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Rowing (sport)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Rowing is a sport involving athletes rowing in boats. It can be either recreational or competitive. In the United States and Canada, high school and collegiate rowing is sometimes called crew.[1]

Whilst rowing, the athlete sits in the boat facing backwards (towards the stern), and uses the oars which are attached to the boat at the rowlocks to propel the boat forward (towards the bow). This may be done on a river, lake, sea, or other large body of water. In flatwater rowing, the boat (called a shell or fine boat) is narrow to avoid drag, and the oars are attached to rowlocks at the end of outriggers extending from the sides of the boat.[2] These boats also have sliding seats which allow the rower to engage his or her legs during the drive phase of the rowing stroke. It is a demanding sport requiring both physical strength and cardiovascular endurance.[3]

There are two forms of rowing:

  • Sweep or Sweep-oar rowing, where each rower has one oar, held in both hands. In sweep boats each rower is referred to either as "port" (aka "strokeside") or "starboard" (aka "bowside"). These designations refer to which side of the boat the rower's oar extends to.
  • Sculling where each rower has two oars (one in each hand). The oar in his or her right hand extends to the port side and the oar in his or her left hand extends to starboard.

A piece of equipment commonly used when training for rowing is the "indoor rower" (a.k.a. "ergometer", "ergo", "erg machine" or "erg"). Erging has become popular as a sport in its own right with numerous indoor competitions (and the annual World Championship CRASH-B Sprints in Boston) during the winter off-season. [4]

A coxless pair which is a sweep-oar boat. The rower on the left of the photo, or the bow of the boat is rowing "starboard" or "bowside". The rower on the right of the photo and closest to the stern of the boat is rowing "port" or "strokeside" .
A coxless pair which is a sweep-oar boat. The rower on the left of the photo, or the bow of the boat is rowing "starboard" or "bowside". The rower on the right of the photo and closest to the stern of the boat is rowing "port" or "strokeside" .


Main article: History of rowing

Even since the earliest recorded references to rowing, the sporting element has been present. An Egyptian funerary inscription of 1430 BC records that the warrior Amenhotep (Amenophis) II was also renowned for his feats of oarsmanship and in the Aeneid, Virgil mentions rowing forming part of the funeral games arranged by Aeneas in honour of his father.[5]

In the 13th century, Venetian festivals called regata included boat races among others.[6]

The finish of the Doggett's Coat and Badge. Painting by Thomas Rowlandson.
The finish of the Doggett's Coat and Badge. Painting by Thomas Rowlandson.

The first known ‘modern’ rowing races, began from competition among the professional watermen that provided ferry and taxi service on the River Thames in London. Prizes for wager races were often offered by the London Guilds and Livery Companies or wealthy owners of riverside houses.[7] During the Nineteenth Century these races were to become numerous and popular, attracting large crowds. Prize matches amongst professionals similarly became popular on other rivers throughout Great Britain in the Nineteenth Century, notably on the Tyne. The oldest surviving such race, Doggett's Coat and Badge was first contested in 1715 and is still held annually from London Bridge to Chelsea.[8]

Amateur competition in England began towards the end of the Eighteenth Century. Documentary evidence from this period is sparse, but it is known that the Monarch Boat Club of Eton College and the Isis Club of Westminster School were both in existence in the 1790s. The Star Club and Arrow Club in London for gentlemen amateurs were also in existence before 1800. At the University of Oxford bumping races were first organised in 1815 while at Cambridge the first recorded races were in 1827. The Boat Race between Oxford University and Cambridge University first took place in 1829, and was the second intercollegiate sporting event (following the first Varsity Cricket Match by 2 years). The interest in the first Boat Race and subsequent matches led the town of Henley to begin hosting an annual regatta in 1839.[9]

The first recorded race in America took place on the Schuylkill River in 1762 between 6-oared barges. During the Nineteenth Century, as in England, wager matches between professionals became very popular attracting vast crowds. In 1843, the first American college rowing club was formed at Yale University. The Harvard-Yale Regatta is the oldest intercollegiate sporting event in the United States having been contested every year since 1852 (excepting interruptions for wars).

