance, mental discipline, and an ability to continue on when your body is demanding that you stop.
  3. Sweep (like a broom) and Sculling (with a “c”). There are two basic types of rowing: sweep rowing and sculling. In sweep rowing, athletes hold one oar with both hands. In sculling, the athletes have two oars, one in each hand.
  4. The boat. Although spectators will see hundreds of different races at a rowing event, there are only six basic boat configurations. Sweep rowers come in pairs (2s), fours (4s) and eights (8s). Scullers row in singles (1x), doubles (2x) and quads (4x). Sweep rowers may or may not carry a coxswain (cox-n), the person who steers the boat and serves as the on-the-water coach. All eights have coxswains, but pairs and fours may or may not. In all sculling boats and sweep boats without coxswains, a rower steers the boat by using a rudder moved with the foot.
  5. The categories. Rowers are categorized by sex, age and weight. Events are offered for men and women, as well as for mixed crews containing an equal number of men and women. There are junior events for rowers 18 or under or who spent the previous year in high school, and there are masters events for rowers 21 and older. There are two weight categories: lightweight and open weight.
  6. The equipment. Today’s rowing boats are called shells, and they’re made of lightweight carbon fiber. The smallest boat on the water is the single scull, which is only 27-30 feet long, a foot wide and approximately 30 pounds. Eights are the largest boats at 60 feet and a little over 200 pounds. Rowers use oars to propel their shells. Sweep oars are longer than sculling oars, typically with carbon fiber handles and rubber grips (although some sweepers still prefer wooden handles). Sculling oars are almost never wood.
  7. The crew. Athletes are identified by their position in the boat. The athlete sitting in the bow, the part of the boat that crosses the finish line first, is the bow seat or No. 1 seat. The person in front of the bow is No. 2, then No. 3 and so on. The rower closest to the stern that crosses the finish line last is known as the stroke. The stroke of the boat must be a strong rower with excellent technique, as the stroke is the person who sets the rhythm of the boat for the rest of the rowers.
  8. SPM not MPH. Rowers speak in terms of strokes per minute (SPM), literally the number of strokes the boat completes in a minute’s time. The stroke rate at the start is high – 38-45, even into the 50s for an eight – and then “settles” to a race cadence typically in the 30s. Crews sprint to the finish, taking the rate up once again. Crews may call for a “Power 10” during the race – a demand for the crew’s most intense 10 strokes.
  9. Race watching. The crew that’s making it look easy is most likely the one doing the best job. When watching a race, look for a continuous, fluid motion from the rowers; synchronization in the boat; clean catches, i.e. oars entering the water with little splash; and the boat with the most consistent speed
  10. Teamwork is number one. Rowing isn’t a great sport for athletes looking for MVP status. It is, however, teamwork’s best teacher. The athlete trying to stand out in an eight will only make the boat slower. The crew made up of individuals willing to sacrifice their personal goals for the team will be on the medal stand together. Winning teammates successfully match their desire, talent and bladework with one another.

Brief Introduction To Rowing

Bow: The forward section of the boat. The first part of the boat to cross the finish line. The person in the seat closest to the bow, who crosses the finish line first.                                       

Bow coxed boat: A shell in which the coxswain is near the bow instead of the stern. It’s hard to see the coxswain in this type of boat, because only his head is visible. Having the coxswain virtually lying down in the bow reduces wind resistance, and the weight distribution is  better.

Button: A wide collar on the oar that keeps it from slipping through the oarlock.      

Coxswain: Person who steers the shell and is the on-the-water coach for the crew.                

Crab, (“Catching A Crab”) : A stroke that goes bad. The oar blade slices into the water at an angle and gets caught under the surface                    

Ergometer (an “Erg.”): It’s a rowing machine that closely approximates the actual rowing motion. The rowers’ choice is the Concept II, which utilizes a flywheel and a digital readout so that the rower can measure his strokes per minute and the distance covered.                                                          

German rigging: A different way of setting up which side of the boat the oars are on in a sweep boat. Instead of alternating from side to side all the way down, in a German rigged boat, two consecutive rowers have oars on the same side.                                                            

Lightweight: Refers to the rowers, not the boats; there is a maximum weight for each rower in a lightweight event as well as a boat average.                                  

Oar: Used to drive the boat forward: rowers do not use paddles.            

Port: Left side of the boat, while facing forward, in the direction of the movement.             

Power 10: A call for rowers to do 10 of their best, most powerful strokes. It’s a strategy used to pull ahead of a competitor.    

PR  (“Personal record”): A rower’s fastest personal recorded erg time to date.

Rigger: The triangular shaped metal device that is bolted onto the side of the boat and holds the oars.  

