This is the fourth version of the rec.sport.rowing FAQ. I've added
some addresses and made a few other changes---my thanks to David Evans,
Lou Taff and Mike Smith for their comments.
Please send any comments, updates, corrections, or thoughts to me via
e-mail. I make no apologies for any real or imagined biases in this FAQ.
Table of Contents
I. Introduction: Why do we do this?
II. The Boats: What kind of boats are used?
What do the symbols mean (eg. W8+)?
- Weight classes
III. Terminology: What do some of the terms mean?
- Equipment (hatchets, sculls, riggers, etc.)
- The rowing cycle (catch, drive, feathering, etc.)
- Other (coxswain, stroke, crab, etc.)
IV. Race Formats: What is the usual distance of a race?
How long can they take?
- Head Races
V. Ergometers: What do rowers prefer?
VI. Rowing Books and Magazines: How can I subscribe to a
VII. Addresses of Interest: Who can I contact for more
information about rowing?
VIII. Rowing Camps: Are there places where I can learn how
I . Why do we do this?: There are many reasons I suppose.
"Karen rowed for what the venerable American shell builder George
Pocock called "the symphony of motion." As dawn breaks over the river,
the shell is lifted from its rack out into the morning. On another rack
the oars hang ready to be greased and slipped into the locks. Then,
awakened to the river and the feel of the oars, the oarsmen blend in
fulfillment of the shell. The symphony is not of competition. It
is the synchronous motion over water, the harmonic flexing of wood
and muscle, where each piece of equipment and every oarsman is both
essential to, and the limit of motion itself."
- The Shell Game (Stephen Kiesling)
And yet another view...
from an article by Brad Lewis in which he describes his feelings near the
end of the singles final race that would determine who would represent the
U.S. in the 1984 Olympic singles competition:
"I led by three or four feet, with Biggy (John Biglow) surging closer on
each stroke. I hated him in those last few seconds; he was the only reason
my guts were being strewn over the water like an oil slick.....
I pressed one last time, and looked at the finish-line flagman. In that
instant the flag jumped down and then up. The up stroke, identifying the
second place finisher, was for me. John Biglow was the victor.
I stared into the green-brown water watching my ***y soul drop through
the depths, slowly rocking back and forth, occasionally glinting in the
light, and then finally disappearing."
- from ROW magazine "Death at the Single Trials"
II. What kind of boats are used?
The boats (or shells) are basically of two types and reflect the
two forms of rowing---sweep rowing and sculling. In sweep rowing each
rower handles a single oar (about 12 1/2 feet long); in sculling a rower
uses two oars (each about 9 1/2 feet long). The word shell is often used
in reference to the boats used because the hull is only about 1/8 to 1/4 "
thick to make it light as possible. These shells are also rather long and
as narrow as possible.
Each rower has his back to the direction the shell is moving and power is
generated using a blended sequence of the rower's legs, back and arms. The
rower 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. The rigger is an assembly of tubes that is
tightly bolted to the body of the shell. The subtypes of rowing shells
are classified according to the number of rowers in the shell.
- Sweep Boats (each rower has one oar): These shells can have a
coxswain---a person who steers the shell (using a rudder) and
urges the rowers on. I have included in parenthesis the symbol used
for each subtype along with some dimensions and weights.
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 Four (4-) - Four sweep rowers without a coxswain.
or Coxless Four 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).
Eight (8+) - Eight sweep rowers with a coxswain. Eights
are 60+ feet long and weigh about 250 pounds.
- Sculling Boats (each rower has two oars) : These shells almost never have
a coxswain. Steering is generally accomplished by applying more
power or pressure to the oar(s) on one side of the shell.
Single (1X) - One rower or sculler. Singles are about 26 feet
long and less than a foot wide. Racing singles
can weigh as little as 30 pounds. 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. There are also recreational
versions of sculling doubles.
Quadruple (4X) - Four scullers. Often referred to as a "quad"
and can have a coxswain and often 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
- Note: Weight Classifications: There are basically two weight classes
for rowers---heavyweight and lightweight. For men (M) the
dividing line between heavyweight (HWT) and lightweight (LWT) is
about 155 - 160 lbs. For women (W) the dividing line is about 130
- 135 lbs. A rowing shell is usually built with a particular
weight class of rower in mind. Until just recently
the Olympics effectively only had heavyweight classifications.
III. What do the terms used in rowing mean?:
- Equipment terminology:
Blades - The wide flat section of the oar at the head of the shaft.
This term is often used when referring to the entire oar.
Hatchets - (aka big blades or choppers) A relatively new design of
oar blades (although the idea has been around for some time).
These were introduced by Concept II (Spring 1992)
and are what the names indicate---oar blades that have a
bigger surface area than the "standard" blades and have a
hatchet or meat cleaver shape.
The hatchets are a bit shorter (by about 7 cm) than the
standard blades. Most US sweep crews have switched to the
hatchets, but the scullers seem to be a bit more resistant
Scull - This term is used interchangebly when referring to one of
the oars used in a sculling shell, the shell itself or to
the act of rowing a sculling shell.
Foot Stretcher - An adjustable bracket in a shell to which the rower's
feet are secured in some sort of shoe or clog.
Rigger - (or outrigger) The device that connects the oarlock to the
shell and is bolted to the body of the shell.
Oarlock - A U-shaped swivel which holds the oar in place. It's mounted
(or gate) at the end of the rigger and rotates around a metal pin.
Slide - The rack on which the seat moves.
Gunwale - Top section on the sides of a shell which runs along the sides
(or gunnel) of the crew section where the rowers are located. The riggers
(or saxboard) are secured to the gunwale with bolts.
Keel - The center line of the shell.
