Rowing 101

Rowing History

Rowing as a team sport traces its roots back to the 1800's, notably at Oxford and Cambridge in England, and at Yale and Harvard in the United States. The Harvard Yale race, first held in 1852, is the oldest inter-collegiate athletic event in America. This race continues to this day. Rowing has also led the way in amateur sports. The first amateur sports association in this country was a rowing organization-Philadelphia's Schuylkill Navy in 1858- and the first national governing body for a sport in America was the National Association for Amateur Oarsmen founded in 1872. Rowing is a year-round, full-body conditioning activity. Attributes of a seasoned rower are the leg power of a speed skater, back strength of a weight lifter, endurance of a marathon runner, reflexes of a sprinter and the balance of a snowboarder. Rowing is considered to be the ultimate team sport. Rowers must work together in total unison as a team to achieve victory. Crew teaches the importance of teamwork, perseverance, and discipline, invaluable lessons for life.

Sweep Rowing vs. Sculling

Athletes with two oars – one in each hand – are scullers. There are three sculling events: the single – 1x (one person), the double – 2x (two) and the quad – 4x (four).

Athletes with only one oar are sweep rowers. Sweep boats may or may not carry a coxswain (pronounced cox-n) to steer and be the on-the-water coach. In boats without coxswains, one of the rowers steers by moving the rudder with his or her foot. Sweep rowers come in pairs with a coxswain (2+) and pairs without (2-), fours with a coxswain (4+) and fours without (4-) and the eight (8+), which always carries a coxswain. The eight is the fastest boat on the water. A world-level men's eight is capable of moving almost 14 miles per hour.

The pairs and fours with coxswain are sometimes the hardest to recognize because of where the coxswain is sitting. Although the coxswain is almost always facing the rowers in an eight, in pairs and fours the coxswain may be facing the rowers in the stern or looking down the course, or lying down in the bow, where he or she is difficult to see.

Athletes are identified by their seat in the boat. The athlete in bow is seat No. 1. That's the person who crosses the finish line first (which makes it easy to remember – first across the line is No. 1 seat). The person in front of the bow is No. 2, then No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7 and No. 8, a.k.a. the stroke. The stroke of the boat sets the rhythm and number of strokes per minute that the rest of the crew must follow, but each seat contributes significantly to the overall functioning of the boat.

Race Categories

  • Boys and girls almost always race separately in high school.
  • There are separate events for each size boat.

Races are also separated by the following skill levels:

  • Novice: First year rowers only who have not participated in an official race within the calendar year. Usually this applies to freshman.
  • Junior: Includes all students who have not turned 18 years old before September 1st of their junior year in High School. Must have competed in at least one season prior to this season. Usually this applies to sophomores and juniors.
  • Senior: Includes all seniors who have competed in at least one season prior to this season.

Rowing Equipment


Oars move the boat through the water and act as balancers. Sweep oars are longer than sculler's oars. The shaft of the oar is made of extremely lightweight carbon fiber instead of the heavier wood used years ago.

The popular "hatchet" blade – named because of its cleaver-like shape – is about 20 percent larger than previous blades. Its larger surface area has made it the almost-universal choice among all competitive rowers.

The Boats – Sculls and Shells

All rowing boats can be called shells. Rowing boats with scullers in them (each person having two oars) are called sculls, e.g., single scull, double scull, quadruple scull. So, all sculls are shells but not vice versa! Originally made of wood (and many beautifully crafted wooden boats are made today), newer boats – especially those used in competition – are made of carbon fiber. They are light and appear fragile but are crafted to be strong and stiff in the water.

The smallest boat – the single scull – is approximately 27 feet long and as narrow as 10 inches across while weighing less than 30lbs. At 58 feet, the eight is the longest boat on the water.

The oars are attached to the boat with riggers, which provide a fulcrum for the levering action of rowing.

The Race

The Sprint Race

National, collegiate, worlds, and Olympic sprint competitions are 2,000 meters, or approximately 1.25 miles. The race course is divided into 6-8 lanes and each 500-meter section is marked with buoys. Masters races are 1,000 meters. Junior or High School races are 1,500 meters. Sprint races are almost always a perfectly straight course.

The race begins with all boats aligned at the start in the lanes they've been assigned. Individuals in each lane hold the stern of each boat steady while an official, known as the aligner, ensures that each boat is even with the others and squarely facing the course.

Each crew is allowed one false start; two means disqualification. If within the first 100 meters there is legitimate equipment breakage (e.g., an oar snaps in two), the race will be stopped and restarted with repaired equipment.

The stroke rate (the number of rowing strokes per minute that a crew is taking ) is high at the start – maybe 45 to even 50 for an eight; 38 to 42 for a single scull. Then, the crew will "settle" into the body of the race and drop the rating back – 38 to 40 for an eight; 32-36 for a single. The coach and the way the race is going determine when the crew will sprint but finishing stroke rates of 46+ in the last 200 meters aren't unheard of. However, higher stroke rates are not always indicative of speed. A strong, technically talented crew may be able to cover more water faster than a less-capable crew rowing a high stroke rate.

Throughout the body of the race crews will make ‘moves’. A ‘move’ is when the rowers will increase their speed to maximum pressure for 10, 20 or more strokes at a time. Each move is referred to as a ‘Power 10, 20, 30, etc.’ A move is intended to break your competition. You will notice many crews take a ‘Power’ at the half way mark of the race. Moves are also common as a reaction to the competition.

In rowing, the medals ceremonies often include the shells. The three medal-winning crews row to the awards dock, climb out of their shells and receive their medals before rowing away.

The Head Race

Head races, which are generally held in the fall, about 2.5-3 miles long and the boats are started in their respective divisions separately at 10-15 second intervals. They are usually conducted on a river with an assortment of bridges and turns that can make passing quite interesting. The winner is the crew that had the shortest elapsed time between the start and finish lines, with any additional time included for penalties.

The Stroke

The whole body is involved in moving a shell through the water. Although rowing tends to look like an upper body sport, the strength of the rowing stroke comes from the legs.

The stroke is made up of four parts: Catch, Drive, Finish and Recovery. As the stroke begins, the rower is coiled forward on the sliding seat, with knees bent and arms outstretched. At the catch, the athlete drops the oarblade vertically into the water.

At the beginning of the drive, the body position doesn't change. Even though most of the work is done by the legs, the upper body conveys the power to the oars. As the upper body begins to uncoil, the arms begin their work, drawing the oarblades through the water. Continuing the drive, the rowers move their hands quickly into the body, which by this time is in a "layback" position, requiring strong abdominal muscles.

During the finish, the oar handle is moved down, drawing the oarblade out of the water. After clearing the blade out of the water, the rower immediately "feathers" the oar – turning the oar handle – so that the oarblade changes from a vertical position to a horizontal one. The oar remains out of the water as the rower begins recovery, moving the hands away from the body and past the knees. The body follows the hands and the sliding seat moves forward, until, knees bent, the rower is ready for the next catch.

Adapted from material published at