Run: The run is the distance the shell moves during one stroke. You can figure it by looking for the distance between the puddles made by the same oar.           

Sculls: One of the two disciplines of rowing – the one where scullers use two oars or sculls.                                                                                                                     

Slide: The set of runners for the wheels of each seat in the boat.                              

Starboard: Right side of the boat, while facing forward, in the direction of movement.       

Stern: The rear of the boat; the direction the rowers are facing.                                 

Straight: Refers to a shell without a coxswain i.e. a straight four or straight pair.            

Stretcher or Foot-stretcher: Where the rower’s feet go. The stretcher consists of two inclined footrests that hold the rower’s shoes. The rower’s shoes are bolted into the footrests.                                                                                            

Stroke: The rower who sits closest to the stern. The stroke sets the rhythm for the boat; others behind him must follow his cadence.                                                

Stroke Coach: A small electronic display that rowers attach in the boat to show the important race information like stroke rate and elapsed time.                 

Sweep: One of the two disciplines of rowing – the one where rowers use only one oar. Pairs (for two people), fours (for four people) and the eight are sweep boats. Pairs and fours may or may not have a coxswain. Eights always have a coxswain.                                                            

Swing: The hard-to-define feeling when near-perfect synchronization of motion occurs in the shell, enhancing the performance and speed.

Rowing 101 Basics

Each rower has his/her back in the direction that the shell is moving.  Power is generated using a blended sequence of the rowers’ legs, back, and arms. The rowers sits on a sliding seat with wheels on a track called the slide.

Each oar is held in a U-shaped swivel (oarlock) mounted on a metal pin at the end of a rigger.

Boat Categories 

These shells may have a coxswain—a person who steers the shell (using a rudder) and urges the rowers on.

Coxed Pair (2+) Two sweep rowers with a coxswain.

Coxless Pair (2-) Two sweep rowers without a coxswain.

Coxed Four (4+) Four sweep rowers with a coxswain.

Straight (or Coxless) Four (4-) Four sweep rowers without a coxswain. Steering is usually accomplished via a rudder that is attached to a cable that is connected to one of the rower’s foot stretchers (this an adjustable bracket to which the rower’s feet are secured). The coxless pair has a similar type of rudder setup.

Eight (8+/8o)  Eight sweep rowers with a coxswain. Eights are 60+ ft (~18.5 m) long and weigh about 250 pounds (~114 kg).

Sculling Boats (each rower has two oars) – Only in rare cases do these boats have a coxswain. Steering is generally accomplished by applying more power or pressure to the oar(s) on one side of the shell. The hands overlap (usually left over right in the US) during part of the rowing cycle, or are always left in front of right.

Single (1X) One rower or sculler. Singles are about 26 ft (8 m) long and less than a foot (0.3 m) wide. Racing singles can weigh as little as 30 pounds (~13.5 kg). There are heavier (~45 to 50 pounds), shorter and wider versions often referred to as recreational singles.

Double (2X) Two scullers. Most racing doubles can be also used as a pair with a different set of riggers designed for sweep oars. When used as a pair a rudder is usually added. There are also recreational versions of sculling doubles.

Quadruple (4X) Four scullers. Often referred to as a `quad’ and usually has a rudder attached to one of the sculler’s foot stretchers as in the straight four. Most quads can also be rigged as a straight four using a different set of riggers.

Octuple (8X) Eight scullers. This is rarely seen, though is used in the UK, at least, in junior competition where sweep rowing is not allowed.

Weight Classifications

There are basically two weight classes for rowers—heavyweight (HWT) and lightweight (LWT).

Men (M)

     Lightweight – Men is less than 150 pounds

     Heavyweight – Men is more than 150 pounds

Women (W)

     Lightweight – Women is less than 130 pounds

     Heavyweight– Women  is more than 130 pounds

Equipment Terminology

Blades – The wide flat section of the oar at the head of the shaft, also known as the spoon. This term is often used when referring to the entire oar.

Foot Stretcher (or boot stretchers)  An adjustable bracket in a shell to which the rower’s feet are secured in some sort of shoe or clog.

Seat  The sliding seat that the rower sits on. The term “seat” also refers to the rowers place in the boat; the convention is to number the seats from bow to stern, i.e. the rower closest to the front of the boat is “1-seat” the next, “2-seat”, et c. The 1-seat is also commonly referred to as “bow seat” or just “bow” while the stern most (rear) seat is referred to as “stroke seat” or just “stroke”.

Rigger (or Outrigger) The device that connects the oarlock to the shell and is bolted to the body of the shell.

Oarlock (or rowlock)  A U-shaped swivel which holds the oar in place. It’s mounted at the end of the rigger and rotates around a metal pin. A gate closes across the top to keep the oar in.