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. These knockers are used by the
coxswain not only to steer the shell, but also to rap out the
cadence of the stroke rate on the gunwale.
Skeg - 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.
- 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 hand which serves
to remove the oar blade from the water and start the rowing
cycle. Yeh, yeh where does the stroke cycle really start?
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.
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
recovery portion of the rowing cycle.
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 only. The blade of the oar must
be fully squared at the catch.
Drive - That part of the rowing cycle when the rower applys 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
Stern - The rear end of the shell
Port - The left side of the boat when facing the bow
or stroke side in the UK
Starboard - The right side of the shell when facing the bow
or bow side in the UK
Coxswain - The person who steers the shell and urges the rowers on during
practices and in a race. A knowledgable 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).
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.
IV. Race Formats: What are the usual racing distances and divisions?
The races have separate divisions---Men's (M), Women's (W),
heavyweight (HWT) or open, lightweight (LWT) etc., then divided
up into 8+'s, 4+'s, 1x's, 2x's and so on. So for a typical
regatta you might see separate races scheduled for M8+, W8+, M4+,
W4+ down (or up---depends on your cup of tea) to W1x and M1x.
There may be separate heavyweight and lightweight divisions that
would require a weigh-in for the lightweights early the morning
of the regatta.
- Standard: The standard racing distance is 2000 meters (preferably
straight) and usually has six shells racing against each
other in their separate designated lanes which may or may
not be marked by buoys. These races can take anywhere from
5 1/2 to 8 minutes depending on boat class, weather conditions,
water current and the physical condition and experience of
Other racing distances are 1000 meters for the older guys
and gals (Masters) and 1500 meters for the Junior age division
(high school). I will get into the starting procedures in a
subsequent version of this FAQ. Needless to say everyone
(should) starts at the same time and location on the race
Also, there is a match style (i.e. races with two boats head
to head in a single elimination format for each division)
racing at a few regattas. The Henley Royal Regatta in England
and the Royal Canadian Henley come to mind. I'm not sure about
the distances...I think it's close to 2000 meters. Right?
- Head Races: These races are conducted later in the rowing season,
starting in late September. They are about 2.5 - 3 miles
long and the boats are started in their respective divisions
separately at 10 second intervals. These things are usually
conducted on a river with an assortment of bridges and
turns that can make passing quite interesting. The winner
of each division is referred to as the "head" of that river.
- Bumps: (As someone pointed out, this is the Cambridge version, but it
should do just to get an idea of what bumps racing is about)
The bumps are a way of racing eights. It all basically comes
from rowing on a river which in most places is only just wide
enough for two boats to pass.
The basic idea is simple: you get a division of 17 (or 18)
boats who start in a column with 1.5 lengths of clear water
between them, and when the start gun goes the aim is to "bump"
the boat in front by making up enough distance for physical
contact between the two boats. The two boats involved in the
bump drop out of the race by pulling in to the side of the
river and leaving the course clear for anyone behind (if the
boat behind a bump catches the boat in front of a bump this is
In the next day of racing the two crews swap start positions.
There are 4 days of racing in each set of bumps, and positions
are held over from year to year. Divisions are raced in reverse
order (ie worst first) and the crew ending top of a division
(because it started there and successfully "rowed over" the
whole course, or because it bumped the crew who started head
(top) of the division) gets to row as the 17th boat in the next
division so if they bump there they move up a division the next
day. The aim of the whole thing is to end up top of the 1st
division "Head of the river", or to go up four places
(ie a bump each day).
"The ergometer simulates the physical demands of rowing, packaging
the pains with none of the amenities that make it worthwhile..."
- from Kiesling's The Shell Game
More on this form of training (or torture) in a future FAQ. Someone
correct me if I'm wrong, but almost all rowers use the Concept II
rowing ergometer exclusively . These things run about $750 new.
There also is a Nordic Track rowing machine that at least one ex-rower
uses. I have some comments from Lou Taff for anyone who might be
VI. Books and Magazines: This is by no means meant to be complete.
*** On Lake Casitas
by Brad Lewis
The Shell Game
by Steve Kiesling
by David Halberstam
The Complete Steve Fairbairn on Rowing
by Steve Fairbairn
Complete Book of Rowing
by Steve Redgrave
Rudern: GDR text of Oarsmanship
by Dr. Herberger
For a catalog of rowing books contact:
The Rower's Bookshelf
Essex, MA 01929
Ph: (508) 468-4096
American Rowing Magazine
201 S. Capitol Ave., Suite 400
Indianapolis, IN 46225
Regatta (Amateur Rowing Association)
6 Lower Mall
Ph: (0372) 467098
same address as American Rowing or
3653 Oberhofen am Thunersee
V. Addresses of Interest: Who can I contact for more information?
Just about every major or not so major city I know of in the U.S. has at
least one rowing club where a person can learn how to row. You don't have to
have rowed in college to get involved in rowing. As a matter of fact a
substantial percentage of currently active rowers never rowed in high school
United States Rowing Association (USRA)
201 S. Capitol Ave.
Indianapolis, IN 46225
Ph: (317) 237-5656
Amateur Rowing Association - England and Wales (ARA)
6 Lower Mall
Ph. (081) 748 3632
Also, there is the SARA - Scottish ARA
VI. Rowing Camps:
Craftsbury Sculling Center (for all experience levels)
Craftsbury Common, VT 05827
Ph: (802) 586-7767
Northeast Sculling and Rowing School
(Bill Miller - coordinator/director)
P.O. Box 2060
Duxbury, MA, 02331
Ph: (617) 934-6192
Florida Rowing Center
1140 Fifth ave.
New York, NY 10128
Ph: (212) 996-1196