Rowing 101

General Information

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 12.5 ft or 3.9 m long) in sculling a rower uses two oars, or sculls, (each about 9.5 ft or 3 m 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 as light as possible. These shells are also rather long and racing shells are as narrow as possible while recreational ones can be rather wide. Most shells today are made of composite materials such as carbon fiber, fiberglass, or Kevlar. A few manufacturers still build wooden boats.

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 exception to this is some European recreational boats called “inriggers” which have the oarlock attach directly on the gunwale. 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 (or Coxless) Four (4-)

Four sweep rowers without a coxswain. 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). The coxless pair has a similar type of rudder setup.

Eight (8+/8o)

Eight sweep rowers with a coxswain. Eights are 60+ ft (~18.5 m) long and weigh about 250 pounds (~114 kg).

Sculling Boats (each rower has two oars)

Only in rare cases do these boats have a coxswain. Steering is generally accomplished by applying more power or pressure to the oar(s) on one side of the shell. The hands overlap (usually left over right in the US) during part of the rowing cycle, or are always left in front of right.

Single (1X)

One rower or sculler. Singles are about 26 ft (8 m) long and less than a foot (0.3 m) wide. Racing singles can weigh as little as 30 pounds (~13.5 kg). 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. When used as a pair a rudder is usually added. There are also recreational versions of sculling doubles.

Quadruple (4X)

Four scullers. Often referred to as a `quad’ and usually 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 of riggers.

Octuple (8X)

Eight scullers. This is rarely seen, though is used in the UK, at least, in junior competition where sweep rowing is not allowed.

Weight Classifications

There are basically two weight classes for rowers—heavyweight (HWT) and lightweight (LWT).

Men (M)

For team LWT boats, there is a 72.5 kg (~160 lbs) individual maximum, and the boat must average no more than 70 kg (~155 lbs).

Women (W)

The individual maximum for team LWT boats is 59 kg (~130 lbs), and the boat must average no more than 57 kg (~125 lbs).

In the US, the women have an individual max only; no average. In some regattas in the US (usually head races late in the season) these limits are increased by 5 lbs.

A rowing shell is usually built with a particular weight class of rower in mind. Until just recently the Olympics effectively had only HWT classifications.

Equipment Terminology


The wide flat section of the oar at the head of the shaft, also known as the spoon. This term is often used when referring to the entire oar.

Hatchets (a.k.a. big blades or choppers or cleavers)

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’ (Macon) blades and have a hatchet or meat cleaver shape. The hatchets are a bit shorter (by about 7 cm) than the standard blades.


This term is used interchangeably 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 (or boot stretchers)

An adjustable bracket in a shell to which the rower’s feet are secured in some sort of shoe or clog.


The sliding seat that the rower sits on. The term “seat” also refers to the rowers place in the boat; the convention is to number the seats from bow to stern, i.e. the rower closest to the front of the boat is “1-seat” the next, “2-seat”, et c. The 1-seat is also commonly referred to as “bow seat” or just “bow” while the stern most (rear) seat is referred to as “stroke seat” or just “stroke”.

Rigger (or outrigger)

The device that connects the oarlock to the shell and is bolted to the body of the shell. On sweep boats, riggers are typically alternating from side to the other on adjacent seats, but it is not uncommon to see two adjacent riggers on the same side. This is referred to as “tandem rigging”. Varieties include “bucket rigging”, “German Rigging” and “Italian Rigging”.

Oarlock (or rowlock)

A U-shaped swivel which holds the oar in place. It’s mounted at the end of the rigger and rotates around a metal pin. A gate closes across the top to keep the oar in.

Button (or collar)

A plastic or metal fitting tightened on the oar to keep the oar from slipping through the oarlock.


The angle between the blade (on the drive when the blade is `squared’) and a line perpendicular to the water’s surface.

Slide (or track): The track on which the seat moves.

Gunwale (or gunnel, saxboard)

Top section on the sides of a shell, which runs along the sides of the crew section where the rowers are located. The riggers are secured to the gunwale with bolts.