Button (or collar)  A plastic or metal fitting tightened on the oar to keep the oar from slipping through the oarlock.

Pitch  The angle between the blade (on the drive when the blade is `squared’) and a line perpendicular to the water’s surface.

Slide (or Track) The track on which the seat moves.

Gunwale (or gunnel, saxboard)  Top section on the sides of a shell, which runs along the sides of the crew section where the rowers are located. The riggers are secured to the gunwale with bolts.

Rudder  Steering device at the stern. The rudder in turn is connected to some cables (tiller ropes) that the coxswain can use to steer the shell. Older shells have short wooden handles (knockers) on the tiller ropes. The coxswain not only to steer the shell, but also to rap out the cadence of the stroke rate on the gunwale uses these knockers.

Skeg (or Fin)  A small fin located along the stern section of the hull. This helps to stabilize the shell in holding a true course when rowing. All racing shells have a skeg. The skeg should not be confused with the rudder.

Rigging The adjustment and alteration of accessories (riggers, foot-stretchers, oar, etc.) in and on the shell. Examples of rigging adjustments that can be made are the height of the rigger, location of the foot-stretchers, location and height of the oarlocks, location of the button (or collar) on the oar and the pitch of the blade of the oar.

Slings (or Boat Slings, or Trestles)  Collapsible/portable frames with straps upon which a shell can be placed temporarily.

Rowing Cycle Terms Starting with the rower at `rest’ and legs fully extended with the oar blades immersed in the water perpendicular (well … almost) to the water’s surface.

Release A sharp downward (and away) motion of the hands, which serves to remove the oar blade from the water and start the rowing cycle.

Feathering  The act of turning the oar blade from a position perpendicular to the surface of the water to a position parallel to the water. This is done in conjunction with the release.

Recovery  Part of the rowing cycle from the release up to and including where the oar blade enters the water.

Squaring A gradual rolling of the oar blade from a position parallel to the water to a position (almost) perpendicular to the surface of the water. This is accomplished during the recovery portion of the rowing cycle and is done in preparation for the catch.

Catch  The point of the rowing cycle at which the blade enters the water at the end of the recovery and is accomplished by an upward motion of the arms and hands only. The blade of the oar must be fully squared at the catch.

Drive That part of the rowing cycle when the rower applies power to the oar. This is a more (or less) blended sequence of applying power primarily with a leg drive, then the back and finally the arms.

Finish The last part of the drive before the release where the power is mainly coming from the back and arms.

Layback The amount of backward lean of the rower’s body at the end of the finish. Now we start again with the release and …

Other Terms of Interest

Bow  The forward end of the shell. Also used as the name of the person sitting nearest to the bow.

Stern The rear end of the shell.

Port The left side of the boat when facing the bow

Starboard The right side of the shell when facing the bow

Coxswain The person who steers the shell and urges the rowers on during practices and in a race. A knowledgeable coxswain can also serve as a coach for the rowers and can be the difference between winning and losing a race.

The Stroke The rower sitting nearest the stern (and the coxswain, if there is one). The stroke is responsible for setting the stroke length and cadence (with the coxswain’s gentle advice).

Rating  The number of strokes per minute. Also known as stroke rating.

Crab  A problem encountered by a rower when his or her oar gets `stuck’ in the water, usually right after the catch or just before the release, and is caused by improper squaring or feathering. The momentum of the shell can overcome the rower’s control of the oar. In more extreme cases the rower can actually be ejected from the shell by the oar.

Jumping the Slide Another problem encountered by a rower when the seat becomes derailed from the track during the rowing cycle.

About the Boats

The boat or shell in inherently unstable due to its shallow draft and extremely narrow proportions. Fortunately the oars themselves help to stabilize the craft much as outriggers do on a dugout canoe. The rower’s center of gravity is quiet high because the shell sits so low in the water.

Rowing Positions in an Eight-Man Shell.

Rowing Position Diagram – Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader

Crew also has positions or seats for each of its rowers. A rower rows either port (left) or starboard (right), depending on which side of the boat his or her oar extends from. Once a rower is assigned a port or starboard position, he or she will almost always continue to row on that side of the boat for the rest of the season, if not their entire rowing career.

For purposes of balance and to avoid oar interference, boats are rigged with an alternating pattern. The standard rigging starts at
the bow on the starboard side. It ends on the port side. Based on observation and evaluation of ergometer tests, coaches must determine the best position for each rower. Putting together the boat is the consummate concern of coaches early in the season. Some tweaking is usually necessary but once a boat is “set”, if is rarely altered. Rowers then practice together to perfect their rowing as a crew.

