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All About Rowing (Rowing 101)

All About Rowing (Rowing 101)

Among the most physically demanding sports, rowing requires excellent conditioning.  Upper body and leg strength are of equal importance as Colgan High School athletes row 1,500 meters (0.932056788 miles) in generally 5-7 minutes depending on the number of athletes per boat and water conditions.

Sweep Rowing vs Sculling

Athletes with two oars – one in each hand – are scullers.

Athletes with only one oar are sweep rowers. Colgan athletes will compete in sweep events.
Sweep boats carry a coxswain (pronounced cox-in) to steer and be the on-the-water coach.  Sweep oars are positioned alternately on the sides of the boat, or shell (note that one rower in a sweep oars event would result in a boat going around in circles).  In the coxed events, a coxswain steers the boat by pulling on wires attached to the rudder and advises the crew on racing tactics.  The eight always carries a coxswain and is a remarkable event to watch; the boat is approximately 55-60 feet long (roughly the distance from home plate to the pitcher's mound on a baseball field) and world class rowers can move a boat at up to 15 mph. Each boat has all-male or all-female rowers, but coxswains may cox a shell with rowers of the opposite sex. 

Athletes are identified by their seat in the boat.  The athlete in bow is seat No. 1.  That's the person who crosses the finish line first (which makes it easy to remember – first across the line is No. 1 seat). The person in front of the bow seat is No. 2, then No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7 and No. 8, a.k.a. the stroke.  The stroke of the boat must have excellent technique, since the stroke sets the rhythm and number of strokes per minute the rest of the crew must follow.

Progression of Crews

Pursuant to the rules of the Northern Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association (VASRA), any program that enters a “Second” eight or four must also enter a “First” boat in that category.  During the VASRA season, any of the following configurations of boats can be offered for competition:

  • First Eight (8):  This crew is the fastest and most prestigious crew in the program.  Training for and making either the boys’ or girls’ First Eight (aka Senior Eight) requires dedication, intense training, and a significant level of commitment.  Due to the VASRA progression rule, the crew must be selected before any other Eight.  This crew will compete at all local regattas as well as the Stotesbury Cup and SRAA National Championship Regatta (if they qualify).  The First Eight may also attend the US Rowing Youth National Championship if it finishes first at the Virginia Scholastic Racing Championships at the discretion of the coaches and CCA Board.  This boat is designated as a Varsity Crew.
  • Second Eight (8):  This boat consists of equally dedicated rowers as their First Eight counterparts.  The Second Eight is usually considered a development squad for the First Eight and may only be entered if there is also a First Eight.  In order for the Second Eight to qualify for the SRAA National Regatta, the team’s First Eight must also qualify.  This crew will compete at all local regattas as well as the Stotesbury Cup and SRAA National Championship (if they qualify).  This boat is designated as a Varsity Crew.
  • Junior Eight (8): The Junior or J/V boat consists of experienced rowers who are not seniors in high school.   The designation allows a team with younger boys and girls to compete at a high level against athletes their same age and experience level.  The Junior Eight is considered “out of progression” meaning a team may race without entering a First Eight.  Therefore a Junior Eight may also qualify for the SRAA National Championship without the First Eight also qualifying.  This crew will compete at all local regattas as well as the Stotesbury Cup Regatta and the SRAA National Championship (if they qualify).   This boat may be designated as a Varsity Crew.
  • Freshman Eight (8) and Novice Eight (8): The main difference between freshman and Novice Events has to do with the age of the rowers within the crew.  The Freshman Eight category is limited to boats with ALL freshman boys or girls while Novice Eights are limited to rowers in their first year of competition regardless of their year in school.  Freshman and Novice events are “out of progression” meaning a team may race one without a Varsity Eight being entered.  Therefore a Freshman Eight may also qualify for the SRAA National Championship without the First Eight also qualifying.  Freshman Eights can compete at all local regattas as well as the Stotesbury Cup and the SRAA National Championship Regatta (if they qualify).  Novice Eights can compete at all local regattas but can not race at the Stotesbury Cup or SRAA National Championship Regatta because the novice events are not offered.