Technically, the structural member running the length of the boat at the bottom of the hull. Today, some shells are built without this member so the term often refers to the centerline of the shell.


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. The coxswain not only to steer the shell, but also to rap out the cadence of the stroke rate on the gunwale uses these knockers.

Skeg (or Fin)

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.


The adjustment and alteration of accessories (riggers, foot-stretchers, oar, etc.) in and on the shell. Examples of rigging adjustments that can be made are the height of the rigger, location of the foot-stretchers, location and height of the oarlocks, location of the button (or collar) on the oar and the pitch of the blade of the oar.

Slings (or boat slings, or trestles)

Collapsible/portable frames with straps upon which a shell can be placed temporarily.

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.


A sharp downward (and away) motion of the hands, which serves to remove the oar blade from the water and start the rowing cycle. Yeh, yeh where does the stroke cycle really start?


The act of turning the oar blade from a position perpendicular to the surface of the water to a position parallel to the water. This is done in conjunction with the release.


Part of the rowing cycle from the release up to and including where the oar blade enters the water.


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 the recovery portion of the rowing cycle and is done in preparation for the 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 and hands only. The blade of the oar must be fully squared at the catch.


That part of the rowing cycle when the rower applies 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.


The last part of the drive before the release where the power is mainly coming from the back and arms.


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


The forward end of the shell. Also used as the name of the person sitting nearest to the bow.


The rear end of the shell.


The left side of the boat when facing the bow (stroke side in the UK and Ireland ).


The right side of the shell when facing the bow (bow side in the UK and Ireland ).


The person who steers the shell and urges the rowers on during practices and in a race. A knowledgeable 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).

Frig rigging

See Tandem Rigging.

Tandem rigging

Variations of rigging of sweep boats with adjacent riggers being on the same side of the boat. Also known as Frig rigging ( UK ). See below (the rigging terms below are the subject of debate as to exactly what configuration they refer to, and they are often used interchangeably).

Bucket rigging

The rigging of an eight or a four so that riggers 2 and 3 are on the same side.

German rigging

The rigging of an eight so that riggers 4 and 5 are on the same side while the others alternate.

Italian rigging

The rigging of an eight so that bow and stroke riggers are on the same side, with the others alternating in pairs.


The ratio of the recovery time to the drive time. The recovery time should always be longer than the drive time (how much longer I won’t say … as someone wrote, the idea is to `move the boat on the pull through (or drive) and take a ride (i.e. relax) on the recovery without sacrificing the very speed that they have generated’).


The number of strokes per minute. Also known as stroke rating.

Set (set of a boat)

The definition of this word that I have found that comes closest to what rowers mean by the set of a boat is `form or carriage of the body or of its parts’. In this case the `body’ consists of the shell and the rowers. Items that can affect the set of the boat are the rower’s posture, hand levels, rigging (the favorite culprit … especially with the more advanced rowers), timing at the catch and release, and outside conditions such as the wind. It is not unusual for rowers within a shell not to agree on what needs to be done to establish a `good’ set, i.e. a level, stable shell that will provide the basis for that symphony of motion.


Any abrupt deceleration of the shell caused by some uncontrolled motion within the shell; an interruption in the forward motion of the shell. The coxswain is probably the most acutely aware of this abrupt deceleration and it has been known to cause whiplash in some extreme cases.


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.

Missing water

The rower starts the drive before the catch has been completed (or even started in some cases). This is also referred to as rowing into the catch.


The fault of carrying the hands too low during the recovery especially when a rower dips his or her hands just prior to the catch (i.e. a sort of winding up). This usually results in the blade being too high off the water’s surface.

Washing out

The fault of rowing the oar out of the water, i.e. the blade comes out of the water before the drive is finished.

About the boats

The boat or shell in inherently unstable due to its shallow draft and extremely narrow proportions.Fortunately the oars themselves help to stabilize the craft much as outriggers do on a dugout canoe. Because the shell sits so low in the water, the rower’s center of gravity is quiet high, maintaining balance is very important in this sport.