FISA, the “Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron” in French (or the English equivalent International Federation of Rowing Associations) was founded by representatives from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Adriatica (now a part of Italy) and Italy in Turin on June 25, 1892. It is the oldest international sports federation in the Olympic movement.[10]

FISA first organised a European Rowing Championships in 1893. An annual World Rowing Championships was introduced in 1962. Rowing has also been conducted at the Olympic Games since 1900 (canceled at the first modern Games in 1896 due to bad weather).

Anatomy of a stroke

Main article: Anatomy of a stroke

The two fundamental reference points in the rowing stroke are the catch where the oar blade is placed in the water, and the extraction (also known as the 'finish' or the 'release') where the oar blade is removed from the water. After the blade is placed in the water at the catch, the rower applies pressure to the oar leveraging the boat forward which is called the drive phase of the stroke. Once the rower extracts the oar from the water, the recovery phase begins, setting up the rower's body for the next stroke.[11]


Racing shells stored in a boathouse (Picture taken on August 2000, in the Tel Aviv Rowing Club, Israel).
Racing shells stored in a boathouse (Picture taken on August 2000, in the Tel Aviv Rowing Club, Israel).


Main article: Racing shell

Racing boats (usually called "shells") are long, narrow, and semi-circular in cross-section in order to reduce drag to a minimum. Originally made from wood, shells are now almost always made from a composite material (usually carbon-fiber reinforced plastic) for 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 modern competition the number is either 1, 2, 4, or 8.
  • Position of coxswain. Boats are either coxless ("straight"), bow-coxed (also called bowloaders), or stern-coxed.

Although sculling and sweep boats are generally identical to each other (except having different riggers), they are referred to using different names:

  • Sweep: straight pair (2-), coxed pair (2+), straight four (4-), coxed four (4+), eight (8+) (always coxed)
  • Sculling: single (1x), double (2x),triple (3x) (very rare) quad (4x), octuple (8x) (not very common, always coxed, and mainly for juniors)
Two hatchet sculls. The "blades" at the top and the handles at the bottom of the picture
Two hatchet sculls. The "blades" at the top and the handles at the bottom of the picture


Main article: Oar (sport rowing)

Oars are used to propel the boat which are long (250–300 cm) poles with one flat end about 50 cm long and 25 cm wide, called the blade. An oar is often referred to as a "blade" in the case of sweep oar rowing and as a "scull" in the case of sculling. A sculling oar is shorter and has a smaller blade area than the equivalent sweep oar.

Classic oars were made out of wood, but modern oars are made from synthetic material, the most common being carbon fiber. The most common makes are Concept2, Croker, and Dreher.

A row of indoor rowers
A row of indoor rowers

Rowing Machines

Main article: indoor rower

Ergometer rowing machines (colloquially erg or ergo) are pieces of equipment used to supplement rowing in a boat by providing a simulation of it. Used for both fitness training and when water time is restricted, they allow for technique to be practised to some extent. Indoor rowing has now developed into a sport in its own right, including national competitions.

Terminology and Event nomenclature

Main article: Rowing terms

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

  • The prefix indicates the type of event
    • M - men's (If there is no prefix, it usually refers to a Men's boat).
    • W - women's
    • L or Lt - lightweight
    • O - Open - generally crews between college and masters, but can be any age mix
    • 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 (-)


  • M8+ or 8+ men's coxed eight
  • W4- women's coxless four (or "straight four")
  • LM2- lightweight men's coxless pair
  • BM1x 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 coxswain of either gender


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 which take place in the summer season. Time trials occur in the UK during the winter, and are referred to as Head races.

Rowing is unusual in the demands it places on competitors. The standard world championship race distance of 2,000 metres 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.

Side by Side

Most races that are held in the spring and summer feature side by side racing - 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 typically varies between two (often called a 'dual race') to six, but any number of boats can start together if the course is wide enough.

