Sport rowing

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File:Rowing gb pair.jpg
A coxless pair, sweep-oar rowing to the left of the photo; the bowside rower (or the starboard one, although the British term applied on this occasion) is further towards the bow of the boat.

In the context of sports, rowing or sculling is a system of competition that refines the rowing of boats into a specialized discipline. In the United States, high school and collegiate rowing are also sometimes known as crew.

It is a speed sport in narrow boats (called shells), where the athlete sits on a sliding seat above the water level and faces backwards, using oars to move the boat. This may be done on a river, a lake, or on the sea.

There are two forms of rowing:

  • In sweep-oar rowing, each rower has only one oar and holds it with both hands. In sweep boats each rower is either port (strokeside in the UK) or starboard (bowside in the UK) which refers to whether his oar extends to the port or starboard side of the boat.
  • In sculling, each rower has two oars (one in each hand), and because of this symmetry the rowers are not referred to as "port" or "starboard."
File:Israeli boathouse.jpg
Racing shells stored in a boathouse.

The relative obscurity of rowing has helped it develop an introspective atmosphere, where long hours, early mornings on the river, and the physical pain of the event are the price of being a part of the rowing community. The intense focus of top rowers on their sport is unusual even by the standard of similarly excellent competitors in other sports.

One piece of equipment commonly used when training for rowing, the "indoor rower" (a.k.a. "ergometer", "ergo" or "erg"), has become popular as a sport in its own right.


Rowing boats (or similar vessels) have been around for centuries, but before the 18th century, there is little mention of boat races. In the 13th century, Venetian festivals called regata included boat races among others. Nowadays, rowing competitions are still called regattas (with a second 't' added).

The first modern rowing races, in the second half of the 18th century, were races between watermen on the River Thames in England. The race, called the Doggett's Coat and Badge first started in 1715 and is still held each summer. Subsequently, rowing became extremely popular both as an amateur and professional sport, often with thousands of spectators for events. From the first University Boat Race between Oxford University and Cambridge University in 1829, which was also the first intercollegiate sporting event, student rowing has become increasingly popular. In the Anglo-Saxon world, there is also a sizable school rowing community. The Harvard-Yale race is the oldest intercollegiate sporting event in the United States having been contested every year since 1852. The oldest inter-high school competition in the United States also occurred on the water, in the form of a race in six man boats between two Elite New England boarding schools: Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.

Rowing today is governed by the FISA, which has organized World Rowing Championships since 1962. Rowing has also been conducted at the Olympic Games since 1900 (canceled at the first modern Games in 1896).

Strong rowing nations include Great Britain, the United States, France, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Romania. Well-known rowers of recent years include Sir Steve Redgrave (UK), who won Olympic golds in five successive Olympics in the coxed four, coxless pair and the coxless four; Sir Matthew Pinsent (UK), who won golds in four successive Olympics, two with Redgrave in the coxless pair and two more (once with Redgrave) in the coxless four; James Tomkins (Australia), three times Olympic gold medalist, twice in the coxless four and once in the coxless pair, also the only man to have won World Championships in every sweep oar event; Rob Waddell (New Zealand) and Xeno Müller (Switzerland), opponents in the single sculls; Ekaterina Karsten (Belarus) in women's single sculls; and Kathrin Boron (Germany) in women's double sculls and quadruples.


Racing boats (usually called "shells") are long and narrow in order to reduce drag to a minimum. This makes them unstable and liable to tip. Being able to balance, or "set" the boat while putting maximum effort into the oars is therefore an essential skill of rowing. Originally made from wood, shells are almost always made from a composite material (usually carbon-reinforced plastic) due to strength and weight advantages.