There is a reason these boats are called shells. They are extremely thin walled. The lighter the shell, the faster it can be rowed. An eight-man crew shell measures approximately 60 feet in length and weighs about 200 lbs. It can carry a crew weight of up to 2300 lbs. Like all things designed for racing, these boats are very expensive and easily damaged. The rib structure of modern shells is made of honeycombed composite material, the skin is fiberglass and gel coat. The oars are also made of composite materials. The oar shaft is a hollow tube. Oars appear to be much heavier than they really are. The metal structures that extend from the sides of the shell are called outriggers. Their purpose is to support the oarlocks. These three-legged assemblies must be removed when the shells are being transported on the boat trailer. They are reinstalled before the race or when the boats are returned to the boathouse.

About the Races

Rowing in competition takes place at an event called a regatta. The same term used in sailboat racing. The sport of rowing is broken down into two basic divisions. Sweep rowing, or Crew occurs when an athlete rows with one oar positioned on one or the other side of the boat. Sculling involves one athlete with two oars, one in each hand. Here at Arlington we are only involved in Crew. We row shells that hold four rowers and a coxswain pronounced (coxun) or eight rowers and a coxswain. The coxswain is the person who steers the boat and directs the pace. Coxswains do not row. The abbreviations 4+ and 8+ respectively, are used to describe these types of craft. The number tells you how many rowers are in the boat, the plus sign means that the boat has a coxswain.

There are two basic type of rowing races, sprints and head races. Spring is the season for sprints, or standard racing. Usually six boats compete in well-marked lanes. Starting from a stationary position and held in place by people in anchored stake boats, the command “Attention, Go” is given and the race begins. The referee follows in a motor launch to make sure all boats comply with the rules of the race. First over the finish line wins. Heats are run if more boats are entered in the event than there are lanes to hold them. Faster boats qualify to compete in a final heat that determines the winner. The racecourse is as straight as the site permits and in high school the rowing distance is usually 1500 meters.

Head Races occur in the fall. A much longer racecourse is set up. The coxswain must steer through twists, turns and around obstacles in the river. One race on the Mohawk River involves a 180o turn around an island with the start and finish on the same line. Competing boats are sometimes allowed a practice run so that the coxswain is familiar with the course. More often, a meeting is held for coxswains and they are shown a map and given instructions. Starting time is staggered with a few seconds between each competing boat. Before the start, boats are allowed to get up to speed. As they pass through a chute, the clock starts ticking. Best time wins the race. Boats passing other boats make this kind of racing very exciting. When all entries in that particular event have completed the course, the results are posted and the winner revealed.

Rowing Positions in an Eight-Man Shell.

Rowing Position Diagram – Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader

Just as in baseball, has its pitcher, first basement, shortstop etc., crew also has its positions or seats for each of its rowers. A rower rows either port (left) or starboard (right), depending on which side of the boat his or her oar extends from. Once a rower is assigned a port or starboard position, he or she will almost always continue to row on that side of the boat for the rest of the season, if not their entire rowing career.

For purposes of balance and to avoid oar interference, boats are rigged with an alternating pattern. The standard rigging starts at
the bow on the starboard side. It ends on the port side. Based on observation and evaluation of ergometer tests, coaches must determine the best position for each rower. Putting together the boat is the consummate concern of coaches early in the season. Some tweaking is usually necessary but once a boat is “set”, if is rarely altered. Rowers then practice together to perfect their rowing as a crew.

The rowers in seats 1 and 2 are known as the bow pair. They are expected to deliver a smooth fluid technique. In an effort to  keep the bow up in the water, the bow pair are usually a little smaller and lighter than the other rowers. They are the first to cross the finish line. Rowers in seats 3, 4, 5, 6, are known as the engine room. These rowers are expected to provide the strongest and hardest strokes.Rowers in seats 7, and 8 are known as the stern pair. They are expected to provide both strength and technique. Seat 8,    known as the stroke, sets the pace. It is his stroke that the other rowers follow. The coxswain, who usually sits in the back, is the only person with eyes front. The coxswain does not row but rather steers the craft, directs the pace and verbally encourages his crew to perform to the best of their ability. Coxswains do not contribute any propulsion to the boat. For this reason they are usually small people with big vocal chords. A coxswain can be male or female and compete with crews of the opposite sex in their division.