The standard length races for the Olympics and the World Rowing Championships is 2,000 m long, 1,500 m for U.S. High School races and 1,000 m for masters rowers (rowers older than 27). However the race distance can and does vary from 'dashes' or 'sprints', which may be 500 m long, to races of marathon or ultra-marathon length races such as the 'Tour du Léman' in Switzerland which is 160k, [1] and the 2 day, 185 km Corvallis to Portland Regatta held in Oregon, USA. In the UK regattas are generally between 500 and 2,000m long.

Two traditional non-standard distance races are the annual Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge and the Harvard-Yale Boat Race which cover courses of approximately four miles (roughly 6.5 km). The Henley Royal Regatta is also raced upon a non-standard distance at 1 mile, 550 yards (2,112 meters).

In general, multi-boat competitions are 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 repechages 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

Main article: Head race

Head races are time trial races that take place from autumn (fall) 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.

Rowing time trial races are known as 'Head races' because the two most well-known races -- the Head of the River race that takes place each March on the river Thames in London, United Kingdom and the Head of the Charles race held each October on the Charles River in Boston, Massachusetts, USA -- are run at the 'Head' of those rivers where the river opens up to larger bodies of water. Additionally, the term 'Head of the River' denotes the winning crews primacy, as in 'head of the class.'

Bumps races

Main article: Bumps race

A third type of race is the bumps race, as held in Oxford (known as Torpids and Eights Week), Cambridge (known as the Lent Bumps and the May Bumps), between the London medical schools (the United Hospitals Bumps) on the Tideway and at Eton College and Shrewsbury School, (which are the only schools in Britain to continue this tradition). 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. To avoid damage the cox of the crew being bumped may concede the bump before contact is actually made. 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[12] and Cambridge's are organised by the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association. Bump races are very rare in the United States.

Stake races

The stake format was often used in early American races. Competitors line up at the start, race to a stake, moored boat, or buoy some distance away, and return. The 180° turn requires mastery of steering. These races are popular with spectators because one may watch both the start and finish. Usually only two boats would race at once to avoid collision. The Green Mountain Head Regatta continues to use the stake format but it is run as a head race with an interval start.

A simular type of racing is found in UK coastal rowing, where a number of boats race out to a given point from the coast and then return fighting rough water all the way.

World championships and Olympics

Rowing at the Olympic Games
Rowing at the Olympic Games
Main articles: World Rowing Championships and Rowing at the Summer Olympics

At the end of each season, the FISA holds 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 than at the World Championships. During Olympic years only non-Olympic boats compete at the World Championships.

The crew

Main article: Boat positions (sport rowing)

In all boats, with the exception of single sculls, each rower is numbered in sequential order from the bow to the stern. The person seated on the first seat is called the bowman, or just 'bow', whilst the rower closest to the stern is called the strokeman or just 'stroke'. Note - there are some exceptions to this - UK coastal rowers, and French and Spanish rowers number from stern to bow.

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


Main article: Lightweight rowing

Unlike most other non-combat sports, rowing has a special weight category called lightweight (Lwt for short). According to FISA, this weight category was introduced "to encourage more universality in the sport especially among nations with less statuesque people". The first lightweight events were held at the World Championships in 1974 for men and 1985 for women. Lightweight rowing was added to the Olympics in 1996.

At international level the limits are:

  • Men: Crew average 70 kg (154.32 lb) - no rower over 72.5 kg (159.84 lb)
  • Women: Crew average 57 kilograms (125 lb) - no one over 59 kg (130 lb)

Different limits apply to US collegiate crews (see lightweight rowing article for more details).


For most of its history, rowing has been a male dominated sport. Although rowing’s roots as a sport in the modern Olympics can be traced back to the original 1896 games in Athens, it was not until the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal that women were allowed to participate – well after their fellow athletes in similar sports such as swimming, athletics, cycling, and canoeing.