There are a large number of different types of boats. They are classified using:

  • Number of rowers. In all forms of competition the number is either 1, 2, 4, or 8. Although they are very rare, boats for other numbers of rowers do exist (including one for 16 scullers and 8 sweep rowers - called the "Stampfli Express").
  • Position of coxswain. Boats are either coxless, bow-coxed (also called bowloader shells), or stern-coxed. In coxless boats a steersman (normally the bowman but not necessarily) is responsible for steering by use of a mechanism connecting one of his shoes by wire to the rudder, by swiveling the foot the wires moves the rudder. In competition, bow- and stern-coxed boats may race one another, but there are substantial differences created by placement of the coxswain.

Generally sculling and sweep oar boats are identical to each other except having different riggers however they are referred to using different names:

  • Sweep: pair, four, eight
  • Sculling: single, double, quad, octuple


Rowers may take part in the sport for their leisure or they may row competitively. There are different types of competition in the sport of rowing. In the US all types of races are referred to as "regattas" whereas this term is only used in the UK for head-to-head races.

Rowing is unusual in the demands it places on competitors. The standard race distance of 2,000 m is long enough to have a large endurance element, but short enough (typically 5.5 to 7.5 minutes) to feel like a sprint. This means that rowers have some of the highest power outputs of athletes in any sport. At the same time the motion involved in the sport compresses the rowers' lungs, limiting the amount of oxygen available to them. This requires rowers to tailor their breathing to the stroke, typically inhaling and exhaling twice per stroke, unlike most other sports such as cycling where competitors can breathe freely.


Races that are held in the spring and summer are head-to-head - all the boats start at the same time from a stationary position and the winner is the boat that crosses the finish line first. The number of boats in a race varies between two and six. These type of races are called "sprint races" in the US, and regattas in the UK and Canada. Regulation length races are 2,000 m long, however occasionally the distance will be 1,000 m, or some intermediate distance dictated by the local body of water. Dashes (sprint regattas in the UK) are normally 500 m long, and certainly less than 1,000 m.

Masters rowers generally race a 1,000 m distance. Finish times for Masters races may also have handicapped times, depending on the age span of the athletes participating.

In general, the competition is organized in a series of rounds, with the fastest boats in each heat qualifying for the next round. The losing boats from each heat may be given a second chance to qualify through a repechage. Examples are the World Rowing Championships which offers multi-lane heats and repecharges and Henley Royal Regatta which has two crews competing side by side in each round, in a straightforward knockout format, and does not offer repechages.

Head races

Head races take place from fall (autumn) to early spring (depending on local conditions). Boats begin with a rolling start at intervals of 10-20 seconds, and race against the clock. Distances usually vary from 2,000 m to 7,000 m (although some races are over 50,000 m). Examples of head races are the 3 mile (4,828 m) Head of the Charles in Boston, Massachusetts in October and the 4 1/4 mile (6,840 m) Head of the River Race on the Thames, London in March.

Bumps races

A third type of race is the bumps race, as held in Oxford (known as Torpids and Eights Week), Cambridge, and between the University of London colleges on the Tideway. In these races, crews start lined up along the river at set intervals, and all start at the same time. The aim is to catch up with the boat in front, and avoid being caught by the boat behind. If a crew overtakes or makes physical contact with the crew ahead, a bump is awarded. As a result damage to boats and equipment is common during bumps racing. The next day, the bumping crew will start ahead of any crews that have been bumped. Bumps races take place over several days, and the positions at the end of the last race are used to set the positions on the first day of the races the next year. Oxford and Cambridge Universities hold bumps races for their respective colleges twice a year, and there are also Town Bumps races in both cities, open to non-university crews. Oxford's races are organised by City of Oxford Rowing Club and Cambridge's are organised by the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association. Bump races are very rare in the United States.

The crew

In all boats, except the single sculls, each rower is numbered in sequential order from the bow to the stern. The bowman is always "one seat." Note - there are some exceptions to this - UK coastal rowers number from stern to bow and this is also the standard in France.