The rowers in seats 1 and 2 are known as the bow pair. They are expected to deliver a smooth fluid technique. In an effort to  keep the bow up in the water, the bow pair are usually a little smaller and lighter than the other rowers. They are the first to cross the finish line. Rowers in seats 3, 4, 5, 6, are known as the engine room. These rowers are expected to provide the strongest and hardest strokes. Rowers in seats 7, and 8 are known as the stern pair. They are expected to provide both strength and technique. Seat 8, known as the stroke, sets the pace. It is his/her stroke that the other rowers follow. The coxswain, who usually sits in the back, is the only person with eyes front. The coxswain does not row but rather steers the craft, directs the pace and verbally encourages his/her crew to perform to the best of his/her ability. Coxswains do not contribute any propulsion to the boat. For this reason they are usually small people with big vocal chords. A coxswain can be male or female and compete with crews of the opposite sex in their division.

Crew is truly a team sport. All the positions on a crew boat are equally important and all crewmates contribute to the racing  success or failure of that boat.

Timeline for the History of Rowing

1000 BC – The oar and fulcrum are developed, this proves to be an improvement over paddling.

26-19 BC – Vergil’s Aenied provides the earliest account in western literature of rowing for sport. The funeral games in honor of the father of Aeneas included rowing.

1700 AD – Barge rowing on the Thames in London becomes a popular recreation. Wagering on the races becomes a favorite pastime of the wealthy.

1829 – The Oxford-Cambridge Race is established as an annual event on the Thames.

1837 – First rowing club in Poughkeepsie forms. The first organized regatta in America is held in Newburgh, New York.

1839 – The Henley Royal Regatta is formed in England.

1852 – The Yale-Harvard Race on the Charles River in Boston commences. Rowing becomes the first organized sport in America.

1865 – The American Championships are established.

1873 – There are now 209 rowing clubs in the United States.

1895 – Poughkeepsie is chosen as the home for the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regattas. The first event draws 30,000 spectators.

1900 – Rowing is established as an Olympic sport and events are held at the Paris games.

1950 – Mid Hudson Schoolboy Rowing Association is created. Crew teams are formed at Arlington, Poughkeepsie, and Roosevelt High Schools.

1956 – First Triangular races are held on May 14th, cheerleaders and marching band included!

1956-1964 – National High School Championships are held in Poughkeepsie.

1976 Women are admitted to the rowing program at Arlington.

1996 – Joshua Gaynor, Roosevelt High School graduate, class of 1985, strokes a heavyweight four to a silver metal in the summer Olympics in Barcelona Spain.

2004 – Brett Wilkinson, Roosevelt High School graduate, class of 1994, takes the US Olympic quadruple sculls team to 11th place at the Olympics in Athens Greece.

Understanding the Motion of Rowing

Motion of Rowing Diagram – Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader

Catch, Drive, Finish, Recovery – these four motions, though fluid and repetitive, describe the physical process of rowing as it is practiced in this sport.

To the casual observer, rowing appears to be an upper body exercise. Although upper body strength is important, the real power in the stroke comes from the legs during the drive portion of the rowing motion. This is when the oar is being pulled through the water. It is at the finish or end of the drive, that the arms and back are needed. The drive is completed and the oar is raised out of the water

The rowers appear to slide forward and back as they row and in fact they are doing just that. Each rowers seat is attached by small wheels to a 2 ½’ to 3  long track. This sliding motion allows the rowers legs to become extended enough for his hands and the oar, to pass over his knees. Mounted to the floor of the boat, in front of each rower is a pair of large shoes. These shoes act as anchoring devices and help stabilize each rower’s position in the boat. They also aid in balancing his body weight.

Rowing looks easy but don’t be deceived. Pulling an oar blade through the water effectively while maintaining your balance is very much a practiced skill. Add to this the fact that four or eight rowers must do this in near perfect unison and you begin to realize the magic of this sport. If you watch carefully you will notice that as the rowers return their oars toward the starting position of the stroke, they pivot them so that the blades are parallel to the water. This is called (feathering). The returning action is known as the recovery. As the recovery is completed, the oar blades are (squared) or rotated back to their vertical position and plunged into the water, this quick action is called the catch. Oars enter the water and a new stroke begins.

What is an ERG?

An ergometer (or erg, ergo, erg machine) is cruel torture device used to torment rowers everywhere.

It is also is the closest thing to rowing when you can’t actually go out on the water. It is a type of rowing machine that is the closest simulation of actual rowing available. Its monitor is like a cox box, it provides the rower with information like stroke rate, split time, power generated in watts, distance covered in meters, and time elapsed. It can be set for various workouts, the most dreaded being the Erg Test. All rowers despise erg tests. An erg test is a race piece done on an erg. The time is recorded and used by the coach for various reasons, such as placing rowers on boats.