Rowing Basics

”Of all sports, rowing offers the least to outward seeming. It is hard work unleavened by variety. Worse, a man attending to business can’t see where he is going. The pleasure compensating for this madness is at once simple and subtle. A need of men, generally denied, them, is to feel a part of something which works smoothly and well. In a mated crew the ideal is
reached, the feeling of perfection passing back and forth from the individual to the team like an electric current. Until exhaustion breaks the spell, there is no more to be desired.”


–from “Silverlock”, by John Myers Myers, a man who clearly know his way around a shell

Rowing shells are long, skinny, fragile boats (from 25′ for a racing single to about 60′ for an eight) which are propelled with long oars, often at obscenely early hours of the morning, by rowers who sit facing backward. There are two basic types of rowing: sweep rowing, in which each rower has one oar, and sculling, in which each rower has two oars. Sweep boats include pairs, fours, and eights, with two, four, and eight rowers, respectively; sculls include singles, doubles, quads, and octets, with one, two, four, and eight rowers (2, 4, 8, and 16 oars) respectively. Pairs are not common, and octets are very rarely seen. Fours and eights may (or may not) have a coxswain, who sits at the stern or bow end of the boat, calls out commands through a cox box and steers, using cords attached to a rudder. Rowers are addressed by number: in an eight, counting from the bow end of the boat, they would be Bow, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven and Stroke.


The basic stroke and recovery are each in three parts; from the catch, with body compressed, arms extended and blade in the water, it’s legs, body, arms. Then release the blade from the water, and it’s arms, body, legs, back to the catch:



Glossary of Terms:

  • Blade: The part of an oar that goes into the water.
  • Blister: Small, fluid-filled bump often found on rowers’ hands after a vigorous practice.
  • Bow: The forward end of a boat. Also, the rower seated closest to the bow.
  • Catch: The point at which the blade enters the water.
  • Cox or coxswain: See above – the person who steers and calls out commands, either sitting in a small seat in the stern or laying down into the bow of the boat. ‘To cox’ is to act as a coxswain.
  • Cox box: A microphone system used by the cox ?it difficult to yell loud enough to be heard in the opposite end of a eight that’s heading into the wind. The cox box plugs into a speaker system permanently mounted in the boat.
  • Double: A two-person, four-oared scull.
  • Drive: The part of the stroke when the blade is in the water. This is the high-exertion part of the stroke.
  • Eight: An eight-person, eight-oared sweep boat.
  • Erg: Torture device, aka Concept II rowing machine. Used in training. May cause severe exhaustion. The word “erg” may be used as noun, verb, or exclamation of disgust: an erg, to erg, erggg!!
  • Falling in: Occupational hazard for novice and non-novice rowers alike.
  • Finish: The point at which the blade exits the water.
  • Flywheel: The part of the erg that provides resistance. Amount of resistance can be varied by changing the damper setting.
  • Four: A four-person, four-oared sweep boat.
  • Gunwale: The sides of the boats.
  • Hatchet blade: An oar whose blade is, oddly enough, shaped like a hatchet. Almost all racers in the US now use hatchet blades; they’re faster because of the greater surface area.
  • Head race: 5 km (3.2 mile) race, so-called because it runs from the head of a river. In the US, rowers typically compete in head races in fall and in sprint races in spring and summer; in the Netherlands, masters rowers compete in races that are 5 km or longer (anything up to 100 km) all year long.
  • Keel: The bottom of a boat.
  • Launch: The powerboat used by coaches to stay alongside a rowing shell during practices.
  • Macon or spoon blade: An older, symmetric blade style, the one you probably picture when you think of an oar.
  • Masters rowing: Masters are rowers 27 and older; there are several age categories and some rowers race into their nineties (and win, only partly because they usually have to row against people in lower age categories and they get large handicaps).
  • Oarlock: A pivoting frame that connects the oar to the boat.
  • Octet: An eight-person, sixteen-oared scull. Very rare.
  • Paddle: rowing lightly.
  • Pair: A two-person, two-oared sweep boat. Somewhat rare in competition; difficult to row straight because rowers must be perfectly together.
  • Port: The left side of the boat, facing forward. However, since rowers sit facing backward, port is to the right for everyone but the cox.
  • Pressure: How hard you’re rowing, expressed as a percentage of how hard you can row. I might row 100% in a sprint race, 80% in a longer head race, 50% if I working on technique during practice, at a paddle when I’m rowing back to the dock after a tough practice.
  • Quad: A four-person, eight-oared scull.
  • Rate: How many strokes per minute you’re taking. 20 is fairly low; 30 is fairly high. Olympians may row at a 40, but, as one cox of my acquaintance says, “remember, harder doesn’t always mean faster.” It is possible to row at 100% pressure at an 18 rate.
  • Recovery: The part of the stroke when the blade is out of the water, and the rower is getting in position to take the next stroke. The recovery should be considerably slower than the drive.
  • Rigger: The triangular (usually) framework that supports the oarlock about 2?out from the boat.
  • Rudder: Small (often hand-size) pivoting fin mounted under the keel that steers the boat. Boats with coxes have rudders; also, quads do and doubles may; these are steered from bow seat, and are connected so that bow steers by pivoting one foot.
  • Scull: A boat in which each rower has two oars, OR the oars used in one of these boats. Sculls are shorter than Sweeps. “To scull” is to row in a scull.
  • Seat: Were you sit on an erg or in a boat. The seat slides: the feet are the only place where a rower is attached to the boat.
  • Shell: Any sweep or scull rowing boat.
  • Single: A one-person, two-oared boat.
  • Skeg: A small, immobile fin projecting from the keel, to help a boat stay upright and go straighter. Usually mounted partway between the middle of the boat and the stern.
  • Sprint race: Usually 2000 meters for collegiate and open races, 1000 meters for Masters’ races.
  • Starboard: Opposite of port: the right side of the boat, facing forward. However, since rowers sit facing backward, starboard is to the left for everyone but the cox.
  • Stern: The rear of the boat.
  • Stroke: The rearmost rower in any boat but a single, who sets the rate for all rowers in the boat (since they face backward, they can always see stroke’s blade).
  • Sweep: Opposite of scull; each rower has 1 oar.
  • Way enough: Stop!