In addition to this, certain crew members have other titles and roles:

Stroke (or strokeman)

This the rower closest to the stern of the boat. Everyone else follows stroke's timing - placing their blades in and out of the water at the same time. They can communicate with the coxswain (when in a stern coxed boat) to give feedback on how the boat feels. During a race, it is the stroke's responsibility to hold a consistent rate that is mandated by the coxswain. The rower will often have a magnet under their sliding seat which passes over another magnet which allows the coxswain to get an accurate stroke rating (however, in bow-loader coxed fours the magnet is underneath bow seat so that wire does not need to be run the length of the boat). Because of the great responsibilities of the stroke, they will usually be the most technically sound member of the boat.

Bow (or bowman)

This is the rower closest to the bow of the boat. In coxless boats, they are usually responsible for steering and giving calls to the crew. In coxed boats, bowmen (bow pair, generally) are more responsible for the set of the boat than any other pair. Boats that are bow coxed (with the cox'n lying in the bows behind the bowman) rather than stern coxed (with the coxn sitting in the stern opposite the Stroke) rely on communcation between the bowman and the cox - as the cox cannot see boats coming up from behind.

Coxswain (cox)

The word Coxswain etymologically means something like "boat boy" - it comes from cock, a cockboat or other small vessel kept aboard a ship, and swain.

The role of a coxswain is to:

  • Steer the boat
  • Provide motivation and encouragement to the crew
  • Inform the crew of where they are in relation to other crews and the finish line
  • To make any necessary race strategy calls

A common error in non-rowers is a belief that the cox shouts "stroke, stroke, ..." so that the rowers know when to place the blades into the water. As explained above, it is the strokeman that controls the timing of the boat. Coxswain's will only perform this function with very novice crews and will usually shout "there, there..." or count sequentially for each stroke, never "stroke, stroke..."

It is advantageous for the cox to be light - as there is less weight for the crew to move. However rules have been introduced to enforce a minimum weight and anyone under this has to carry a sealed deadweight (often sand, stones or a weight) in order to meet the minimum.

A good coxswain is exceptionally valuable for a crew. When the rowers are confident in the abilities of a cox, it shows during races. Aside from the steering and commanding, a cox also has the responsibility of motivating the crew and encouraging them to push their bodies to the limit. A coxswain can be highly critical at practices if he or she believes that a rower is not performing to potential.


Unlike most other sports, rowing has a special weight category called lightweight (Lwt for short). There are two categories of lightweights. International, and U.S. Collegiate. In the International category the following limits apply:

  • Men: Crew average 70 kg (154 lb) - no rower over 72.5 kg (159 lb)
  • Women: Crew average 57 kg (125 lb) - no one over 59 kg (130 lb)

In the U.S. Collegiate category, the following limits apply for men:

  • Freshman Men: Crew Average 150 lb - no rower over 155 lb.
  • Varsity Men: Crew average 155 lb - no rower over 160 lb.
  • Varsity Women: no rower over 130 lb.

According to FISA, this weight category was introduced "to encourage more universality in the sport especially among nations with less statuesque people". However some argue that this goal was not achieved and strong nations in lightweight rowing (such as Denmark, France, and Italy) are not considered "less statuesque" and also perform well in the heavyweight events.

The first lightweight events were added to the World Championships in 1974 for men and 1985 for women. Lightweight rowing was added to the Olympics in 1996 but this came under threat in 2002 when the Programme Commission of the IOC recommended that, outside combat sports and weightlifting, there should not be weight category events. The Executive Board overturned this recommendation and lightweight rowing continues at the Olympics.

At a non-international level, generally only large races have lightweight categories. At the collegiate level, many larger American Division I schools can field one to three lightweight boats for both men and women. Many U.S. Universities have used lightweight women's crew as a sport to deal with the implication of Title 9 and as with lightweight men, the lightweight womens league is small but fiercely competitive.

World championships and Olympics

Main articles: World Rowing Championships, Rowing at the Summer Olympics

At the end of each season, FISA hold the World Rowing Championships with events in 23 different boat classes.