In rowing, event names are conventionally abbreviated.  These abbreviations are useful to know when reading the “heat sheets” and regatta schedules.  The abbreviations are as follows:

Racing Categories:

1x  Single sculls             2+  Coxed pair      2x  Double sculls         4-  Coxless four
4x  Quadruple sculls      4+  Coxed four      2-  Coxless pair           8+  Eight 

Gender Categories:

     M  Men            W  Women        MX Mixed

Weight Classes:       L Lightweight

So a Men's Lightweight Eight would be : ML8+

The Race

At the start, each of the boats is held by the stern and the bows are aligned by aligners.  

The rower in the bow seat may raise his/her hand to indicate the crew is ready, until the starter conducts a roll call of the crews.  After the roll call, the starter raises a red flag, gives the warning command "Attention" and then gives audible and visual signals to start the race.  Crews are allowed only one false start, which is called when a crew leaves early or has equipment breakage in the first 100 meters of the race. It is not uncommon for an oar to break, for example.

As soon as the crews begin, one or two launches follow, carrying a driver and a judge-referee.  The primary responsibility of the judge-referee is to ensure that all boats are racing in safe conditions and that every crew has an equal opportunity to win.

Crews are allowed to leave their lanes (in fact, a crew may begin in lane 1 and finish in lane 6) as long as their movement doesn't interfere with another crew's opportunity to win, or does not physically endanger the crew.

If a boat is close to interfering with another shell, the judge-referee will direct the crew by calling its name and pointing a white flag in the direction the boat should move to avoid trouble.

Judge-referees positioned on the finish line tower or platforms determine the placing of each boat, with the assistance of timing and photo-finish equipment.  "Winning by a bow ball" refers to the 2-inch rubber tip on a shell's bow that is used to indicate the winner in close races where photo-finishes are used.

What to Look ForThe Stroke

The whole body is involved in moving a shell through the water. Although rowing tends to look like an upper body sport, the strength of the rowing stroke comes from the legs.

The stroke is made up of four parts: Catch, Drive, Finish and Recovery.  The four parts to the rowing stroke- catch (blade in water, knees bent, arms forward), drive (legs straight, arms drawn toward body), finish (oar out of the water, blade horizontal), recovery (body forward, blade turned from horizontal to vertical) - should all flow together in smooth powerful movement.

As the stroke begins, the rower is coiled forward on the sliding seat, with knees bent and arms outstretched.

At the catch, the athlete drops the oarblade vertically into the water.

At the beginning of the drive, the body position doesn't change – all the work is done by the legs.  As the upper body begins to uncoil, the arms begin their work, drawing the oarblades through the water.  Continuing the drive, the rowers move their hands quickly into the body, which by this time is in a slight "layback" position, requiring strong abdominal muscles.

During the finish, the oar handle is moved down, drawing the oarblade out of the water.  At the same time, the rower "feathers" the oar – turning the oar handle – so that the oarblade changes from a vertical position to a horizontal one.  The oar remains out of the water as the rower begins recovery, moving the hands away from the body and past the knees.  The body follows the hands and the sliding seat moves forward, until, knees bent, the rower is ready for the next catch.
"The Natural Stroke"
The Equipment


Oars move the boat through the water and act as balancers.  Sweep oars are longer than sculler's oars and have wooden handles instead of rubber grips.  The shaft of the oar is made of extremely lightweight carbon fiber instead of the heavier wood used years ago.  The popular "hatchet" blade – named because of its cleaver-like shape – is about 20 percent larger than previous blades.  Its larger surface area has made it the almost-universal choice among world-level rowers.

The Boats – Sculls and Shells

All rowing boats can be called shells.  Rowing boats with scullers in them (each person having two oars) are called sculls, e.g., single scull, double scull, quadruple scull.  So, all sculls are shells but not vice versa! Originally made of wood (and many beautifully crafted wooden boats are made today), newer boats – especially those used in competition – are made of honeycombed carbon fiber.  They are light and appear fragile but are crafted to be strong and stiff in the water.

The smallest boat – the single scull – is approximately 27 feet long and as narrow as 10 inches across. At 55-60 feet, the eight is the longest boat on the water.

The oars are attached to the boat with riggers, which provide a fulcrum for the levering action of rowing. Generally, sweep rowers sit in configurations that have the oars alternating from side to side along the boat.  But sometimes, most typically in the 4- or 4+, the coach will rig the boat so that two consecutive rowers have their oars on the same side in order to equalize individual athlete power.

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