Notwithstanding its male domination, women’s rowing can be traced back to the early 1800s, and an image of a women’s double scull race made the cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1870. In 1927, the first rowing event for women between Oxford and Cambridge was held (for the first few years it was an exhibition, and it later became a race). And in 1954, the women's events were added to the European Rowing Championships. In 1988, the first Henley Women's Regatta was held. On April 27 1997, one of the last bastions of rowing was breached when, at an Extraordinary General Meeting, Leander Club voted to admit women as members. This rule met a condition imposed by UK Sport and qualified Leander to receive a £1.5 million grant for refurbishment from the Lottery Sports Fund.[13]

At international level, women’s rowing traditionally has been dominated by Eastern European countries, such as Romania, Russia, and Bulgaria, although other countries such as Germany, Netherlands, Canada, and New Zealand often field competitive teams. The United States also has often had very competitive crews, and in recent years these crews have become even more competitive given the surge in women’s collegiate rowing, and the establishment of the NCAA Rowing Championships for women.

Adaptive athletes

Main article: Adaptive rowing

Adaptive rowing is a special category of races for those with physical disabilities. Under FISA rules there are 4 boat classes for adaptive rowers; men's LTA (Legs, Trunk, Arms), men's TA (Trunk and Arms), and men's and women's A (Arms only). Events are held at the World Rowing Championships and are also due to take place at the 2008 Summer Paralympics.[14]

Coastal and ocean

Main articles: Coastal and ocean rowing and Ocean rowing
A Cornish pilot gig, a 6 crew boat returning from a race at Falmouth in Cornwall
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.[15]

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.[16]

However, in North America the sport of "open water" rowing relies on typically longer, lighter and faster boats while sharing an emphasis on safety. Open water racing in North America is very popular in New England, California, and Washington.

Surfboat rowing is a variant of ocean rowing, developed for surf lifesaving. It remains a prominent feature of Australian surf lifesaving clubs, and has become an important element of Australian cultural identity.[17]


Popular Culture

Screenplays and television shows

  • Triumph of the Will (1935), celebrated German Olympic rowers.
  • A Yank at Oxford (1938), screenplay co-written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • The Boy in Blue (1986), Nicolas Cage portrays Ned Hanlan, a famous Canadian rower of the 19th century.
  • With Honors (1994), Moira Kelly appears as a coxswain coaching a crew of Harvard rowers.
  • True Blue (1996), based on a true story about the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.
  • All for One: In the Spirit of the Row based on the University of California, Berkeley and their rowing history and tradition.
  • Enemy of the State (1998), Will Smith is seen rowing a single scull.
  • The Skulls (2000), Joshua Jackson and Hill Harper are shown as stroke and coxswain, respectively, for the Yale crew.
  • Commander in Chief (TV series, 2005-), Geena Davis portrays President Mackenzie Allen, who has been shown rowing in a single scull in her spare time.
  • Oxford Blues (1984), Rob Lowe stars as a talented rower who schemes his way into Oxford University where he teams up with a Brit to beat Harvard University in their annual regatta.
  • How High (2001), Redman stars alongside Method Man as two underachieving pot smokers, Silas and Jamal, who are invited to study at Harvard after being told test answers by the ghost of a dead friend. Redman joins the rowing team to impress a girl.

Rowers of wider fame

  • Lewis Carroll (1832–1898), author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
  • Julian Clary, comedian, rowed with the Kingston Rowing Club.
  • Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937), founder of the modern Olympics.
  • Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), American painter, enthusiastic enough to use rowing as a subject.
  • Spencer Gollan (1860–1934), famous race horse owner.
  • Jamie Hamilton, founder of publisher Hamish Hamilton was a member of Thames Rowing Club and won a Silver medal with the British eight at the Amsterdam Olympics
  • Stephen Hawking, former coxswain; famous for his discoveries in the fields of astronomy, physics, and astrophysics (see Hawking radiation).
  • John Heard, actor, rowed with Clark University.
  • John B. Kelly, Sr. (1899–1960) triple Olympic Gold medalist in rowing. Self-made millionaire. Famous as the father of Grace Kelly, movie star and Princess of Monaco.
  • Lord Kelvin (1824–1907), Noted scientist and engineer. Rowed at Cambridge. Famous for his mathematical analysis of electricity and thermodynamics. The Kelvin temperature scale is named after him.
  • Hugh Laurie, star of House, rowed for Great Britain Juniors in 1977 and for Cambridge in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in 1980. His father has an Olympic gold medal in rowing.
  • James Mason, actor, rowed with the Peterhouse Boat Club.
  • A B 'Banjo' Paterson (1864–1941) Australian bush poet, journalist and author. He was a member of the Balmain Rowing Club in Sydney, competing at a club level in the local regattas.
  • Gregory Peck (1916–2003), Academy Award winning actor, rowed for UC Berkeley.
  • James Stillman Rockefeller (1902–2004) industrialist, philanthropist, member of the Yale University crew that won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics.
  • Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903–1998), pediatrician and author, member of the Yale University crew that won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics.
  • William Howard Taft (1857–1930), 27th President of the United States, rowed at Yale.