At the Olympic Games only select boat classes are raced (14 in total):

  • Men: quad scull, double scull, single scull, eight, straight four, and straight pair
  • Lwt Men: straight four and double scull
  • Women: quad scull, double scull, single scull, eight, and straight pair
  • Lwt Women: double scull

Athletes generally consider the Olympic classes to be "premier" events and are more interested in rowing in these at the World Championships. During Olympic years only non-Olympic boats compete at the World Championships.

Event nomenclature

The following short nomenclature is often used to indicate the type of boat:

  • The prefix indicates the type of event
    • M - men's (usually only used for lightweight men's events).
    • W - women's
    • L or Lt - lightweight
    • B - under 23 years of age
    • J - (Junior) under 19 years of age
    • Mixed - a crew comprised of an equal number of men and women, usually applicable to Masters events only
    • Masters (or veteran - UK) - 27 years of age or greater. Masters events also include a letter designation indicating the average age of the crew:
      • A - 27-35 years of age (31-35 in the UK)
      • B - 36-42 years of age
      • C - 43-49 years of age
      • D - 50-54 years of age
      • E - 55-59 years of age
      • F - 60-64 years of age
      • G - 65-69 years of age
      • H - 70-74 years of age, and so forth.
  • For non-international events, there may be an experience category (i.e., N - Novice, S - Senior, E - Elite). The categories are different depending on the country.
  • The number of crew members (excluding cox)
  • "x" indicates a sculling boat
  • The last character shows if the boat is coxed (+) or coxless (-)


  • 8+ men's coxed eight
  • W4- women's coxless four (or "straight four")
  • LM2- lightweight men's coxless pair
  • B1x men's single sculls under age 23
  • JW4x junior women's quad
  • Masters WC2x masters women's double sculls with average crew age between 43-49
  • Mixed Masters 8+ coxed eight with 4 women and 4 men as rowers and a coxwain of either gender

Rowing terminology

For other specialised terms related to sport rowing, see rowing terms.

Anatomy of a stroke

  • The stroke begins with the oar out of the water with the blade feathered, or in other words parallel to the water. The rower has legs straight and body upright, and arms straight in front of the body.
  • The rower leans the body forward (e.g, toward the stern) while keeping the oar level and legs straight.
  • The rower bends the legs, bringing the sliding seat forward (e.g., toward the stern) on its rollers, while the oar remains level. This is called the recovery or the slide.
  • As the rower nears the end of the slide, the handle of each oar is turned 90 degrees so the blade becomes perpendicular to the water. This is called squaring the blade.
  • When the rower reaches the sternmost point of the slide, each blade is quickly inserted into the water by a slight lifting of the hands. This is called the catch.
  • The rower levers the boat past the blade by straightening the legs while the body remains leaned forward and the arms remain straight. This is called the leg drive.
  • The rower continues pushing with the legs while the body leans back (e.g., towards the bow) and begins to draw the blade handle(s) towards the body.
  • The rower completes the leg drive plus backwards lean and pulls the oar(s) to the chest by bending the arms. This is called the draw.
  • The rower pushes the oar handle down so the blade comes out of the water. This is known as the release or the finish.
  • The oar handle is turned 90 degrees such that the blade is again parallel to the water.
  • The arms are pushed out in front of the body until they are straight.
  • The body is returned to the upright position, and now the position is identical to the starting position.

Sweep rowers (one oar) and scullers (two oars) have similar stroke styles, with some differences to accommodate the number of oars held by the rowers.

It is important to note that the rowing stroke differs slightly depending on location. For example, on the US East coast and in Canada, a gradual square is sometimes favored over the "flip catch" referred to above. A gradual square has the rower gradually changing the blade from parallel to the water to perpendicular over the entire recovery rather than a quick flip right before the catch. In Canada, the drive is not as separated. When Canadian-style rowers catch, they push the legs down and lean back at the same time. This allows for an extremely large amount of power at the beginning of the stroke but lacks the consistency of the separated drive favored by other crews.