Crew is truly a team sport. All the positions on a crew boat are equally important and all crewmates contribute to the racing  success or failure of that boat.

Timeline for the History of Rowing

1000 BCThe oar and fulcrum are developed, this proves to be an improvement over paddling.

26-19 BCVergil’s Aenied provides the earliest account in western literature of rowing for sport. The funeral games in honor of the father of Aeneas included rowing.

1700 ADBarge rowing on the Thames in London becomes a popular recreation. Wagering on the races becomes a favorite pastime of the wealthy.

1829The Oxford-Cambridge Race established as an annual event on the Thames.

1837First rowing club in Poughkeepsie forms. The first organized regatta in America is held in Newburgh New York.

1839The Henley Royal Regatta is formed in England.

1852The Yale-Harvard Race on the Charles River in Boston commences. Rowing becomes the first organized sport in America.

1865The American Championships are established.

1873There are now 209 rowing clubs in the United States.

1895Poughkeepsie is chosen as the home for the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regattas. The first event draws 30,000 spectators.

1900Rowing is established as an Olympic sport and events are held at the Paris games.

1950Mid Hudson Schoolboy Rowing Association is created. Crew teams are formed at Arlington, Poughkeepsie, and Roosevelt High Schools.

1956First Triangular races are held on May 14th, cheerleaders and marching band included!

1956-1964National High School Championships are held in Poughkeepsie.

1976Women are admitted to the rowing program at Arlington.

1996Joshua Gaynor, Roosevelt High School graduate, class of 1985, strokes a heavy weight four to a silver metal in the summer Olympics in Barcelona Spain.

2004  ��    ��   ��         Brett Wilkinson, Roosevelt High School graduate, class of 1994, takes the US Olympic quadruple sculls team to 11th place at the Olympics in Athens Greece.

Understanding the Motion of Rowing

Motion of Rowing Diagram – Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader

Catch, Drive, Finish, Recovery, these four motions, though fluid and repetitive, describe the physical process of rowing as it is practiced in this sport.

To the casual observer, rowing appears to be an upper body exercise. Although upper body strength is important, the real power in the stroke comes from the legs during the drive portion of the rowing motion. This is when the oar is being pulled through the water. It is at the finish or end of the drive, that the arms and back are needed. The drive is completed and the oar is raised out of the water

The rowers appear to slide forward and back as they row and in fact they are doing just that. Each rowers seat is attached by small wheels to a 2 ½’ to 3��� long track. This sliding motion allows the rowers legs to become extended enough for his hands and the oar, to pass over his knees. Mounted to the floor of the boat, in front of each rower is a pair of large shoes. These shoes act as anchoring devices and help stabilize each rower’s position in the boat. They also aid in balancing his body weight.

Rowing looks easy but don’t be deceived. Pulling an oar blade through the water effectively while maintaining your balance is very much a practiced skill. Add to this the fact that four or eight rowers must do this in near perfect unison and you begin to realize the magic of this sport. If you watch carefully you will notice that as the rowers return their oars toward the starting position of the stroke, they pivot them so that the blades are parallel to the water. This is called (feathering). The returning action is known as the recovery. As the recovery is completed, the oar blades are (squared) or rotated back to their vertical position and plunged into the water, this quick action is called the catch. Oars enter the water and a new stroke begins.

What the heck is an Erg?

An ergometer (or erg, ergo, erg machine) is cruel torture device used to torment rowers everywhere. 😉

It is also is the closest thing to rowing when you can’t actually go out on the water. It is a type of rowing machine that is the closest simulation of actual rowing available. Its monitor is like a cox box, it provides the rower with information like stroke rate, split time, power generated in watts, distance covered in meters, and time elapsed. It can be set for various workouts, the most dreaded being the Erg Test. All rowers despise erg tests. An erg test is a race piece done on an erg. The time is recorded and used by the coach for various reasons, such as placing rowers on boats.