Rowing - the Sport Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Rowing - the Sport

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Rowing is a diverse sport with unique properties. In 2000, rowing somehow became very popular, with the GB Olympic Team's fours victory at the Sydney 2000 games beating even England's winning goal at the Football World Cup in 1966 to the top spot in Britain's Top 100 Sporting Moments, as voted for by viewers of Channel Four. Rowing has a long, and largely unimportant history - to row well, you just need to practise, practise, practise.

Theory and Technique

The Warm-up and Warm-down

Warming up and down is important. Firstly, it's a good idea to run or cycle for 10 minutes, then do 10 minutes of stretches as prescribed by the coach, and then row. Afterwards, the order is reversed - stretching then running/cycling. Everywhere needs to be adequately stretched - hamstrings and back are particularly important.

Your Seat

In racing boats, your seat will consist of a stretcher with shoes, in which your feet are secured, two riggers for the blade or sculls, and a seat on a slide. The seat moves with your bottom during the stroke, and must run smoothly and freely. The stretcher can be adjusted, and you should be able to put your legs flat down without your seat hitting the back of the slide. However, for safety reasons, your blade or sculls must be able to go past your sides to prevent serious injury if a mistake is made.


In a rowing boat, each oarsman has one blade. In a sculling boat, each sculler has two sculls, one for each hand. It is important to place the blade or sculls in the correct places. In a sculling boat, red sculls go on your right, and green on your left. If in doubt, remember 'red for right'. In a rowing boat, bow side (bow, 3, 5 and 7) row with the blade on the left, stroke side (2, 4, 6 and stroke) on the right, although this can be reversed (unusual), or a boat can be rigged with 4 and 5 on the same side, and 3 and 6 on the other, called 'Chinese Rigging' (unusual).


There are several positions in each stroke, which you need to know if you are to have any kind of technique, or follow the instructions of the coach or cox.

  • Backstops - Legs straight, arms bent with blade by your belly.

  • Arms away - Legs straight, arms straight with out in front of you.

  • Frontstops - Legs bent with your bum and heels almost touching, at the front of the slide, arms straight out in front of you as far as you can comfortably get them.

  • Catch - As frontstops, as blade goes into water.

  • Finish - Just before backstops, as handle is lowered to remove blade from water.

Likewise, during training and to some extent at the start of a race, you'll need the following:

  • Full Slide - The maximum, normal length of a stroke, from frontstops to backstops.

  • Three-Quarter Slide - An almost-complete stroke, with the angle across the knee at about 45° at the front of the stroke.

  • Half Slide - Only half the slide being used, the knee bends only to around a right-angle.

  • Quarter Slide - The knees are only just broken, with minimal use of the slide.

  • Body Reach - Legs remain straight throughout, so no slide is used. The back is allowed to pivot.

  • Arms Only - Not even the back can pivot, you have to pull with your arms, making for a weak, fast stroke.

  • Hold it Up - Place your blade in the water the normal way around at backstops and hold it there.

  • Back it Down - Take normal strokes as instructed, or often at body reach, in the opposite direction to normal, with the bade back to front.


Here are some example commands to give an idea of how coxing works. They're simple examples, and follow a principle of 'Who, What, Ready, Go!'. Each time, the Go! command is given at backstops, at the end of the stroke.

  • Starting to Move - Stern Four, Full Slide, Backstops, Go!
  • Switching Oarsmen - Bow Four dropping out, Stern Four coming in, Go!
  • 10-stroke Burst - Full Pressure, 10 strokes, Ready, Go!
  • Stopping - Easy!
  • Stopping in an Emergency - Easy, Hold it up!


Most of the time, for obvious aerodynamic reasons, the blade is squared at the catch to be able to apply a useful force to the water. When out of the water, the blade is placed parallel to the water, called feathering. Unless otherwise instructed, assume feathered blades.


Advanced technique is something that really has to be coached at a crew level, and is virtually impossible to fully explain without actually demonstrating it in real time. There are five points, though, that you're best off knowing before you start.

  • The Back - Your back should remain straight throughout the stroke. Not only does bending your spine in the middle cause back pain and potential injury, but it takes all of the power out of your stroke. To achieve good back position, you'll need to be quite flexible; you'll need to stretch a lot.

  • Don't Pull - You don't pull on your blade, you push on the boat. Keep your arms straight until your legs are almost flat - the power comes from pushing down on your legs, and the arm movement is really a follow-through, although the movement should remain continuous. If you can feel the pressure on your bottom dropping significantly at the catch, then you're doing well. If you sit on an ergo (ergo is short for ergometer - see below for fuller explanation), and have someone hold the handle still, if you pull with your arms and try to bend them, you'll get nowhere and your arms will ache. If you push with your legs, you'll end up suspended off the seat - a good thing. After the finish, you move forwards with the boat (you don't force yourself forward, but don't resist it either) in the order 'hands, body, slide'.

  • The Blade - In sculling, your hands should be at the very end of the handles with your thumbs over the ends of your blades. In rowing, the outer hand goes at the end of the blade, the other at the other end of the handle, level with the side of the boat. In sculling, both hands both take the strain, while in rowing, the outer hand takes the strain, and the inner hand is used to square and feather the blade.

  • Balance In sculling, the two blade handles must be at the same height at all times, left over right hand. Never, under any circumstances, let the blades go behind you, and don't let go of either of them. In rowing, again, hold on to the blade, don't let it go behind you, and aim to move at the same height as the other rowers. This is all to keep the boat level, and ultimately the correct way up.