Coastal and ocean rowing

File:Brisons falmouth regatta.jpg
A Cornish pilot gig, a 6 crew boat returning from a race at Falmouth in Cornwall

Coastal and ocean rowing is a type of rowing performed on the sea. Due to the harsher conditions encountered at sea, the boats are wider and more robust than those used on rivers and lakes.

The sport of Coastal and Offshore Rowing is thriving across Europe, though at present most British sea rowing is "traditional" fixed seat rowing and competition is of a regional nature. France is leading the development of modern sliding seat sea going boats, "Yoles", and National Competition here is well established with FISA, the Worldwide regulatory body for rowing encouraging the expansion of the sport to other countries.

As the FISA World Coastal Rowing Challenge is becoming established the use of the French Yole is gaining in popularity and most European countries are beginning to adopt this standard class.

However, in North America the sport of "open water" rowing relies on typically longer, lighter and faster boats while sharing an emphasis on safety. Safety is ensured through the use of positive flotation , and self-bailing capacity, supplemented by rower's seamanship skills. North American boats do not conform to the minimum standards established by FISA, because they are too long and do not weigh enough. Open water racing in North America is very popular in New England, California and Washington. One very active open water rowing club is Sound Rowers and Paddlers, and this club sponsors races from February until October around Puget Sound, Washington. Their web page is Open water racing in the San Francisco area is supported by the Open Water Rowing Center in Sausalito. The preeminent open water race in New England is the Blackburn Challenge.

The Cornish Pilot Gig Association is by far the largest British sea rowing group and preserves a tradition using both original and new boats made to a closely controlled specification. The CPGA has seen a huge continuing growth over the past decade or so and new boats are constantly being built to satisfy the demand. The Cornish Gig has been adopted by rowers in the Netherlands and there is a successful Gig club in Wales.

Celtic Sea rowers in Wales and Ireland have adopted modern designs of fixed seat boats, loosely based on the Irish Curragh, which itself is still used by sea rowers in both countries.

The annual All-Ireland Coastal Rowing Championships involves upto 350 crews each year and is believed to be second in size only to the Cornish Pilot Gigs World Championships in the Scilly Isles. The New Celtic Design boat which was introduced only 4 years ago is gaining in popularity and is used as a bridge to link the various Irish classes of boats from the East Coast skiffs, the Cork yawls, the Kerry 4 oars, Wexford/Slaney cotts to the Antrim gigs.

Other groups thrive throughout British coastal regions: from the Shetlands in the North, Whitby and Scarborough on the North Sea; Seine boat rowers on the Teign, to the Channel Islands where clubs are beginning to adopt the modern French boats as European competition grows in importance.

Competition thrives, whether a League system , or "one off" Challenges. The 22 mile London Great River Race is the major British event for traditional boats attracting up to 350 crews ,but there are many regular events throughout the long March to October season.

The Welsh Longboat Rowing Association, for instance, organises a total of 21 offshore and estuary events each year. These range from 5 mile league races to the 90 mile Celtic Challenge, an epic Irish Sea crossing.

The annual Interceltic Watersports competition features, amongst other events, sea rowing using both traditional and modern craft. This has greatly helped in the development of open water competition amongst rowers from the ten Celtic nations and Welsh rowers now compete across Europe, representing GB in France Italy and Spain.

Adaptive rowing

Adaptive rowing is a special category of races for those with physical disabilities. Under FISA rules there are 3 classifications of adaptive rowers:

LTA - Legs, Trunk, Arms 
Use of at least one leg, trunk and arms. Also those visually impaired and intellectually disabled.
TA - Trunk and Arms 
Only use of trunk muscles.
A - Arms only 
Limited trunk control.

All rowers must wear a life jacket and the boats may have additional stability attached to the riggers. Adaptive events were added to the World Rowing Championships in 2002 and are due to take place at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, China.

Rowers of wider fame

Rowing in popular culture

Clubs, organizations, and companies for rowing

See also

External links

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