See also

  • International Rowing Federation
  • College/University Rowing:
    • College rowing (United States)
    • University rowing (UK)
    • The Boat Race
    • Harvard-Yale Regatta
  • FISA Events:
    • World Rowing Championships
    • Rowing World Cup
    • Junior World Rowing Championships
  • Category:Rowing governing bodies
  • Category:Rowing clubs
  • Category:Rowing companies


  1. ^ Crew - definition (html). TheFreeDictionary. Retrieved on 2007-01-02.
  2. ^ Resistance (html). Basic Physics of Rowing. Retrieved on 2007-01-02.
  3. ^ Introduction (html). Basic Rowing Physiology. Retrieved on 2007-01-02.
  4. ^ Racing (html). Retrieved on 2007-01-02.
  5. ^ Burnell, Richard; Page, Geoffrey (1997). The Brilliants: A History of the Leander Club. Leander Club. ISBN 0 9500061 1 4.
  6. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary (html). Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  7. ^ Burnell, Richard; Page, Geoffrey (1997). The Brilliants: A History of the Leander Club. Leander Club. ISBN 0 9500061 1 4.
  8. ^ DOGGETT'S COAT & BADGE RACE (html). Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section. Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  9. ^ Burnell, Richard (1989). Henley Royal Regatta: A celebration of 150 years. William Heinemann. ISBN 0 434 98134 6.
  10. ^ World Rowing (html). Retrieved on 2006-12-31.
  11. ^ British Rowing Technique (html). The Amateur Rowing Association. Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  12. ^ Oxford City Bumping Races (html). Oxford Rowing. Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  13. ^ Leander voted for women (html). REGATTA OnLine. Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  14. ^ Paralympic/Adaptive (html). Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  15. ^ Coastal Rowing (html). Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  16. ^ Waves and thrills; the World Rowing Coastal Challenge (html). Retrieved on 2006-12-23.
  17. ^ Introduction (html). Warwick's Surf Boat Page. Retrieved on 2006-12-23.

External links

  • FISA — The Official World Rowing Website (See FISA).
  • RegattaCentral— Regatta search and listings. Official registrar for USRowing.
  • Rachel Quarrell's Rowing Service — UK rowing news and information site.
  • David Biddulph's Rowing Pages — widely used and revered source of extremely useful rowing information
  • — World wide Rowing information site with news, results and photographs.
  • River & Rowing Museum — Unique Museum devoted to rowing in Henley on Thames.
  • Virtual Library: Rowing.
  • Tideway slug — UK rowing news, gossip and humour.
  • on Google Groups.
  • Physics of Rowing — A somewhat advanced math based approach to the physics of rowing.
  • Row Row Row your Boat - At which maximum speed? — A simple derivation of the maximum speed of rowing boats
  • — is an interactive forum for coxswains and rowers alike. Articles, downloads and message board.
  • Rowing Computer Research — How rowing really works.
  • The Cambridge Rowing Wiki — A wiki for more technical rowing information
  • Interscholastic Rowing Homepage of New England Interscholastic (High School level) Rowing Association
  • "America's Oldest Intercollegiate Athletic Event" by John Venezianao, Sports Information Director, Harvard University Sports Information Director.
  • The rowing-related wiki.
  • [2] The Rowing Machine Website

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