  • Eyes - In order to follow the timing of the stroke, follow the top of the back in front of you. Look that way all the time, not at the pretty scenery, the bank, your blade, anyone else's blade, the cox, your coach, yourself, etc.

The Coxswain

Being a coxswain ('cox') is an art in itself. To start, give yourself plenty of space, be confident with commands, and remember to steer by pushing the handle on the side you wish to head towards forwards - the opposite of a car steering wheel! Beyond that, coxes are usually really short, and very light - typically under 55kg. The rudder is about the size of a credit card, so the rowers may also be used to help turning by adjusting the pressure at which they are taking their strokes.

Who's Who in an Eight/Octo


The guy at the front end of the boat. This oarsmen needs to be awake and responsive, and plays a key role in manoeuvring the boat when spinning.

Middle People (2,3,4,5,6,7)

These people largely need to be able to drive the boat through the water, following stroke's pace. This is the real powerhouse of the boat.


The stroke needs technique and timing, and is responsible for setting the rhythm of the boat. Everyone in the boat follows his pace, and a good stroke is vital.


The cox is the one with the microphone, the eyes and the brain. This guy will be short, light and preferably trusted and respected by the crew. He is responsible for steering the boat and giving commands.


Real rowing requires an area of water, such as a river or lake, and sometimes even the sea, to row on, a boat to row in, and blades to row with. Without these, it's impossible to row.


In order to be in good standings at competition, it's vital to have a good stretch of water to practise on - the more challenging, the better. The Thames at Oxford is teeming with University crews, and Boat Clubs across the country are spread across suitable waterways like a rash. To have a good chance of competing well at regattas, a crew must be used to adverse stream, standing waves, wind, rain, sleet and snow - so a river in the UK with lots of tight corners is perfect.


Racing boats start very small, and end up as monsters seating as many as nine people. All share some features in common:

  • The boat is about as wide as the people that row in it, and not very deep - about a foot (30cm).

  • Metal structures called riggers provide the pivot point for the blade, and the addition of these effectively triples the width of boar above the water, without increasing drag, and with minimal addition to air resistance.

  • Racing boats are very long, with sharply pointed ends. These can be dangerous, so the forwards-pointing one has a rubber ball on it for safety. The crew are sat closely together at the middle of the boat.

  • Rowers face away from the direction of travel, while the cox, when there is one, either sits behind the stroke, near the back of the boat, or in front of the bow man, at the front.

  • The rudder used by the cox to steer the boat is usually about the size of a playing card - it need not be any bigger.

Modern boats are made of plastic, and are very light. They accelerate fast, but also slow quickly, as they gain less overall momentum than older boats, made from wood. Newer boats tend to carry 'cleaver' blades, which are shaped like they sound. Older blades tend to look like a spoon, and are generally made of wood. Rowers sit so closely together that if a rower is out of time, he is likely to collide with the oarsperson in front or behind, or worse both. There is little room for error. If you 'catch a crab', which happens when you're out of time and the blade is dragged under the water, you need to be careful not to injure yourself on other people's blade handles behind you.

There are several sizes of boat. They work like this:

  • Single scull - 1 sculler, no cox.
  • Double scull - 2 scullers, cox optional.
  • Quad scull - 4 scullers, cox optional.
  • Octo scull - 8 scullers, 1 cox.
  • Rowing Pair - 2 rowers, cox optional.
  • Rowing Four - 4 rowers, cox optional.
  • Rowing Eight - 8 rowers, 1 cox.

Pretty obviously, the more rowers in the boat, the faster it will tend to go. This is because the weight of boat each oarsman or woman must heave along is shared between far more people in an eight than in a four. Stability is also increased with more people - single sculls are like rowing matchsticks!

Heads and Regattas

These are both essentially big rowing competitions. The largest will have many categories, and several hundred boats competing. A head is a race against the clock, with the winner being the one with the fastest time, while at a regatta, two or three boats race head to head, culminating in a final showdown.

Another kind of race, popular with Oxford and Cambridge Universities, is Bumps racing. Several boats (around 12) are lined up about 2.5 boat-lengths apart. Each boat attempts to catch up with, and hit, the boat in front. The front boat just goes as fast as it can, avoiding being hit. The process is repeated through divisions until an eventual winner is found. On hitting a boat, you are ahead of it in the next race.

The Ergometer and 'Rowperfect'

The final important thing is that it is possible to row without water. An ergometer is the standard rowing machine, with the feet fixed, and a big fan-like thing at the front. It isn't a great simulation of real rowing, but it's a good all-round exercise. 5000m will take around 20 minutes or so, with 2000m around eight. There is a basic readout of various statistics, most importantly the 'split', or the time per 500m. This should ideally be around two minutes (2:00) or so, although serious rowers will do much faster times than this. Ergometers can be joined on a sprung track to help build a 'boat' without a boat.

The Rowperfect is a slightly better simulation, with a computer readout and loads of vaguely relevant numbers and graphs. This time, both seat and feet can move. In both cases, the rowing is done by pulling on a handle connected to a chain. Rowing on these machines almost invariably seems harder than being in a boat, especially as indoors, the heat does not escape from your body as easily due to the lack of wind. Also, the feeling that you're not getting anywhere doesn't tend to help. Pure torture can't be much worse than this, surely?

So there you have it. Rowing is a sport for individuals, for a team, for reward in competition and in fitness. If you can find somewhere with the equipment (even a simple ergometer can cost as much as a computer), give it a try. Most fitness centres have ergometers, but they're nothing compared to being in a racing eight.

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